Zoran Milich—Getty Images
By Jay Newton-Small
August 18, 2016
IDEAS
Newton-Small, a TIME contributor, is the CEO of MemoryWell and author of Broad Influence

It was a small case. No one died, and the victim’s injuries were slight enough that he didn’t go to the hospital until later. But the case that my jury was charged with deciding revealed serious fault lines in the criminal justice system.

Here are the undisputed facts as presented at the trial: On the morning of April 1, 2016, Carlos Galloway encountered Vernon Hungerford outside of the apartment building where both of them were staying in the Anacostia neighborhood of Washington. Both men are African American.

A few weeks earlier, the much younger Galloway had given Hungerford, 55, a Bluetooth speaker. Hungerford still hadn’t ponied up and Galloway now wanted his $40. An argument ensued and Galloway went back into the apartment building.

A few minutes later, the building’s superintendent and a laborer, who were in the management office on the first floor, said they heard Galloway come out yelling about “money.” They described watching as the two met again in front of their windows. Galloway pulled something from his pocket and swung his right arm overhead in a stabbing motion. Hungerford threw up his hands to protect himself and, he said, was stabbed in his right hand by Galloway, the knife handle breaking.

The first week of August, I sat on a jury charged with determining what had happened. Twelve jurors and two alternates sat through two days of testimony from Hungerford, the building manager and the laborer—whom we called by their last names, Roxo and Ganu—and the three police officers involved in responding and investigating the crime. We never heard from Galloway and no one spoke on his behalf except for a defense attorney the jury largely found ineffectual.

The jury consisted of five black women, two white men, four white women and me, a Eurasian mix. Our views on what happened, what we knew and how we should vote were starkly different based upon our backgrounds. To most of the white jurors, there was overwhelming evidence: A motive; a broken, blood-covered knife; and two impartial eyewitnesses. But the jury overall ended up convicting Galloway of misdemeanor simple assault, meaning that while we acknowledged that an assault had happened, we did not find him guilty of using or even possessing a knife.

How that decision came about gave me a window into what could be a growing trend in our criminal justice system.

“Jurors can find a defendant not guilty for two reasons. First, because they have ‘reasonable doubt.’ Second, because they think that punishment is unfair, either generally or in a specific case; when a jury acquits on this basis it’s called ‘jury nullification,’” says Paul D. Butler, a professor at Georgetown who studies race in the justice system. “Race matters to both.”

My fellow jurors—a contentious lot—may not even agree on whether what happened in our case was reasonable doubt or jury nullification. Most of the black jurors were clear that they did not believe the evidence presented to us. At a time when online videos show police officers shooting unarmed black men and a Justice Department report found a template from Baltimore Police for trespassing arrests automatically contained the words “black male,” they found it perfectly reasonable to doubt the testimony of the officers who investigated—which to some of the white jurors sounded like jury nullification.

In its original form, jury nullification amounted to a get-out-of-jail-free card for white men, especially those charged with lynching in the Jim Crow era. And prejudiced juries are hardly a thing of the past. A 2012 academic study found that juries with all-white pools convicted black defendants 16 percent more often, but that gap was almost entirely eliminated with the presence of at least one black juror. Butler, who has been writing about racial bias on juries for decades, has also seen black jurors who are less willing to convict black defendants, for at least 20 years—a phenomenon that he says is only getting stronger with all the news from Trayvon Martin to Ferguson to Freddie Gray in Baltimore.

“I don’t think jury nullification is new but I do think that as concerns about racism in policing and sentencing become a central part of our national discourse, African-American jurors might be even more willing to nullify because the problems remain so acute,” Butler said.

When we first sat down for deliberations, I was convinced of Galloway’s guilt. The prosecutor, Ellen D’Angelo, had done a good job walking us through the evidence. While Hungerford seemed like an unreliable witness, Roxo and Ganu were convincing to me, as were the police officers. None in my view had reason to lie or to fabricate evidence; if anything, they seemed annoyed at the amount of time and effort required to testify first a grand jury and then a trial. Indeed, the entire jury was astonished at the amount of time and money the government spent prosecuting Galloway when Hungerford’s injuries were so slight he didn’t go to the hospital until after he’d finished work that day.

Within a couple of hours of deliberations, I realized not everyone on the jury saw the case the same way. Most of the black women were unconvinced by the evidence and one of them was adamant she would never vote to convict Galloway of assault with a dangerous weapon. Her son had witnessed a stabbing and had testified against the man he’d thought was the perpetrator—only to discover after the man had been convicted that another very similar looking man had been guilty. To her mind, eyewitnesses were unreliable and she was not going to make the same mistake her son did and put away a potentially innocent man. (She has a point. The Innocent Project has found that faulty eyewitness testimony played a role in more than 70% of convictions later overturned through DNA testing.)

