The Justice Department has charged former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, his father Bernard Kilpatrick, contractor Bobby Ferguson and former Detroit water boss Victor Mercado with racketeering, conspiracy, extortion, bribery, fraud and tax evasion.
I have no inside information that a major crime syndicate was run out of City Hall.
But for better or worse, there’s a good chance that the race of potential jurors could be an issue in determining the guilt or innocence of the accused.
It is disappointing to hear supporters and people once paid by Kwame suggesting that his prosecution is part of selective targeting and prosecution of black elected officials who become too powerful, forceful, charismatic and effective. The intent is to skew the outcome.
Kwame himself suggested that the Justice Department has engaged in an excessive, multimillion dollar political lynching that will prevent him from getting a fair trial. He tried unsuccessfully to have the charges dropped by claiming that not enough blacks are in the jury pools in the Eastern District of Michigan. If blacks were systematically excluded from federal jury pools, his counsel argued, would justify dismissal of the indictment.
The race issue is both conveniently real and conveniently contrived.
There’s ample evidence that black jurors are more likely than whites to sympathize with, or have particular “sensitivity” toward black criminals. This special kinship is a racial identity in which skin color trumps the promise of justice.
Juries, for example, were unable to reach a verdict in the public corruption trial of political consultant Sam Riddle as well as the bid-rigging trial of Kwame’s friend Bobby Ferguson. In both cases, one black juror hung the jury.
That these juries could not reach a unanimous verdict does not necessarily show that the defendants are innocent. It may simply indicate that at least one juror did not accept or believe the government’s version of the case.
Perhaps because blacks are disproportionately involved in the criminal justice system, public opinion polls show that blacks generally believe the deck is stacked against them. For this reason, jurors may opt for “jury nullification,” in which they acquit technically guilty criminals because of a social grievance, or reach a verdict contrary to the facts in the case. The O.J. Simpson murder trial is but one one example of this perversion of the law.
Conversely, everyone is America saw the “beat down” video of Rodney King by Los Angeles cops a few years back. But an all white jury in Simi Valley didn’t see what we saw and refused to convict the cops.
That said, no evidence has surfaced that equal protection is somehow in jeopardy by disproportionately low numbers of blacks – or disproportionately high numbers of whites — on jury panels. Still, the debate about what constitutes a jury of one’s peers is not going away.
It’s one thing to have a politically pleasing ideal to hold up as a representative jury. But the objective must ultimately be a legal system that is impartial and fair to all. That’s why it is important to protect against jury selection processes that are influenced by the color or ethnic background of jurors.
The law certainly doesn’t allow for it. A U.S. Supreme court ruling prohibits preemptory challenges to prospective jurors “on account of their race or assumptions about their biases stemming from their race.”
Care must be taken to not put the system of justice on trial in the Kilpatrick case. The issue is whether a popular mayor used his family and friends violate the public trust and rip off his people.
If the pundits have no evidence of a covert government agenda, they should back off and sit down. If they have evidence of a conspiracy to take out black politicians they are duty-bound to move beyond reckless rhetoric and produce the proof.
The injection of race can only erode public confidence in a jury selection system that is probably as good as it gets.