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Race, Gender, and Class Issues in the Courtroom

October 1, 2015

 

            Inspired by his own experience with a racially biased trial that changed his life, Max G. Geier undertook an academic study of a 1943 murder trial involving racial, gender, and class issues. The Color of Night: Race, Railroaders, and Murder in the Wartime West presents Geier’s research of the murder of Martha James and the subsequent execution of Robert E. Lee Folkes who had been found guilty for her murder. Today Geier tells us the story of his 2005 jury summons and how the trial influenced him to write this book of murder, mystery, and railroad history in Oregon.


 

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Writing About The Color of Night

Max G. Geier

11 August 2015

 

            The idea for this book began in summer 2005, when I was called to serve as a juror for a seemingly insignificant trial in Benton County, Oregon. It is no exaggeration to say that experience, not my first as a juror, changed my life. My role as a juror took me into legal territory beyond my experience, and I learned some unpleasant truths about my neighbors who served with me. Each juror revealed something of themselves and how their perceptions of a racialized “other” colored their notions of what was just and fair. I came away with the idea that a careful study of a jury trial involving jurors who were of different races and backgrounds than the defendant might help me understand, as a historian, how people from rural and urban backgrounds compared in their responses to racialized arguments and identities in the mid-20th century.

            Jury duty was a responsibility I initially put off, asking for extensions earlier in the academic year, preferring to serve during the summer to avoid inconveniencing students, most of whom were the first in their families to attend college. Many were already in their mid-to-late 20s, often working several jobs to pay their way, with rich life experiences already behind them, but virtually none had ever served on a jury. Whenever we discussed famous American court cases, I encouraged them to accept their civic responsibility when the call came, if only to better understand how our court system functions. I had no illusions about the process, having previously served as a juror (including once as jury foreman) on two other cases that went to trial, including one in Los Angeles involving rape and attempted murder. In summer 2005, however, the court called me to serve on a relatively innocuous case, or so it seemed at the time. It was, on the surface, a simple case of drunk driving. As the case progressed, however, we learned there was more at stake: the prosecutor layered on several additional charges that would have dramatically increased the penalties, including jail time, that the young Black man on trial would have faced for an unwise decision that, thankfully, had harmed no one. My fellow jurors were all White men and White women who were mostly at least two decades older than the defendant.

            At trial, a White judge presided while the White prosecutor called witnesses—most memorably a White police officer who admitted he stopped the car only because “I recognized his face”. The other singularly notable witness was a young White woman—the defendant’s girlfriend—who was also in the car during the traffic stop. The White defense lawyer essentially conceded the basic facts of the matter before the trial even began. The events in question all happened within a one-block radius in a portion of the city where the streets follow broad curves typical of suburban tracts built in the late 60s and early 70s. The defendant and his girlfriend were at a party at her house on one side of that block, across the back fence from his mom’s house on the other side of the block. They left the party together and headed, in his girlfriend’s car, to his mom’s house. It was a short drive on the quiet, well-lit, broad residential streets of their childhood homes. Their route required two left turns heading counter-clockwise around the block to reach his mother’s driveway. The defendant asked his girlfriend if he could drive, and she agreed. Driving cautiously, the defendant rounded the first corner and accelerated to about 20 mph (according to police testimony). As he approached the second corner, he passed a stopped police car. Recognizing the defendant’s face, the officer testified, he switched on his flashing lights and followed. The defendant completed his second left turn and headed toward his mother’s driveway before he noticed the police car with lights flashing behind him (according to his own testimony and his girlfriend’s testimony). The police officer testified the defendant quickly accelerated to 25 mph, whereas the girlfriend and the defendant both denied he accelerated and testified he actually was slowing down as they approached his mom’s driveway near the center of the block.

            As jurors, at this point in the trial, we were still in the dark about why any of this detail was important, but it soon became clear: the police officer was telling a story that supported multiple charges of evading arrest, whereas the defendant and his girlfriend were telling a story that indicated the young man was afraid of this White police officer who “recognized his face”. Both the girlfriend and the defendant indicated they just wanted to pull into his mother’s driveway to avoid an altercation in the street with an angry White police officer. What happened next, however, colored the testimony in ways that hurt the defense and empowered the prosecutor’s efforts to layer on two additional charges.

            As the defendant pulled to a halt in the driveway, he slid across the front seat as his girlfriend climbed over into the driver’s seat. Then, he opened the passenger-side door and walked around the front of the car. The officer claimed the defendant headed toward his mom’s back yard. The defendant said he walked around the front of the car to wait for the officer who had pulled in behind them. The defense attorney, in questioning both the defendant and his girlfriend, encouraged them to admit they switched seats because the young man had been drinking and was hoping to avoid a DUI charge. The prosecutor called the young woman as a state’s witness, and from her demeanor it was clear she did not want to testify. Jurors were left to draw their own conclusions as to why she agreed to testify for the prosecution, but in later deliberations, most of us assumed she did so to avoid facing charges.

