“The land of the free locks up people at an alarming rate, especially black people.” US justice on trial
The pitiful-looking guy who kept talking to himself seemed like he was mentally ill, or an addict. He was facing a charge for second-degree robbery. He was not the only one on trial.
Thirty-five of us had been summoned for prospective jury service and we were all under the microscope.
UK jurors are nearly always picked at random. But here, as anyone who laps up US courtroom dramas knows, they’re selected and agreed upon by defence and prosecution, who aim to weed out those who might be unsympathetic to their case and keep those they can convince.
As soon as we walked into court, the slightly sleazy-looking defence attorney and the sweet-looking prosecutor were eyeing us up. I haven’t felt so checked out since I danced around my handbag in Peter Stringfellow’s Cinderella Rockerfellas in Leeds when I was a young reporter.
Attorneys here aim to be experts in body language and are taught to look for clues to prospective jurors’ characters, even from the books they bring along. We had to answer out loud a barrage of written questions. Stressful for folk not used to speaking in public, who must have been transported back to school days. When it came to one guy’s turn he just stared at his sheet. Couldn’t he read? The kindly judge read the questions out for him.
First came the easy ones: where did we live, were we married, single, or cohabiting, what did we and our partners do for a living, had we done jury service before and what was our main hobby or recreation?
Then came the questions about our experience of the law. Had we, or someone close to us, been arrested or charged with a crime, or been a crime victim? Three of us had been victims of violent crime and one told, with a catch in her throat, how her pastor had been murdered with an axe.
The interrogation continued. Did we have a close friend or family member in law enforcement, had we had a good or bad experience with the police? One prospective juror used his right to answer that question in private, leaving the rest of us wondering what he didn’t want us to know. We never saw him again.
Then the attorneys alighted on individuals. One woman, whose church was her main “interest”, was asked if her Christian faith would make it difficult to be part of a process where society – not God – sat judgment.
Mr Slightly Sleazy established I was familiar with the American system which he said, showing off, had its roots in British law and was not too different. Reluctant to contradict him, I said it was “similar”.
Despite being a citizen for only five years, this was the second time I’d been summoned for jury service. The first time, I never got as far as the selection process since the accused pleaded guilty to a lesser sentence. Plea bargaining is common here, which is why guilty pleas are more common than in the UK.
This time I was expecting the same or, if the trial went ahead, that I would be sent home. Friends had confidently pronounced that nobody wanted “an educated-sounding, gun-hating Brit on an American jury”, especially one like me who dresses smartly by Californian standards. They were wrong. So began nearly a week of evidence and a day’s deliberation, during which I think I was labelled as a soft-on-crime outsider.
The accused had certainly, as Mr Slightly Sleazy kept admitting, “behaved like an ass” during a row about an Uber ride. He had snatched the driver’s phone and left the car. When she followed, the argument escalated into a physical fight.
I wasn’t a jury holdout like the man played by Henry Fonda in 12 Angry Men, a 60-year-old movie about racism that’s as relevant as ever. However, I wanted to be sure as I could be that the accused’s behaviour qualified as second-degree robbery. I kept in mind that jurors shouldn’t concern themselves with punishment. Yet I knew that, in California, second-degree robbery carries a sentence of two to five years in jail. Incarceration, especially here, can be brutal.
The US, the land of the free, locks up people at an alarming rate, especially black people. It has almost 25 per cent of the world’s prisoners, though less than five per cent of its population.
Black people, just 12 per cent of the population, make up 37 per cent of inmates. And prisoners paid peanuts (or nothing) produce goods and services for many big US businesses. Some say slavery has returned under a new name.
The war on drugs is a war on blacks, which has led to their mass incarceration. Blacks are more likely than whites to be arrested for the same behaviour, and the system comes down harder on them. The American Civil Liberties Union says that, despite white and black people using drugs at similar rates, black people are jailed on drug charges ten times more often than white people. They’re also nearly four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana use.
And private prisons, which house seven per cent of state prisoners, lobby against the legalisation of marijuana, openly saying it could reduce demand for prison beds and therefore hurt their bottom line.
Private prisons which press for tough and longer sentences and have no interest in rehabilitation had been falling out of favour amid stories of atrocious conditions, violence, and corruption. However, since President Trump’s clampdown on illegal immigration, they’ve entered the detention business and it’s booming. More brown people from Latin America are joining black people behind bars.
Chris Hayes, editor-at-large on the liberal magazine The Nation, recently tweeted something that says it all. He said: “Power is all about who gets forgiven. Who gets fresh starts.”
The defendant in my case was black and, while the guilty verdict we jurors unanimously brought in was correct, I wondered whether he’d have been in court if he were white. When I last saw him, he was still talking to himself.
As a child growing up in a Yorkshire village, journalist Lynne Bateson rarely went to the city of Leeds just a few miles away, but she dreamed of living in the US. She made it. Here she recounts her adventures, taking a down-to-earth look at life Stateside.
Freerange Comedy Festival at Brewery Arts Centre Kendal
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