Firstly, thank you for upholding the position of Ramsey County District Judge with equity and empathy in mind amidst an uneasy social climate. A few days ago news surfaced of your letter written to the jury of the Jeronimo Yanez case you presided over, reassuring them of the verdict they reached. While uncommon for judges to reach out to jurors days after a given trial, the details of the letter explained how you believed the jury “faithfully fulfilled the difficult task” they were asked to undertake. Other details of your letter go on to assuage any lingering doubts jurors may still have, considering the ensuing public outcry over the verdict. Your reasons included the inner workings of the justice system and the fair and impartial approach you feel the jury took in coming to their decision.
As a teacher of color, I often find myself at a loss for words when several of my high school students ask me why people of color end up dead after routine traffic stops, in prison or in caskets, or altogether lost to our justice system more than most. I find it difficult to explain to them why women and men of color face far more racial discrimination at the hands of law enforcement and the criminal justice system than most, and why police brutality continues to end with mistrials and acquittals as of late. The legal system, as you’ve expressed, can only work with the evidence before it, but a juror’s implicit bias about people of color can go wholly unnoticed in a given case.
According to the Star Tribune, in your letter you go on to say to the jury that, “You were never asked to decide whether racism continues to exist, whether certain members of our community are disproportionately affected by police tactics, or whether police training is ineffective.”
Your letter struck a chord because some of that language used suggested historical and systemic injustices to be irrelevant in deciding a verdict. While jurors should act objectively in a trial, it behooves them to acknowledge what systemic factors affect all members of the case. I’m sure during the trial you learned that Philando Castile was stopped over 45 times by officers over the span of 13 years, many of those stops for minor traffic violations. Motorists of color are stopped at a disproportionately greater rate across the country, but if this small bit of information is inconsequential in determining a verdict, how can a jury fully operate justly? If I were to stand trial, how might a jury of my peers fully understand my case if our own court system tells them to ignore the historic and systemic injustices that have led to my community’s oppression? When law enforcement stand trial, their department, their community, their state’s capacity to police its people equitably are all on trial.
Even after seeing some of his dreams come to fruition, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “I do not see how we will ever solve the turbulent problem of race confronting our nation until there is an honest confrontation with it and a willing search for the truth and a willingness to admit the truth when we discover it.” Justice is the search for truth, the search for equity with knowledge gained from prosecutors, defendants, society and history, but that search involves the lived experiences of women and men upended by systemic injustices, like fixed bail systems and mandatory minimum sentences, that have sent countless people of color to mass incarceration. It involves the historic efforts of the past and present to suppress voters, the redlining done to community members in the margins seeking upward economic mobility, and even the disproportionate mistreatment of motorists of color. How might any jury see through to our struggle if their directions are to ignore the system that failed people like Kalief Browder and Trayvon Martin--the same system that failed Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Oscar Grant and Sandra Bland? How might it at all be just to decide the verdict of a case where another man of color was gunned down, after several months of similar incidents before it, without the thought of racial discrimination in mind?What do we risk telling future jurors about the value of Black and Brown bodies in the justice system if the message continues to be an intentional masking of the past? It’s time we begin asking ourselves the critical questions needing to be asked about justice and equity, and I hope someday soon the scale of justice is relieved of the added weight of our fettered history.
Jamal Michel is a Duke graduate and high school English teacher in Durham.
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Jamal Michel is a Duke graduate and an English teacher at Northern High School. His column runs on alternate Fridays.