An Abolitionist Summoned to Jury Duty for a Murder Trial
And a TJ approach to Will Smith & the NY Subway Shooter
On my way to the courthouse I drive through neighborhoods full of Blue Lives Matter flags and yard signs, blue porch lights lit to signal support for the badge, two large state prisons and the notoriously vicious state police department. At the courthouse, I pass through metal detectors staffed by the Sherriff’s department. I find myself in a 200 square foot room with 80 other people—I am one of three wearing a mask. We received no instructions about COVID safety and are seated on top of each other in tight rows—people cough, sniffle, and clear their throats loudly as we wait an hour for instructions. We were given no information about our schedule or breaks—I have a chronic illness and chose to skip breakfast to avoid any symptoms, but I have no idea if, when, or how we’ll be allowed to eat next. The shared coffee station on offer appears to not have been cleaned in weeks.
Finally we are told we will be paid $22 for the first 5 hours, $30 for a full day—we’ll have a lunch break and we can receive an excuse from work. I, having lost my job four months ago, don’t need one. More than half of the room raises their hand to receive a letter—there are mechanics, teachers, office workers, and nurses here.
This city has a 24% poverty rate and an average annual household income of $34,000/year (nearly half the national average). This city is 72% white and 19% Black—like most of the U.S. the city is starkly segregated, with only the poorest members being integrated within the most policed neighborhoods, trailer parks, and apartment complexes. As is true in the majority of the United States (except California), Jury Duty is obligatory with a punishment of jail time and fines. Like the rest of the criminal legal system, this punishment disproportionately falls on people who are poor and people of color, who are less likely to have a permanent address to receive mail, less likely to have transportation, less likely to be able to miss work, have a harder time finding and affording safe child and elder care, and are more likely to be at risk of the worst symptoms of COVID. In the face of these statistics the clerk gives a lengthy speech about our civic duty and brags with conviction: “We just had a guy spend the weekend in jail because he skipped jury duty and then couldn’t afford his bond.”
She leaves us to wait another 30 minutes. We are escorted to a court room. For the first time I have a view of all 80 other people who have been summoned to the jury—only two of these 80 people are people of color, only one is Black. As we walk through the halls of the courthouse we pass benches filled with people waiting for their hearings to start—all of these individuals are Black. As this parade of mostly white bodies pass them by, I hear one gentlemen say “Oh, here they go—” as if he has seen this before.
In the courtroom, we’re once again packed into tight rows. Here, we have our first opportunity to see and hear information about the case. The prosecutor, a white man, is seated at a table with a detective who is a white woman. The judge, a young white woman, is seated high above us at the bench. The bailiff is a middle aged white woman, standing beside the defense table. The clerk is a young white woman. The defense attorney is a middle aged white man. The defendant is a young—probably early twenties—woman of color, likely biracial. Her hair is tied in a bun on top of her head, her shirt is clean and crisp white, she smiles and nods at us as we look at her. I find myself surprised by how composed she seems. She is one of three people of color in a packed room. I am squished up against an unmasked older white woman who repeatedly laughs, leans against me, and whispers things like, “I know the person she killed.”
The judge and prosecutor tell us, for the first time, about the case: The defendant is charged with intentional homicide and two weapons related charges involving a pistol; the victim was also a young woman. The maximum possible sentence for this crime is life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. The witnesses include several police officers, a doctor, and several civilians whose names are read out loud for us to hear. Finally, they begin the process of voir dire (the process of questioning jurors to determine the best possible jury for both/either side).
We’re told that jury selection is randomized and 14 people are called to sit in the jury box: I am not one of them. The first jury is all white, mixed gender, mostly around middle age or older.
As an abolitionist, I believe in abolition as an everyday practice of treating life (human and non-human) as precious.1 One example is wearing a mask and trying my best to socially distance, despite these acts not being required—it is my obligation as an abolitionist to do what I can to protect and honor others’ lives and the potential risks they face in being exposed to me or others. But, in this court room, there is nothing about life that is treated as precious—the central question of the day is “who will be capable of disposing of a woman’s life and freedom?” I am faced with an immense dilemma—how to be an abolitionist in an environment that exists to make me complicit in the systematic destruction of marginalized and oppressed life?
During voir dire the judge, prosecutor, and defense attorney ask questions intended to determine whether we can fulfill the duty of a jury impartially, but simultaneously the prosecutor and defense attorneys try to pick those jurors who they believe are most likely to favor their side. An inherent contradiction. They ask:
Do you know and understand that the defendant is considered innocent until proven guilty and has no obligation to prove her innocence? Do you understand that the prosecutor must prove her guilt beyond a reasonable doubt? Of note, not a single person denied understanding this—and yet so many people in our society believe that anyone charged with a crime must be guilty, because this is so intricately laced into our culture. Was this jury special or dishonest?
Do you know the defendant or anyone on the witness list? If so, how do you know them and would you be able to consider their testimony impartially, just as you would a stranger?
