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Individual Court Cases Tell Us Nothing Useful About Race Relations



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Coming on the heels of the George Zimmerman verdict, Florida’s failure to prove its case against Michael Dunn (the “loud music killer”) has led to a fresh round of anguish and outrage across particularly the lefty quarters of the Internet. Rather than dive into the particulars of the case, I’d rather back up a bit and question the rightness of making sweeping judgments about our nation based on the outcome of any given court case. Simply put, we’re putting way too much on the lawyers, judges, juries, and rules of evidence. The participants are not equipped (nor should they be) to render historical and philosophical judgments on the state of race relations in the United States.

The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates is perhaps my favorite liberal pundit (though given his obvious distaste for conservatives like me, I doubt he’d take that as a compliment). He can just flat-out write, he’s a student of history (with particular emphasis on the Civil War), and — like me — he’s deeply cynical about human nature. He’s also influential, speaking for quite a few Americans who feel a mixture of rage and sorrow about the state of race relations in the United States. It’s not good for our nation that thoughtful citizens like Coates feel so deeply alienated.

He’s written many things about the Dunn verdict, but this stood out:

But I do think it’s important that we be clear on the facts where we can be. As it stands, the facts hold that three jurors believed that the killing of Jordan Davis was just, and nine did not. My contention is that that belief is inseparable from our racist heritage, which dictates African-American life is of lesser value.

Put modestly, from the mid-17th century until the mid-20th century, the policy of our ancestral colonies and the policy of this country proceeded from this assumption. Perhaps the most amazing feature of our current era is the belief that 300 years of such policy gives no tell on our daily lives. The second most amazing feature is the belief that juries are somehow beyond reproach and capable of cleaning up our shit.

That is unfortunate. This is not about the jury; this is about our Constitution. This is not about Michael Dunn, individually. This is not about George Zimmerman, individually. This is about me and you and everyone American we know. This is about whether we will live in candor or live in flattery.

I respect Coates, but this is just not correct. The outcome of any given case depends on innumerable variables. Did the prosecutor charge correctly? Was the prosecutor a competent advocate? How believable were the witnesses? Did the defense attorney out-class the prosecutor? How was the jury instructed? And remember — every jury is very strictly instructed that the prosecution has to prove its case “beyond a reasonable doubt.” That is a heavy burden, particularly when a defendant mounts a vigorous, competent defense. As one of the Dunn jurors noted: “Folks don’t know the law. It’s not that we didn’t value Mr. Davis’s life. We had to make a choice.”

I would submit that if you’re not a juror, you simply can’t truly understand the case as they see it. You can watch every second on television, and you won’t understand. Why? Because you’re still watching things the jury can’t, like evidentiary arguments before the judge, sidebars, and — importantly — the commentary about the case. The jury sees none of that. Close observers of cases intentionally devour sources of information that our system deliberately blocks from jurors. The jury is supposed to evaluate the admissible evidence in light of the governing law. That’s it. Nothing more.

Moreover, it’s a mistake to assume that our fellow citizens are cognizant of any history, much less anything that happened between the mid 17th century until the mid 20th. Most jurors weren’t born by the mid 20th, and those that are old enough to remember 1950 were small children. And even if they are aware of history, that history is legally irrelevant in jury deliberations unless evidence about that history could clear very high evidentiary hurdles that make it directly relevant to the facts of the case. While I can imagine such a scenario, it would hardly be typical.

I will never minimize or deny our nation’s historical problems with race, but we are setting ourselves up for heartbreak when we create the wrong symbols, put too much emphasis on institutions that are not (and should not be) designed to right historical wrongs, and then decry an entire culture when those institutions fail to achieve impossible goals.



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