I was on a homicide jury and Michael Slager’s mistrial doesn’t surprise me

Michael Slager, a South Carolina police officer, shot Walter Scott several times in the back as Scott, unarmed, fled. We know this because the whole thing’s on video. Now Slager’s temporarily avoided conviction when the jury deadlocked and the judge declared a mistrial.

Given what looks, from all the evidence, like a pretty clear-cut case of murder, people on social media expressed bafflement at how anyone couldn’t see Slager’s beyond-a-reasonable-doubt guilt. But if early reports are accurate, this sounds like a case of something I experience first hand. Report indicate that the deadlocking resulted from a single juror refusing to vote for conviction. If true, it fits my experience when I was a juror on a homicide trial–though in the other direction.

This was the summer after my first year of law school. The summons arrived during finals week. During jury selection, I didn’t hide the fact that I was a law student, and the issue only came up once. “Will your legal training get in the way of you applying common sense to interpreting the facts?” an attorney asked. “I certainly hope not,” I said. They passed me through.

The case was a double homicide at a Halloween party. A bunch of kids at a house in Denver, something happened, someone got mad, and a couple of guys started shooting. Two people died and a third was injured. One of the shooters fled shortly after, probably to Mexico. The other, our defendant, got picked up by the police.

The trouble for the prosecution wasn’t in proving that the defendant fired into the partygoers. He admitted as much. The trouble was they didn’t know which gun was his and which was his absconded buddy’s. In other words, it’s possible the defendant fire the shots that hit three people, killing two. It’s also possible he fired all his shots into the air, and the bullets that actually hit came from his friend. The evidence didn’t point either way. Which means reasonable doubt had to win out for the two homicide charges.

My peers on the jury chose me foreman. The first thing I did, once we’d been sent back to reach a verdict, was conduct an anonymous poll. “Not guilty” all around, except one.

The one didn’t disagree on the evidence. She didn’t disagree that it failed to exceed reasonable doubt about the homicides. She acknowledged the prosecution hadn’t made its case. But she voted “guilty” nonetheless because “nice people don’t bring guns to parties.”

That was enough for her to send the defendant to prison. She didn’t care that the jury instruction were clear. That the trial was about whether he killed two people and injured a third. What she cared about was that he carried a gun and young males who carry guns deserve to be in cages.

Fortunately, I was willing to be rather stern with her. I explained in very clear terms what our role was as the jury and just what kind of person she would be if she sent a kid to prison because she didn’t like his lifestyle. I wasn’t going to let her commit an injustice and, with the help of the others in that room, I didn’t. She eventually backed down, but it was close. We found the defendant not guilty of any of the three major charges.

So, if something similar happened with Michael Slager’s trial–if a juror refused to convict a cop, basically no matter what–that doesn’t surprise me. People can be deeply irrational and prejudiced about violence and criminal justice. The jury system has its advantages, but it often means putting serious issues in the hands of people not equipped to deal with them.

Walter Scott deserved better than this. [cwa id=’post-footer’]