Do you know any police or corrections officers and/or do you have any beliefs about police officers that would cause you to be impartial toward or against their testimony? Of note, many people knew police officers intimately (best friends, uncles, partners) and none were excused for this relationship. Further, our city has a dedicated following of Blue Lives Matter and officers’ protections—was this jury special or dishonest?
Have you been charged with a crime, been a victim of a crime, or are you close to a victim of a crime? And would your experiences sway your judgment or prevent you from being impartial in this case?
Is there any reason that you would find it difficult, impossible, or harmful to examine evidence that shows bodily injury or harm?
Do you have any religious convictions that would make it difficult or impossible for you to sit in judgment of another person?
Is there any other reason that you can think of that you would be unable to be impartial in examining the evidence of this case and determining guilt or innocence?
As these questions are asked, potential jurors answer questions and some—whose best friends, uncles, fathers, mothers, cousins are police officers or have been murdered or have been jailed—are considered capable of being impartial (and therefore kept on the jury) or considered incapable of being impartial (and removed from the jury). Each time someone is removed a new person is selected and asked to respond (from memory) to all previous questions.
The defense attorney and his client closely examined the jury pool, referring to our questionairres that include name, address, and simple hisotory (do we drive, have we been in accident, have we been convicted of any crimes). They removed a young woman whose cousin had recently been murdered—she was replaced with a middle aged white man who said he was “totally impartial.” The other three times the defense removed anyone they were white men who had otherwise shown no “impartiality”—my interpretation of these moves was that they were removing people who appeared conservative and potentially racist, sexist, or pro-police. Each time they removed someone, another older white man took his place. They have a limited number of opportunities to remove someone and no input in who replaces them.
While all of the questions asked are rich with meaning about our social values and system of criminalization, a few stood out to me as important from an abolitionist perspective:
Do I have beliefs about police or corrections officers that would make me impartial in evaluating their testimony?
Personally, abolition calls me to see policing and prison as systems of violence which are created to perpetuate oppression. Individual police and corrections officers are tools of this system and their actions as officers are complicit, but that does not make them less complicated than any other person: they are capable of telling the truth or lying, they are not wholly or inherently bad, evil, untrustworthy, etc. They are likely motivated by the incentives of the system they work for: social and material rewards they receive for convictions—but they must balance those motivations against others: their values, beliefs, loyalties, compassions—whether those motivations would move them to lie under oath or to have a biased perception of events is a matter of their character and values. Whether or not I could be “impartial” about police testimony is the wrong question in the pursuit of justice, but I do believe that I could be as impartial as anyone else (and critically think about all that I hear or see).
Do I have any religious convictions that would make it difficult to sit in judgment of another person?
As an agnostic secular person, I have no religious convictions—therefore, the answer is no on its surface. This is a clear demonstration of religious supremacy and the “right” of religious freedom that is only protected for certain people. But, the deeper implication of the question could be whether I have any moral convictions that would make it unlikely for me to sentence someone to death or life in prison—the answer to which is obviously yes in my case. Abolitionist convictions, for me, are as important as anyone’s faith-based convictions, they are not purely political.
Do I know anyone who has been convicted of a crime and would this sway my ability to be impartial?
I have several family members and plenty of people I care about who have been charged and convicted of crimes and spent time in prison. Certainly their experiences of direct and structural violence sway my ability to be impartial—my brother was thrown into a jail cell with a traumatic head wound and given no medical attention, which could easily have killed him; a childhood friend’s mom (who was like a mom to me) died in a jail cell from a head wound or alochol poisoning because she wasn’t checked on; a friend was wrongly accused of a crime for which he was violently deported; my mother was pulled over for driving while intoxicated and her blood alcohol level was beyond a deadly limit but she was not given any medical treatment (she survived). Beyond my own personal experiences of course I—as well as every other person in the United States—am aware of the violent deaths and injuries and wrongful convictions and miscarriages of justice by the court system against Black and Indigenous people. So, if the question is asking—can I trust in the system which itself is not impartial?—neither as an abolitionist nor as a human being can I be impartial in believing that the system “works”.
Notably, no one asked—"Do you hold racist or white supremacist beliefs that would make you biased against the defendant and/or witnesses of color?”. I wouldn’t expect anyone to answer this question honestly—just as no one admitted to believing that defendants are almost always guilty of the crimes they are charged with—but the absence of any such questions, in light of the questions about police, was an indication of an illusion of race blindness. We were supposed to not notice the clear racial inequities that reflect the inequities of the entire criminal-legal system. We were supposed to believe that the overwhelming presence of white bodies in positions of power over people of color was random, a coincidence (or, worse, evidence of white superiority). We were not meant to notice the impossibility of justice, impartiality, and fairness in a racist, classist, criminalizing system. These are the every day experiences of dissonance we experience as abolitionists—that the conditions of this society contradict the values that system claims to uphold and even further contradicts the primary motive of our bodies: to live, thrive, and be in relationship.
