Friday, August 17, 2012
The Jordan Miles case has always been an object study in the Rashomon effect. A Homewood teen encounters three white cops on a wintry night in 2010, ends up looking like death warmed over, and everyone has a different account of what happened. Sadly, the recently concluded civil-rights trial stemming from that incident didn't resolve the uncertainty. In fact, the trial merely extended the confusion. We began with white cops and a black teen telling different stories; now we have white jurors and black jurors offering different perspectives of how those stories were weighed.
In an interview aired earlier this week, the jury's foreman, Gerald Bowman, told KDKA-TV's Harold Hayes that at one point, it seemed likely that the jury would find for the plaintiff. He told Hayes that early in the deliberations, "my impression was that the vote would have gone in Jordan Miles' favor." But "when we came back Tuesday morning, [most of the seven other jurors] had done a 180-degree turn ... They began finding every reason they could not to vote yes on the counts that we had before us."
Conversely, last week Post-Gazette reporter Sadie Gurman spoke with another, unnamed juror, who made it sound like there was very nearly a consensus to exonerate the police on all three counts facing them:
Two jurors could not agree with the other six on many of these points.
"They just weren't 100 percent there," the juror said. "It was very close."
Ehhhhh ... maybe not so much. The jurors didn't just fail to reach consensus on all the claims before them; they were also unable to agree on the circumstances surrounding their lack of consensus. What's more, because Gurman's juror was white, those divisions have certain racial overtones -- just like the original encounter.
That's also true of a key point the two sides did seem to agree on. The fact that Miles had the misfortune of living in a high-crime area, both jurors said, was held against him. But they drew vastly differently conclusions about what that means.
Gurman writes that among the sticking points for jurors were questions like "Was Mr. Miles loitering when the officers stopped him? Did it matter?" And she quotes her anonymous juror saying, "The fact was, he was out at 11 o'clock at night in a high-crime area. The police had the right to stop and talk to him ... When he refused to stop and started walking down the street, that gave the police even more reason to believe he was up to something suspicious."
Bowman, meanwhile, told Hayes that most of the jurors "had this impression of Homewood ... as this terrible crime-ridden area" where "citizens sort of forfeited some of their rights" merely because of where they lived.
Gurman's account sure seems to invite that interpretation. It would be surprising if jurors did, in fact, wonder "Did it matter?" whether Miles appeared to be up to something. If his actual behavior doesn't matter, then the reason police stopped him would seem to be ... the fact that he lived in Homewood. A lot of folks have a word for that. It starts with "pro" and ends with "filing."
It's important to note that the police themselves say that Miles did appear to be up to something; they say they first spotted him skulking around a nearby home, and that he took off after they identified themselves. And in any event, the law itself can be confusing about how civilians are supposed to respond when police approach them in such circumstances. In case like Illinois v. Wardlow, the Supreme Court has held that merely being in a high-crime area doesn't allow police to detain you ... but fleeing from police in such circumstances can provide reasonable suspicion for subsequent investigation. This even though the court acknowledged "there are innocent reasons for flight from police."
But if jurors, given hours to deliberate such niceties in the light of day, struggle with such questions, imagine what a law-abiding black teenager might think on a dark winter night. (Even assuming he knew he was being confronted by police, something he denies.)
So the Miles trail accomplished little except to bring us back where we started. A racially divisive case has now produced a racially divided jury. A trial that might have reduced police/community tensions merely ended up restating them. And the lessons of that January night remain almost as obscure as they ever were.