Of all the areas of social injustice and institutional racism that negatively impact the black community, the relationship with law enforcement and the criminal justice system trumps all others. This is because this is where we see so many people of colour losing their lives. The primary duties of the police are to protect life and property, preserve the peace, and prevent and detect criminal offences – for all citizens. With hate crimes doubling in five years (official Government figures, 2019), you would expect that the police would be at the forefront of protecting vulnerable minorities from racist violence and acting fairly in the investigations of these crimes in order to bring offenders to justice. You would expect that the police and minorities would have a ‘special’ relationship in their joint quest to play a part in eradicating racism, however research shows us that the police have failed to provide equal protection under the law and continue to themselves be accused of racism and racial discrimination against people of colour.
As we know, police have criminalised black people through disproportionate use of their stop and search powers. In comparison with white people, black people are six times more likely to be stopped and searched.
This racial bias experienced by blacks extends into rates of arrests, convictions and sentencing. The Runnymede Trust‘s report on Justice, Resistance and Solidarity highlights that black people are four times more likely to be convicted than white people as well as receiving the highest average custodial sentence.
This leads me into the story of a boy called Marcus. This was where I witnessed, first-hand, how once black people enter the criminal justice system, it’s not only guilty until proven innocent, there is a level of contempt, a lack of empathy and an overt opportunity to express just how problematic this group of people are.
When I was 20 years old, I was summoned to jury service at the Old Bailey. After a whole day of sitting around doing nothing, half an hour before the day was due to be over, my name was called and I was chosen to form part of the jury on a murder trial. Being so young, I was quite overwhelmed by this responsibility but seeing as I had no choice I focused on the fact that I’m here to do a job. I immediately noticed that not only was I the only young person on the jury, I was also the only black. I was ok with this to be honest as I was used to being the only black in lots of the environments – e.g. university and work.
The trial started the next day and we were briefed on the case – a 15 year old black boy was accused of murdering a father in his thirties. As the details emerged, it was clear to me what my fellow jurors were thinking. Their body language failed to conceal their feelings and I knew this young boy was toast. The facts and evidence were all there and it was clear that this young boy had indeed stabbed this father in the heart which resulted in his sad and untimely passing. However when it was the turn of the defense to present their case, more information surfaced which made this case far from open and shut.
Marcus was a boy who didn’t have either his mother or father in his life. At the time of the murder, he was sofa surfing at several people’s houses and was not attending school. He had begun mixing with a bad crowd, and was taken under the wing of an incredible youth worker who was intent on getting Marcus back into education and off the streets. As a result of Marcus distancing himself from this crowd, he began to receive death threats so carried a knife on him for protection. I am in no way condoning this, however I had a duty to listen to both sides and make a judgement.
On the day of the murder, Marcus spent the day at the youth centre with his youth worker. After he left the centre, we went to a convenience shop and left his bike outside the shop. When he came out of the shop, he saw that a young boy was attempting to steal his bike – this was all caught on CCTV and shown to the court. Marcus pushed the young boy off the bike and they appeared to have a heated exchange which resulted in this young boy running home to inform his father of the altercation.
The father then left his place of residence and proceeded to search for Marcus, again, all of this was caught on CCTV. He successfully found Marcus and started to attack him. Marcus was very small in stature; he couldn’t have been more that 5ft 5 and about 9 stone. The father was much taller and looked solid as a rock. After about 30 seconds into the fight, Marcus stabbed the man once in the heart and rode back to young centre. This version of events and the evidence that supported it changed my perspective on things but at not one point did I witness any change in my fellow jurors.
When it was time to deliberate, we went through the motions, examining the exhibits as instructed but as soon as the opportunity arose, the 11 other jurors made their position clear; Marcus was guilty of murder because his intent was clear by carrying a knife. As someone who was more aware of street culture, I knew that it wasn’t as simple as that. I saw that a chain of tragic events led up to this devastating murder but I believed that the crime was manslaughter. I pled my case, reminding the others that father attacked Marcus first; that Marcus was lithe; that Marcus stabbed only once; and that Marcus ran straight to inform a trusted adult about what had just taken place. They were not having any of it – Marcus was described as a thug and needed to be sent down to serve the maximum sentence. I was woefully outvoted by a 11-1 majority and Marcus was found guilty and was sentenced life, to serve a minimum of 17 years.
I was heartbroken – not just for this remorseful young boy who would have to serve his own internal life sentence, but I was also heartbroken at the way in which his life, circumstances and the situation was completely disregarded by the other jury members. The rhetoric was clear – I felt that I had just spent the last three weeks with a bunch of unsympathetic racists. I will never forget this experience and it showed me that I’d better never get into any trouble myself because if I had the same jury, I would not be seeing the light of day anytime soon.
Prejudice played a key role in Marcus’ fate – the evidence became a formality. How do we address the role of preconceptions in the role of jurors? How do apply empathy when we are dealing with our youth? How do we build knowledge about the challenges some offenders face in the lead up to their crimes? These questions need to be considered as part of the overall reform of the criminal justice system. What is our objective? Punishment or rehabilitation?