The not guilty verdict that the jury came to is not only unsurprising, it was planned from the start.
In the most traumatic moment of her life, Diamond Reynolds had the presence of mind to grab her cell phone. Her boyfriend, Philando Castile, had just been fatally shot by Officer Yanez when Reynolds started streaming the bloody aftermath on Facebook Live.
The video quickly went viral – viewers were appalled by Officer Yanez actions and at first, it appeared that social media would usher the conviction of Mr. Yanez, but to the contrary, as the legal process wore on, it would be social media that facilitated his freedom.
Last Friday’s jury decision to acquit Mr. Yanez lays bare how effective the legal system mines the profiles of potential jurors to ensure that those who are skeptical of America’s legal system are not allowed to participate in it.
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In jury trials like Yanez’s, lawyers on both sides can eliminate potential jurors based on a combination of intense questioning, keen observation, and stereotyping. In cases involving police brutality, prosecutors prefer jurors who are more likely to be suspicious of law enforcement. Their perfect juror would be a liberal person of color with an arrest record. Alternatively, defense lawyers are looking for conservative, well-off whites as they are more likely to trust law enforcement.
Sam Bregman, a lawyer who defended an officer who fatally shot a mentally ill homeless man, described jury selection as “the single most important aspect of the entire trial.” With videos like the one Reynolds posted getting more national attention, lawyers are relying more heavily on potential jurors’ social media presence to predict how they will interpret evidence and testimony and ultimately vote.
A recent article from The New York Times described the modern jury selection as “a dark art” that relies on “exhaustive reviews of social media profiles” to provide favorable jurors. And the implications of this social media mining on advocates and supporters of police reform are profound.
Having #BlackLivesMatter in your Twitter bio, engaging in discussions about systemic racism on Facebook, posting pictures from a political protest on Instagram, or even sharing one of the many viral videos displaying police brutality are all situations in which the defense can successfully ask the judge to dismiss a juror for cause, or being prejudiced against the case. Even if a potential juror does not post political views online, lawyers often look at their friends and followers and conclude that their views are similar to that of their online associates.
As the internet and social media have become omnipresent in our lives, we have encountered warnings of meeting strangers from online, cat-fishing, and unknowingly sabotaging potential job opportunities. However, warnings of unknowingly sabotaging justice for victims of police brutality are less common.
In cases involving police defendants, it is exceptionally hard to get a conviction, which requires unanimous agreement among all the jurors. Even if the act of brutality is caught on camera. Even if the victim was compliant and nonaggressive. And especially if the victim is Black.
The majority white jury in the Yanez trial was not an anomaly. It was meticulously constructed and mirrored that of those who could have but did not provide justice for Sandra Bland, Eric Garner, Mike Brown, Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray, Amadou Diallo, and countless others. With jurors who openly praised the police and viewed the United States’ criminal justice system as “the best in the world,” the not guilty verdict that the jury came to is not only unsurprising, it was planned from the start.
The Black Lives Matter Movement has given a voice to millions who speak out against injustices on and offline. With the opinions of these people prominently on display and readily accessible, it is easy to dismiss a large swath of the jury pool. It also puts these people in an interesting predicament.
The traditional media is slow to run stories of police brutality. Advocates on Twitter and Facebook often break the story and spread it widely, making it nearly impossible for cable news and print news outlets to ignore. Without social media, these stories would not receive national attention. But if sharing and commenting on these stories automatically excludes citizens from the jury pool, engaging in online dialogue could defeat the ultimate goal of realizing justice.
Featured Image: Laurie Shaull, Creative Commons