Are we fair? We face our consciences and our fallibility

Jim Redwine

Rodney King, a Black man, was stopped for erratic driving and then beaten by white police officers in 1991. A videotape of the incident was repeatedly aired. The officers were found not guilty of any crimes by a jury. Riots ensued after the verdict.

Orenthal James Simpson, a Black man, was acquitted by a jury in 1994 of murdering two white people. We can only guess at what would have been the general reactions of America’s Black and white communities had O.J. Simpson been convicted. What does not require speculation was the avalanche of analysis of the meaning of the verdicts.

Michael Brown, a Black man, was stopped by a white police officer on Aug. 9, 2014, in Ferguson, Missouri, after Brown was accused of stealing a package of cigars. The officer shot and killed Brown. Riots and protests ensued after a grand jury and a prosecuting attorney decided to not charge the officer with any offense.

George Floyd Jr., a Black man, died on May 3, 2020, after being detained by four police officers on the streets of Minneapolis for passing an allegedly counterfeit bill. A white police officer was videoed kneeling on Floyd’s neck. The contact lasted more than nine minutes and has been viewed by millions, as was the low-speed chase of O.J. Simpson and the video of Rodney King. Derek Chauvin was the officer who knelt on Floyd’s neck. Chauvin’s trial on charges of murder is currently proceeding. The other officers are set to be tried separately. Many people are already speculating on the outcome of Chauvin’s trial. If convicted, his sentence, and if not convicted the lack of any sentence, are already the stuff of dire predictions.

A friend of mine, a Black man, was sentenced to five years in prison for resisting his arrest by a white police officer during a domestic relations incident. I did not know the particular officer involved, although in my seven years as a deputy prosecuting attorney and 40 years as a judge I worked with hundreds of officers. My perspective on my friend’s incident came from his account. I did attend my friend’s sentencing, where another friend of mine, the white judge, imposed a sentence on my Black friend in a courtroom filled with uniformed police officers standing side by side in a blue phalanx.

Was the judge unfairly intimidated? Of course, I do not know. My guess is even the judge does not know. Having sentenced hundreds of people myself, I cannot tell for sure if irrelevant factors such as politics, favor, intimidation, wrong or missing facts or prejudices based on my background unfairly influenced my judgments. Naturally, I, just as you Gentle Reader, honestly believe I can always be fair and impartial. My friend the judge undoubtedly felt the same. As do I, he will have to face his own doubts and demons during the middle of the night on these anguishing issues.

We are but tiny cogs in the great turning millstone of our justice system. And for matters occurring outside of court with its written laws and procedures, the possibility of bad decisions and reactions is even worse.