CHANGING THE BLUE CULTURE
One of the greatest things we have in our Western system of justice is trial by jury. One of the most frustrating things we have in our Western system of justice is trial by jury. One of the best things we have as American citizens are our rights under the U.S. Constitution and one of the most mischievous parasites upon it is the way the criminal justice system seems to manipulate it to create perverted ends.
Surely most thinking citizens have at times been frustrated when someone who has clearly broken the law seems to get off with little or no punishment. At other times most thinking citizens have been scandalized when someone who is innocent, or actually a victim of unusual circumstances, is slammed with a heavy- fisted punishment due to the written code of jurisprudence. In all of these situations the reflective question of, “What if that had that been me, or someone close to me?” is worth asking. What if I had been railroaded and sent to prison for a crime I did not commit and spent years in prison? What If I had lost my family, my youth, and my fortune because of such injustice? Maybe those questions would motivate our sympathy, our sense of outrage at injustice; maybe.
What if my wife, son or daughter, someone I love had been murdered, raped, beaten, robbed by someone who had been clearly identified and that person managed to get away with murder? Surely if I thought that the victim of crime on the news could have been me or mine my empathy might become engaged; maybe. I remember all those vigilante movies, (remember the ones with Charles Bronson?) and I am a bit sympathetic.
Our American history reveals how the jury system is not infallible in determining guilt or innocence, especially when the culture of the jurists is resistant to justice, predetermined to protect the accused because of a communal prejudice. It is one of the great protections for defendants to be tried by a jury of his or her peers, as it allows defendants, and especially those who are ably and well defended by competent and zealous attorneys, to elicit sympathy even in the clear and demonstrable evidence of their complicity and guilt. We have seen racism in juries during the Civil Rights movement allow clearly guilty killers and bombers walk out of the courtroom as free men. The words of Native Americans, African Americans, and Mexicans just didn’t carry the same weight as white men when in court.
Many poor defendants never get a jury trial, and therefore many of them end up in prison serving long sentences. The process of plea bargaining, the heavy handed stacking of charges, and incompetent representation deprives many of a sympathetic jury and only a “by the book” mathematical precision of sentence by penal code. Again, when a person of color went before a white jury the results were often predetermined.
We are currently facing such a cultural injustice in our jury system. It has a blue color over it, but it is not the fault necessarily of the police departments or systems whose individuals come to trial. It is a fault in our citizenry, and thus in our culture. We are prejudiced for law and order, we are prejudiced for the uniform, we are prejudiced for authority and it is a prejudice that is both ignorant and dangerous. We are finding it almost impossible to hold officers of the law responsible for their crimes. If they cannot be held accountable sooner or later all of our rights, and our lives, are at risk.
What is interesting is that in several cases the police departments themselves have repudiated the actions and behaviors of their officers and fired the incompetents or malefactors. What is also interesting is that in case after case whole cities and communities have had to pay exorbitant settlements in wrongful death suits. In short, the very citizens who let these officers go free pay for the crimes they have committed by higher taxes, or less policing since the city budget can no longer include it.
Does this tell our citizens anything? Does it educate them that when officers go off the reservation as it were and kill citizens whose guilt has in no way been proven or established, nor have given any real threat to the officers, that these officers need to be held accountable for their failures in executing the law they have sworn to uphold? The jury system allows for feelings, and the biggest feeling such officers submit in their defense is fear. Fear now seems to be the trump card that an officer can offer as to why they shot the deceased in the back half a dozen times or so, and why they shot the man who was walking away from them, or the man who was telling the officer he had a gun but also had a permit, etc. etc.
Can we change the culture of juries so that they understand that fear might make any of us sympathetic but is not an excuse for cowardice? Cowards are those who are afraid but don’t know how to master their fear. Fear is something that training is supposed to help those in uniform services know how to confront in themselves so that they can function effectively and lawfully. Fear is understandable, and so is anger, but it should be no defense for those who respond emotionally and not with self-control.
If you cannot learn to control your fear you should not be a police officer, or a soldier. Fear is a constant in confrontation, it can make people do stupid things and it surely has, but it cannot be an excuse for killing innocent or non-convicted citizens. Despite what police unions say (that seem to excuse all kinds of bad behavior and make incidents political) police departments are trying to hold their officers to a higher standard and all of us as citizens need that higher standard.
So, if you ever have the opportunity to be on a jury that must judge a police officer who has been accused of hurting someone unjustly, think not just of that officer’s fear, think of the victim, and think of them as if it had been you or yours. We must have sympathy for the abuse and danger officers face every day, we must pray for them, love on them, support them, and absolutely let them know that we understand that the challenge they face is greater than just another day at the office. However, we depend on them not to respond with their fears, but with wisdom and justice. And we will and must hold them to such standards, if for nothing else than for the safety of our very own children.