"Poor, Black, and on Trial in DC"

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

By Tamara Lucas Copeland
President, Washington Regional Association of Grantmakers

For two weeks, I served on a jury in the District of Columbia. I don’t know if our Putting Racism on the Table work over the last year made me more sensitive, but what I do know is that I responded to this case very differently than the three other times that I have served on a DC jury. Today I am more concerned than ever about the bias that I witnessed in DC Superior Court.

First, I noticed that the defendant, a 32-year-old black man, was definitely not being judged by a jury of his peers. There were three black people on the jury. There were four men. The rest of the demographics on age, education, and income are, I admit, assumptions. I would guess that not more than 3 or 4 jurors were in their thirties. From his job, I would guess that he did not have a college degree. Although not all jurors revealed their professions, some did, including a medical provider, a lawyer, a communications director for a government agency, a retired teacher, and a scientist. I would also guess that the average income of the juror pool was significantly above that of the defendant based on where people said that they lived in the city. This was a jury of the defendant’s peers only in that we were all DC residents.

Next, the charges. We weren’t allowed to bring information out after the trial; so, I hope I am remembering correctly. He was charged with possession of a firearm in the District of Columbia, possession of a firearm in the District of Columbia without a license, and possession of ammunition. I am not an apologist for crime, but these particular charges certainly appear to be excessive and redundant, intended simply, and profoundly, to ensure more jail time.

Lastly, and most importantly, I witnessed incredible bias in both the courtroom and in the jury room.

I found it very difficult to discern when the prosecuting attorney was seeking to impugn a witness or to express racial bias. For example, consider this exchange with a witness for the defense and ask yourself if poverty, not addiction, would have been assumed had the witness been white:

Prosecutor to a defense witness: Were you outside begging for money?

Defense witness: No, I was asking for change.

Prosecutor: To buy drugs and alcohol?

Defense witness: No, to buy food.

I also witnessed a lack of cultural understanding to have a deleterious impact on the jury’s deliberations. An exchange between a clerk and the defendant was characterized by the white members of the jury as threatening and inflammatory. Another black juror and I characterized this verbal exchange as playing the dozens (google it). And, I witnessed outright bias in the jury room when a juror called a witness who had testified that she did not know the defendant a liar because “everyone in that neighborhood [the neighborhood of the crime and home to the defendant] knows everybody else.”

All of these factors lead me to wonder if a poor, black person can get a fair trial in the District of Columbia.

As we continue our work of putting racism on the table, I am now even more acutely aware of a need for reform and education in the criminal justice system. For centuries the lack of attention to race and racism has landed us in today’s untenable situation, in which African Americans are incarcerated at nearly six times that of whites. Shining a light on the ways that racism and bias infiltrate the courtroom and jury room is a start. We must change these institutions of society that disadvantage and advantage based on race.

This piece originally appeared on the Daily WRAG. To read previous edition's of Tamara's monthly column, "A Voice from Philanthropy," click here.