Years as a reporter covering courts have taught me most of us can read or watch the news and decide whether the accused is guilty. The most graphic illustration in my memory came at the end of the OJ Simpson murder trial.
For those who may not remember, the former black football and movie star was accused of knifing to death his white ex-wife and her alleged boyfriend, also white. When Simpson’s trial ended in 1995, the jury said he was not guilty.
A local electronics store technician was installing a cell phone antenna in my car when the verdict was announced on the radio. The store owner passed the car at the same time, and to say he became angry would be too gentle a mis-characterization. He “knew” OJ was guilty. We were in central Maine and OJ and the jurors were in southern California, but the 3,000-mile separation did not present a problem to our irate store owner.
Fortunately, something happens to our neighbors when they become jurors. Whatever verdict they have while sitting in the Main Street coffee shop, they seem to leave at the courtroom door.
Before the trial, on the evidence listed in the newspaper and on television, some of the 12 eventually selected jurors could have been among those ready to suspend the obviously guilty malefactor from the nearest sycamore. Afterward, they often declare the person presumed innocent until proven guilty to have been not so proven.
We give a cop a gun and shield and send him forth to protect us. Sometimes the “us” he is called to protect is himself. In a case that has not received nearly the news coverage, a Cleveland police officer shot and killed 12-year-old Tamir Rice. The red plastic indicator that would have identified the kid’s gun as a toy had been removed. Both the officer and the child were black.
I often try to point out that police are our neighbors, our loved ones, members of our community. I suggest that concept may not be fully appreciated in a 67 percent black town when its 93 percent white police department shows up with armored vehicles, machine guns and snipers to take on demonstrators unhappy that a young man was just shot and lies dead in the street.
Maybe those imbalances contributed to now former-Officer Darren Wilson feeling threatened.
Politicians who change the subject from “white police officer shoots unarmed black teenager” to “why don’t we hear about all the black-on-black shootings” are not helpful. They essentially condone any shooting that kills a black man.
And to a large degree, the media is complicit. The week leading to the Grand Jury decision in Ferguson, television news was all over the potential for riots. In Cleveland, one might think the media had been banned from the scene. Ferguson still dominates too many news programs, now with speculation that a judge may appoint a new prosecutor and call for a new Grand Jury. Cleveland remains mostly unheard from. Since Wilson was never charged with a crime, “double jeopardy” would not apply.
I am certain Wilson wishes he had not killed Michael Brown, especially when the teenager was found to have been unarmed. I am equally certain he thought, at the time and in retrospect, he was justified. The question only Officer Wilson, if anyone, can answer is why, at the time, he thought his life was in danger.
In a world that features an ever-growing list of “hate crimes” and perpetual vigilance against “terrorism,” those questions deserve more scrutiny and less of “the black-on-black shootings” misdirection.