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Thursday, April 3, 2014

A juror's reflections on the question of "reasonable doubt"


The article below was written by Barbara Raye and is cross-posted from barbararaye.wordpress.com.

Barbara Raye is the Executive Director of the


Barbara Raye
I’ve just completed jury duty. The charges were simple robbery and aiding and abetting aggravated robbery. The verdict was guilty on both charges. But the process left me weary and fearful – not for my safety, but for the work ahead. I heard several comments in the process of determining “reasonable doubt” that followed the natural human process of receiving data, making meaning of it from one’s own perspective, and then reaching a conclusion. Peter Senge’s ladder of inference at work in a case study beyond my imagination.

People took their duty seriously and spent several hours over almost two days sequestered together – thinking, reflecting, going over our memories of testimony, and attempting to separate facts from “filling in the blanks.”

However, there were blanks and filling them in was the only way to get to “reasonable doubt.” Did the prosecutor’s presentation of the case “hold up?” Could the evidence be put together in another reasonable narrative? We were limited by our imaginations and life experiences. I left feeling overwhelmed at the degree to which race, race bias, and race imagery in this country defined these essential tools of justice.
One person was certain that the incorrect identification of the second bike at the scene could be explained by a second robber in bagging pants and hoodie that shadowed the bike and made it impossible to be seen. (The defendant did NOT have on these kind of clothes.)

One person determined that there must be a weapon because – as a man – the victim would have gotten up and fought off the two robbers on bikes if there had not been a weapon. That is what any man would have done. When I said that I wouldn’t have done that, and it seemed absolutely reasonable to me that a man would not have fought back under those circumstances. I added that as a crime prevention/self-defense trainer, our advice to any victim would have been to comply – give up the $180 dollars and be safe. The response was that I was a woman so of course I would not have fought back.

Two women were made uncomfortable by the black defendant and how he looked at them while they were in the court room. This reinforced for them that he was …. something …. aggressive, dangerous, mean, intimidating – maybe guilty.

Several became offended when I suggested that the “media imagery” of two black men on bikes at 4:00 a.m. attacking an unarmed white pedestrian and the fear the victim experienced could have created an expectation and perception of a weapon, even if there was not one. In response I was asked to take “race” out of the situation and assume that everyone was white.

I was told that I should not make assumptions about how comfortable or familiar the victim might be in living in a culturally diverse community and being a credible witness regarding description and identification of the offender. “We all have black people in our communities now. They are even in XX.” (a metro suburb.)
The facts lead to conviction – a verdict I supported. But the instructions and challenge about “reasonable doubt” left everyone trying to be “reasonable” based on their own perceptions, fears, experiences, and meaning. They left me in grief and turmoil.

How do we move beyond our own experiences to see options, possibilities, and meaning other that how “we” would (or imagine we would) do it? It felt a bit like failing diversity 101. It felt a lot like complex things made too simple. It illustrated to me the systemic societal racism in our systems. Disparities studies abound. Health disparities, overrepresentation in the justice system, underrepresentation in DBE and hiring – with no explanation but race bias. Yet, these reasonable people tried mightily to take “race” out of the equation.
Perhaps, we should stop trying so hard. Perhaps we need to understand that – in this country – for now – we need to do the opposite. We should modify our personal processes with an understanding that you cannot take out the cultural framework and experience of the people involved when trying to understand what happened – how it was experienced – why they acted the way they acted – and what resolution will hold justice.

It might well have been my white, liberal, guilt that made it so difficult in the first place. I needed to speak and to consider “reasonable” based on my own experiences, just like everyone else. My experiences have included observing/hearing race bias, stereotyping, and fear created by systemic policies and imagery that have harmed the truth about many people. My jury experience didn’t convince me that I could put those experiences aside and believe we now live in a free and just world. There is much work to do.

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