I Was the Foreman of a Racist St. Louis Jury


St. Louis, late summer 2015. It is early evening. It had been raining. K picks up her friend to go to the gym. They set off south on Sarah Street crossing Lindell. They are in their early twenties, likable and taking care of themselves.

He is young, also in his early twenties, also likable. He is driving away from the KDHX folk school after his banjo lesson, on an unfamiliar route to his sister's house to pick up his dog. He's lost. He travels west on Lindell almost to Newstead, decides he's gone too far, makes a U-turn and heads back east towards the Arch.

“I don't think he's going to stop,” K’s passenger said. M hit K’s car squarely in the passenger door. K testified it was only a second before impact that she saw the young man’s car. K and her friend testified that their light was green.

On impact, K’s head hit her passenger’s head, and then, rebounding, hit the driver’s side window. The two women were violently tossed left and right as the car slid sideways and rolled forward to a stop at the curb, still on Sarah, but facing the oncoming traffic. Lindell is wide at Sarah. K crossed the parking lane, then two westbound lanes and then the left turn lane before she was struck in the first eastbound lane.

M thought he had the light. He testified, “I did not think I needed to look out for traffic.” M testified he was trying to read the street signs through the rain-dappled windshield and should have kept lookout. He also said he had but a second to react.

Somebody is not remembering. Nobody was looking out.

Two years later, Sept 6, 2017. Twelve jurors finish their deliberations and file noisily down the metal steps to the courtroom. The bailiff sings out, “All rise for the jury.” I am asked, “Have you reached a verdict?” I respond, “We have.” It feels like my personal point of impact.

The day before I am to render the verdict, about 25 citizens and one very large elephant were escorted to the courtroom of Circuit Court Judge Steven R. Ohmer. I was not keeping good lookout. From the podium, the lawyers asked probing questions to be sure that none of us bring to the table biases that might tip the scales of justice. Have you ever been in an accident? Have you ever worked in the medical field? From the benches the elephant wisecracked, “Are you black? Are you a woman? Do you think that the color of your skin, your gender, your class or your political persuasion will influence the way you decide this case?” The elephant was removed from the courtroom by the bailiff.

When M’s attorney removed four black jurors, he was just playing rough. An attorney cannot remove jurors based on race, but if you don’t get called out on it, then it is all in a day’s dirty work. K’s attorney objected to black jurors being removed for reasons that could have as easily been used to remove some white jurors. I didn't keep sharp lookout as Judge Ohmer allowed the random assortment of citizens to become a jury of ten whites and two blacks.

Judge Ohmer instructed us jurors that it was up to us to determine who was telling the truth. So here you go, Judge Ohmer, that defense attorney made an illegal block hoping you, the ref, would not blow the whistle. And Judge Ohmer, as I respect your intelligence, then I believe you knew he was feeding you a line. You let a stacked jury selection play on, resulting in injustice and a protected white privilege.

The morning of the verdict, crossing the street with two others, a jackass leans out the window of his pick-up and heckles as he crosses in front of us. Maybe it is not us generally; one of my co-conspiring jaywalkers is black and wields half a seven iron. I hope I have witnessed something rare and hurry to the courthouse.

In the jury room, I am made foreman for the third time in my life. I ask for a quick, anonymous vote to see what everyone is thinking. As I open the folded pieces of paper and see there are nearly nine votes to assess 100 percent of the blame on K, I am in shock. I am embarrassed of my naïveté. I ask for every juror to express his or her opinion. No one ever makes a racist or sexist remark. Everyone is polite. But the bottom line is they do not believe K or her passenger — they say because of discrepancies between their recollections. They think the $25,000 for K’s expenses and trouble is just a money grab.

I point out that M struck K; was there no blame on M? They say that M had the light, but, it’s the word of M against the word of K and her passenger. I point out, if K and her passenger were lying in a scheme to make money, don’t you think they would have made sure all the details of their story matched? Might K ask for more than expenses plus $10,000 from a Mercedes-driving, insured, son of a local entrepreneur?

I suggest bias might be at work. After all, K is black. M is white. Most of us are white. I hear only groans.

So, this is how you can hit a car broadside and be assessed no fault. You just have to be a white male and be able to afford a lawyer willing to play dirty and prey on the bias sleeping in us all.

As a white person waking up to my privilege, I have made the mistake of speaking to my black friends about my unfolding awareness. And after this case, I imagine saying, “You know, Tiffany, racism isn’t just the killings of Michael Brown and Anthony Lamar Smith. Even in a small civil case, a civil lawsuit following a car accident, a person of color cannot get a break.” I do not say that.

For K and her friend, racism and white privilege is not an “unfolding awareness.” Despite familiarity with racism, this verdict was up close and personal. I saw K’s tears and I know she was wounded even if acts of racism were not new to her.

As I leave the court, what looks like 50 officers are subduing a black man who became enraged over a court proceeding involving his brother. Tom Waits comes to mind:

...And the broken umbrellas like
Dead birds and the steam
Comes out of the grill like
The whole goddamned town is ready to blow

I am terribly frustrated that I could not move those jurors one inch. I am not powerless; powerless is different from failing. We are never powerless even when do not succeed, even if we individually are sacrificed.

We can speak out about the injustices and the lying that is tearing at the country. We can bear witness. We can combine our petty powers, in the thousands — to vote out a judge, for starters. None of us are ever powerless; demand justice. You will not be alone.

** Tom Waits, from Rain Dogs, 9th & Hennepin.

Robert Schmidt is a St. Louis resident of little color and some means. At work he is at home with database design and business analytics; at home he works on being a good family man and citizen. Find him on Twitter @robertphilipsch.

The RFT welcomes concise essays on topics of local interest. Contact sarah.fenske@riverfronttimes.com if you've got something to say.

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