            Given the girlfriend’s testimony, and the resulting admissions of the defendant and his lawyer, it was clear the young man—just visiting home during his first year at college—was guilty of driving under the influence of alcohol. The jury was asked to decide on that and two other charges: (1) had the defendant attempted to evade arrest by switching seats with his girlfriend and then leaving the automobile from the passenger side door, and (2) had the defendant attempted to evade arrest by accelerating after rounding the second corner. Jurors assumed these latter two charges would push him into a more severe range of sentencing guidelines. The judge specifically instructed us not to consider the combined effects of the charges but to consider each one individually, on the pretense they were unrelated and independent matters. With those instructions, we retired to the jury room for deliberations.

            Any jury is a collection of commonly reluctant participants who are variously impatient with the imposition on their time. Generally speaking, every juror hopes the others will agree with them, resulting in a relatively swift decision, after which they can all go back to their normal routines. I, and at least two other jurors, entered the jury room very uncomfortable with the police officer’s story. We, and a few other people in the room, were also uncomfortable with the prosecutor’s decision to pile on so many charges for what, in the end, was an unwise mistake that ended without anyone getting hurt. Several of us also were uncomfortable with the judge’s instructions to ignore the consequences for the defendant as we considered each charge independently of the others. We were unprepared, however, for the racialized response of other jurors in the room.

            Deliberations stretched across several hours as jurors argued with each other about what they remembered the police officer saying. The officer testified the defendant tried to make a getaway by accelerating down the street, but many of us considered that unlikely, given the undisputed fact that the car pulled into a driveway barely two houses after rounding that second corner. Several of us expressed skepticism about the officer’s testimony, given that apparent discrepancy, which led to a discussion of why he stopped the car in the first place. One juror, at that point, loudly remarked in an exasperated voice that it was obvious this officer knew this “boy” was “up to no good” because “he recognized his Black face” and obviously had had run-ins with him before. This juror, a red-faced White woman in her early 60s, ranted for some time about how she knew about other problems with “people like that” in this city, and that we should have more respect for police officers who had to deal with “those people”. About half the jurors in the room nodded in agreement. At that point, a quick poll of the jury showed that all but three of us were willing to convict on all three counts. Those who favored conviction needed one more vote.

            Two of us marshalled our arguments to counteract the sudden shift against the defendant after that juror’s racist tirade. The officer’s own testimony included a denial he observed anything illegal about the defendant’s driving, and as an explanation for why he pulled the young man over, he offered only the observation that he “recognized his face”. We had one silent partner—a young woman who voted with us against conviction, but she was too intimidated by other jurors to vocalize her reasoning. After an exhausting round of argument, the jury foreman suggested we all take a break to cool off. He and four other jurors, including the outspoken woman, stepped outside the room and congregated in the hallway, where the quiet woman who had stood with us later joined them. The jury foreman was a supervisor at a nearby computer manufacturing company where at least three other jurors also worked. At the outset of deliberations, one of his co-workers quickly nominated him as foreman and lobbied hard to close nominations “so that we can finish this and go home”. The rest of us entered the room not knowing each other, and it was not immediately apparent why this man had so many people supporting him for this responsibility.

            After the break, the six jurors, including the foreman, filed back into the jury room and informed us they had brokered a deal in the hallway. Our silent partner had agreed to vote “guilty” on the first and second counts, if they would all vote for acquittal on the third count. On the question of whether the defendant had been attempting to escape by accelerating away from the police officer, the vote was 12-0 for acquittal. On the question of whether he had been attempting to escape by switching seats, the vote was 10-2 for conviction. No one questioned the charge of driving under the influence, although two of us questioned whether the police officer had reasonable cause to make the stop in the first place, since the officer himself admitted he had not noticed anything except “his face”. The judge polled each of us on whether we agreed with the verdicts, and then he dismissed the jury.

            Heading home, I encountered one of the majority jurors standing at an intersection waiting for the walk signal. He nodded at me, and cheerfully volunteered, “Well, THAT took longer than I thought it would.” Somewhat antagonized, I cast him what I hoped was a withering look and said, “Not nearly long enough.”

            Convinced that a racist and inaccurate argument had swayed the jury, I was not at all satisfied justice had been done, even though we narrowly averted conviction on the third count. The next day, I telephoned the judge and explained my concerns, hoping there was some action he might take to correct the situation. After waiting several days with no response, I telephoned the defense attorney to explain my concerns. After taking my statement, he filed a motion to set aside the verdict. At the subsequent hearing, which I attended, the district attorney, in a prepared statement, vociferously objected that were the judge to act on my statement, or even admit it into evidence, either orally or in writing, it would undermine the very fabric of our judicial system. In the end, the gavel came down, and the verdict stood, such as it was. The defendant, a well-mannered and self-possessed young man, made a point of thanking me for my efforts, but I came away feeling I had not done enough. That feeling never went away. Perhaps, as the red-faced woman argued in that jury room, he had a whole string of previous brushes with the law. Perhaps his record was not as clean as his courtroom suit, but she did not know that, except for her conviction he was one of “those people”. We had no evidence to that effect, except the police officer’s insinuation he “recognized his face” because of some previous interactions. In the end, no one wanted to question the police officer’s testimony—they brokered a “deal”, not because our arguments convinced them to doubt the officer’s word, but because, in the foreman’s closing words, “the game starts in half an hour.” That young man deserved better. Folkes deserved better. We all deserve better.

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