A Maryland prosecutor has charged a Baltimore police officer with a major felony charge in the killing of an unarmed young black male who was not charged with any crime. The case has drawn intense media attention and stirred public rage.
Prosecutors, in bringing charges, are confident that they can get a conviction. And why not. There are many witnesses that say the victim was not committing a crime, there was no provocation and he was unarmed. The coroner classified the killing as a homicide.
The Maryland prosecutor in this case is not Maryland State Attorney Marilyn Mosby. The victim is not Freddie Gray. The officer charged with the killing is not the officers Mosby is charging with the slaying of Gray.
The slaying did not happen in April 2015. It happened in 2008.
The victim was Edward Lamont Hunt. He was shot dead by Baltimore police officer Tommy Sanders. The charge against Sanders was voluntary manslaughter. Hunt’s alleged offense was that he supposedly stared too hard at Sanders in a shopping center, and when Sanders tried to search him, Hunt ran off.
Sanders opened fire when he thought Hunt was reaching for something. The story was bogus, and Sanders clearly told the tall tale to cover his wanton slaying of Hunt.
During the four-day trial, the prosecution called eight witnesses who testified that they never saw Hunt reach into his jacket as he fled or saw Hunt assault the officer. The defense called only three witnesses. Two of them were police experts who said that Sanders simply followed standard Baltimore police guidelines in the detaining of a possible suspect. The other witness was Sanders, who claimed that he feared for his safety in the encounter.
That was enough for the jury. Sanders was acquitted.
Seven years later, Baltimore police officers are back in a court docket on multiple charges. The Sanders case, and the handful of other similar cases where cops are tried in the killings and assaults on unarmed civilians once again raise the eternal and deeply troubling question: Will a jury convict them?
In 2010, a Bureau of Justice Statistics report found racial discrimination in jury selection is still rampant, even blatant. A Supreme Court ruling and other court rulings that ban all white or non-black juries have been in far too many cases no more than paper decisions that have had little effect in ensuring a diverse jury in cases involving black defendants.
The same holds true where blacks have been the victims, and whites or non-blacks the defendants. That’s even more the case when the defendants are police officers.
Mosby cleared the first colossal hurdle last week with the indictment of six police officers. To get that far is in itself the rarest of rarities. Here’s how rare.
Police have killed hundreds of unarmed civilians in the decade since 2005 but according to a survey by the Washington Post and researchers at Bowling Green State University, only 54 officers have been charged in the shootings and virtually all have been acquitted if they ever went to trial.
The Bureau of Justice Statistics report gave a big clue why it is virtually impossible for juries to face the brutal reality that some cops do wantonly kill. It comes down to the racial make-up and the ingrained biases of the jurors, no matter what their color.
On that point, it did find that a racially diverse jury weighed evidence and testimony longer and more carefully, brought different perspectives and life experiences to the deliberations, and made fewer factual errors. These are crucial factors in the rare cases where cops are charged with killing young black or Hispanics.
On the other hand, a jury with no blacks, composed of mostly older middle class whites, and non-black ethnics, is much more likely to believe the testimony of police and prosecution witnesses than black witnesses, defendants, or even the victims.
In the Sanders trial, Hunt family members were outraged that the jurors chose to believe the testimony of the shooter, Sanders, rather than eight witnesses who flatly contradicted his version of the killing.
Prosecutors know it’s a tough hill to climb with jurors in police abuse cases and in surveys and interviews have said as much. That is one of two big reasons that they almost never bring charges against cops who kill even in the most blatant, outrageous and over-the-top killings.
The job of a prosecutor is first and foremost to fight crime. They must rely on and work in lockstep with police departments to have any success. But it’s still the problem of convincing a jury that cops deserve jail time for deadly assaults and killings.
In three major racially charged cases in the past — Rodney King, Oscar Grant and Sean Bell — where blacks were the victims (either beaten or killed by white cops), defense attorneys depicted all three men as the aggressors who posed a threat to the officers. They played up and exaggerated previous run-ins with the law to depict young blacks as crime prone, menacing figures.
Almost certainly, they’ll trot out the same script with Gray. The idea is to subtly and openly play on the prejudices, stereotypes and negative beliefs of many white jurors toward young blacks.
Mosby acted swiftly and courageously in indicting the cops who killed Gray. But as time has shown, it’s one thing to indict and another to convict cops. Let’s hope this go around it will be different.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author, political analyst and a weekly co-host of the Al Sharpton Show on American Urban Radio Network. He is the author of “From King to Obama: Witness to a Turbulent History” (Middle Passage Press). Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/earlhutchinson.