There were some white people on the jury who were incredulous at the black woman’s position, which was eventually supported by three other black women on the jury. Some of the statements uttered by those jurors: “You’re not being rational.” “You don’t understand the evidence.” “You’re not making sense.” “You’re nit-picking at the evidence and using it as an excuse to give this young man a lighter sentence.”

Increasingly, the juror felt attacked, vilified and misunderstood. She contemplated writing the judge a note asking to be taken off the trial because of what she viewed as rampant racism of some of the white jurors. She was an educated black woman; she had a steady job working for the federal government. Why were her opinions being discounted by these white jurors?

Our job was to weigh two counts: the first was felony assault with a dangerous weapon and the second was carrying a dangerous weapon. If we found the defendant not guilty on the first charge, we could consider a lesser charge of misdemeanor simple assault, which would rule out the second charge.

The jury took two votes that day: 11-1 we voted to convict Galloway of assault with a dangerous weapon. And 9-3 we voted for simple assault. The three holdouts in that vote were white jurors who were appalled at the idea of discarding testimony and evidence they found unimpeachable.

Things got so acrimonious and personal that by the end of the first day of deliberations another of the black women asked to be excused, a request the judge granted. So, on day two we started deliberations over with an alternate, another black woman whose thinking also fell in line with the first black woman who’d objected to the eye witnesses.

We started day two deliberations by going over the evidence one witness at a time. While some of the white jurors found Roxo credible and the prosecutor trustworthy, many of the the black jurors did not. The doubters thought Roxo was railroading Galloway to get rid of troublemakers from his building. They noted that no one except Hungerford saw Galloway with a knife; and we’d all agreed on day one that we didn’t find Hungerford’s testimony credible. They criticized the police for not testing the knife that was found for Hungerford’s blood or Galloway’s prints—therefore the knife had no solid link to the case in their minds. And they said that the diminutive, baby-faced Galloway—we were never told his age—didn’t deserve to have the rest of his life ruined (at least one woman remarked to me apart from the rest that a young white man would never be on trial for a minor stabbing the way Galloway was).

“What they don’t realize is we come from a place where we have little or no trust in the system,”another of the black ladies, told me. “We have every reason to question everything the government does.”

Several of the white jurors, meanwhile, were incensed at the idea of doubting the police. They also unconsciously made things worse with comments they had no idea were angering their black peers. One woman remarked that the area where the crime took place, Anacostia, was so dangerous that she wouldn’t dare drive her car there without locking the doors; little did she know it that three of the black jurors lived in Anacostia. Some of the white jurors chatted happily away about vacations abroad and common cultural disconnects when visiting Germany or Singapore, while the black jurors wondered why those same jurors weren’t working harder to understand the cultural rift so glaringly in front of them.

One of the white men kept interrupting one black woman in particular. She grew so upset she snapped, wrote the judge a note and asked to be recused. Facing a delay of another day if a second alternate had to be brought in, the jurors all grimly realized that the conversation had not been civil enough. Eventually, after the judge admonished us for letting our personal opinions sway the case, she was coaxed back into the room to finish deliberations.

In the end, racing a 4:45 p.m. end-of-court-day deadline, the jury foreman called for another vote. Several white jurors gave speeches about how they believed this was the wrong decision, but they didn’t see another compromise. Several black jurors responded that they felt attacked and they strongly believed a vote to convict for felony assault with a dangerous weapon was the wrong decision. Afraid the tenuous agreement might collapse with another round of racial recriminations, we the jury finally voted just after 4 p.m. to find Galloway guilty of simple assault.

Afterwards, the prosecutor and defending lawyers came back and interviewed the jury. When asked by one of the black jurors why he’d never proclaimed his client’s innocence, the defense attorney looked at her and said simply, “I couldn’t.” Galloway had rejected all of his lawyer’s entreaties to take a plea deal, insisting on going to trail. His defense attorney looked at the jurors and noted that Galloway had been right: the plea deal he’d been offered had been a felony assault charge and the jury had let him off with a misdemeanor.

What struck me most about the experience was the gulf of understanding between races and classes. Some of the white jurors could not conceive why many of the black jurors doubted everything presented to them as “evidence” by the government; those black jurors could not understand how some white jurors accepted unquestioningly whatever the government told them. “They are friends with the cops that patrol their neighborhoods,” another black woman juror told me. “They can’t understand what it’s like to fear their authorities, to question them.”

Whatever happens to Galloway, it’s clear that such racial drama in juries is not an isolated incident.

“You really need look no further than Justice Department report [this week] in Baltimore,” says Dennis Parker, director the American Civil Liberties Union’s racial justice program. “People don’t make distinctions between what police and the justice system does. When police pull people over, use force, and end up shooting them—every time that makes people lose faith in the system. I’m not saying that everyone has lost faith. But I think there’s a lot of skepticism and a lot of reason for skepticism.”

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