Anybody hurt? No’m. Killed a nigger. Well, it’s lucky; because sometimes people do get hurt. – The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn / Mark Twain. In 1989, Clement Lloyd was speeding at 70 miles an hour on his motorcycle. Miami Police Officer William Lozano heard of it on his radio. Determined to stop the speedster, Officer Lozano stepped out into the street. A moment later, he shoots Lloyd dead and claimed it was “self defense.”
Lozano said Lloyd swerved toward him with the motorcycle to kill him. But Lloyd was shot in the back of the head. Lozano said Lloyd just so happened to turn his head as he drove toward the officer.
Despite a plethora of witnesses and physical evidence to the contrary, Lozano was acquitted by an Orlando jury in 1993.
A similar case took place in 1999 in New York City when Amadou Diallo, an African immigrant, was standing in his doorway. Police officers going to the wrong house approached the young man. He reached for his wallet to produce identification and was shot nine times before he hit the ground. The officers were acquitted.
Similarly, in 2008, Oscar Grant was waiting for a train at Oakland’s Fruitvale station on New Year’s Eve. He was with a group of revelers who were apparently loud. Someone called police. Officers pulled Grant out of the crowd to arrest him. He was placed in handcuffs and was lying on the ground when one officer shot him in the back, killing him. The officer was acquitted of murder, although he served some months in jail on a lesser charge.
I know of no case in which a white policeman was convicted of murder for killing a black man.
George Zimmerman was not a police officer. But the drama of a white man shooting a black man based on the notion he was simply trying in good faith to protect the community typically sets up a kind of us-versus-them narrative in which whites tend to identify with the defender of “law and order.”
There are several theories for this. One is that juries widely share racial assumptions about black men, that black equals dangerous. Big black men are especially vulnerable to this false assumption. At the end of the day, they identify with the officer, not the black “suspect.”
Attorney Darryl Parks gave a similar explanation when asked why he thought the jury failed to convict Zimmerman.
Less Valuable Life
But another theory that haunts the most is the notion that white juries sometimes simply devalue black life. Take the case of Emmett Till, a 15-year-old child who allegedly wolf-whistled at the female owner of a store in Money, Miss. and was brutally killed. At the trial, Mose Wright bravely pointed out the two men who abducted his nephew.
Yet, the jury acquitted them in an hour and seven minutes. Jurors testified they would have acquitted the killers sooner “if we hadn’t stopped to drink pop.” The jury stated that they knew the defendants were guilty but they did not believe a black child’s life was valuable enough to justify severe punishment of two white men.
Professor David C. Baldus, in a study of the death penalty, found that a black person who kills a white person is four times more likely to get the death penalty than a white person who kills a black person. Baldus theorized that juries value black life less.
Similarly, blacks in wrongful-death lawsuits collect less money than similarly situated whites.
Legacy of Racism
It was T. S. Elliot who said the past is never past. The Emmett Till case, the case of Clement Lloyd, the cases of Amadou Diallo and Oscar Grant are ugly aspects of the legacy of racism. These cases form an unmistakable pattern –that, regardless of how overwhelming the evidence is, whites are never convicted of murder and rarely punished at all for killing a black man.
This pattern, stretching deep into history and occurring in the face of numerous cases where the evidence was overwhelming, can only be explained by race.
It is possible that the jury looked at the evidence in the Trayvon Martin case and saw no crime. But the evidence was there. I worry that the jury “knew” that Zimmerman was guilty but acquitted him anyway. I worry that the Sanford jury made racial assumptions similar to those made by the jury in the case of Emmett Till.
Donald Jones is a professor of law at the University of Miami.