So, as I anticipated my own name being called and contemplated the balancing act of truthfully answering these questions and my abolitionist principles, I saw myself as having three main options:
Option 1: Answering the questions with complete honesty and authenticity, therefore clearly demonstrating that I do have both implicit and overt biases against the court system and a moral commitment not to send someone to prison. Perhaps even highlighting the racial disparities I was witnessing as a component of my inability to be impartial. This would undoubtedly lead to my removal from the jury.
Pros: I am shielded from complicity in a oppressive system and the moral wound of potentially contributing to someone going to prison.
Cons: I abandon the defendant to a jury that is most likely conservative, not critically thinking, and sees her as very likely guilty and more importantly deserving of punishment.
Option 2: Leaning on a straightforward interpretation of the questions and admitting to the provable truths (family history), but ensuring that they interpreted my answers in such a way that would mean I can, despite all evidence to the contrary, be impartial. This would undoubtedly lead to me staying on the jury.
Pros: I could use my abolitionist knowledge to interpret the defendant’s social context in such a way that could move the jury; if necessary I could use my understanding of jury nullification to bring about a mistrial and/or alter the verdict to a lesser charge.2 3
Cons: There is of course a chance that I could not sway the jury, in the case that all evidence pointed to “guilt” and there was little or no wiggle room (I am merely human afterall)—resulting in my compicity with a life sentence. Further, if I was successful in a mistrial or change in verdict, the victim’s family would likely be left with no answers and no resolve—the impact of this would be completely out of my hands.
Option 3: Rebel from the entire process—make a scene, disrupt the status quo, dramatically exit in such a way that would call attention to the injustice, hypocricy, and violence of the system without being a part of it.
Pros: I always love a path that turns away from what is expected or demanded and I would probably feel pretty righteous in doing this;
Cons: I had no support and no way to ask for support, I was unaware of the consequences to those around me, this seemed to really just center my own anxiety and distress and not serve to support those whose lives were on the line which meant non-consensual risk
I agonized over which of these decisions treated life as precious—an absolute and public refusal and rejection of the system itself, which would potentially inspire others or at least show solidarity; or a covert operation that might give the defendant a fighting chance at a life outside of prison walls, at the risk of contributing to that very outcome. I leaned toward option two—toward trusting my skills as a conflict facilitator, compassionate person, and abolitionist to risk my own complicity if it meant I could create some kind of change. Afterall, isn’t it just as complicit to abandon someone in order to preserve something so abstract as my soul?
In the end, at 11:33am, both the prosecutor and defense attorney decided that they were satisfied with the jury they had. An all white, largely middle aged jury—I can only imagine that this jury was nowhere near reflective of the defendant’s peers. I was excused and spared the necessity of a decision.
What would you have done, had you been called?
How do I (Luna) understand or view what happened at the Oscars?
This question was sent to me via the information request form.
In answer to this question, I fully align with what Richie Reseda shared on his instagram account (I often log in just to go to Richie’s page and see what he’s commented on recently; his transformative justice lens is so clear).
In Will Smith slaps Chris Rock: An Abolitionist Response Richie says, “What’s the big ol’ deal? First of all as a society that relies on people with guns and badges to kidnap people and hold them against their will when we don’t like them, let’s please not waste our time talking about how violence isn’t the answer. And instead of wasting our time with artbitrary, imaginary conversations about who’s right and who’s wrong and who deserves to have what happen, let’s talk about what abolitionist responses to what a situation like this could be...”
He lists four steps from a Transformative Justice perspective:
Talk to everyone who has been harmed (incuding Chris, Will, and Jada) about what would help them feel restored.
Help those who did harm (including Chris and Will), be accountable—learn the harm they caused, change, make amends.
Restore the relationship if that’s desired or wanted.
Challenge the root systemic problems—in this case, ableism, misogynoir (the hatred of black women).
Richie also helps us look at another major incident that happened recently—the NYC subway shooting. Richie focuses on prevention, intervention, and response. You can see his video on that here.
Watch/listen to the Will Smith/Chris Rock video:
Opportunities to Learn + Act
April 21 (TOMORROW): Intimate Partner Violence and Abolitionist Safety Planning by Haymarket Press with Mariame Kaba and Shira Hassan—register here.
April 26: Organizing Transformative Justice Responses to Campus Sexual Violence through Barnard Center—register here.
May 1: Domari Dickinson’s workshop through Amplify RJ: Restorative Justice x Conscious Parenting Practices—register here.
Donate to a Michigan based project to bring internet to migrant farmworkers so that they can be connected to family and community—donate to Connect the Camps here.
Dr. Ruth Wilson Gilmore often remarks that where life is treated as precious, the experience of life as precious. To create such a world is the endeavor of abolition. Hear more from her here: https://theintercept.com/2020/06/10/ruth-wilson-gilmore-makes-the-case-for-abolition/
Jury Nullification is Power to the People, Prison Legal News. https://www.prisonlegalnews.org/news/2009/jun/15/jury-nullification-power-to-the-people/
Jury Nullification: How Jurors can Stop Racist Laws, Vox. https://www.vox.com/2016/5/2/11538752/jury-nullification-paul-butler