There is a long and sordid history of jury nullification based on race, where a white jury would acquit a white person for killing a black person despite the law and evidence. It was an outrageous disgrace, and yet this flagrant racism happened. After the murder trial of Dayonte Resiles, the fear has been raised that it’s back, only in reverse.
Police said Resiles broke into the home to commit a burglary, and when he found Su inside, he tied her up and stabbed her to death. His DNA was found on a knife and inside the home.
Su was stabbed 12 times. After six days of deliberations, the jury announced it had reached a verdict, manslaughter. After the verdict was announced, the jury was polled. That’s when everything blew up.
“The whole time I’m staring at the judge and at the clerk, and we’re locking eyes, and I’m looking at each one of them,” said the juror. “They’re just waiting for my verdict of either ‘yes, I agree’ or ‘no,’ and I just couldn’t, and that’s why I said no.”
The foreperson asserted that manslaughter was not her verdict, but a compromise verdict with which she disagreed. That, alone, wouldn’t be the biggest deal in the world, even though it’s extremely rare for a juror to disavow a verdict upon polling. But here, the foreperson alleged that the reason for the verdict was the race of the defendant.
But they couldn’t agree on a murder charge, according to the jury forewoman, because three members refused to sign off on a verdict that would send a young Black man to prison for the rest of his life. For a short time, the nine who wanted a first-degree murder conviction were willing to budge. A manslaughter conviction would send Resiles to prison for 15 years, not for life. All 12 jurors signed off on manslaughter late Tuesday.
But that, according to the forewoman, would not have been justice. Not for her. Not for the defendant. Not for the victim. “What have I done?” she thought.
Juries are instructed that their role is to determine whether the defendant is guilty of the crime charged beyond a reasonable doubt, and they are not to consider possible sentence, which is the province of the court. Whether anyone can do so, can put out of their minds the fact that someone will end up imprisoned for perhaps the rest of their life, is another matter.
Whether the jury shouldn’t consider the ramifications of their finding is similarly a subject of extreme dispute that might significantly influence their willingness to gloss over gaps in the evidence, make facile assumptions and convict not because the prosecution met its burden, but because they feel that the defendant is most likely guilty. In a very real sense, jury nullification happens constantly, but not to the defendant’s advantage.
But what really happened here? The foreperson made clear that the three recalcitrant jurors rejected murder for one reason and only one reason, that the defendant was black. After her disavowal of the verdict, the judge sent the jurors back to deliberate more. It did not go well.
The forewoman in the recent trial described herself as a mixed-race Puerto Rican, a 36-year-old wife and mother in a blended family of five children, ranging in age from 3 to 17. When two Black jurors accused her of not caring about the race of the defendant, she said she was tempted to show pictures of her dark-skinned mother and brother.
“You can’t call me a racist except in ignorance,” she said. “If it was my brother who was accused and the same set of facts was presented, I could have voted guilty of first-degree murder … That’s what the evidence showed. It’s not a racial thing. It’s a crime. He is the killer. I don’t care what race he is.”
But other members of the diverse jury did, she said. And once the narrative set in that she “did not care” about sending a Black man to prison for life, it was impossible to reset it, she said.
When this went public, it raised the nightmare scenario of racial juror activism, the fear that in the current climate, jurors would refuse to convict a black person for murder not because he wasn’t guilty but because of race. However, there may be much more to the story than the foreperson’s claim that the compromise verdict was grounded solely in race.
I am married to one of the jurors. There is a lot of missing information in the 2-minute newscasts and 20-second sound bites that we all hear in the media. The prosecution didn’t come close to getting a 1st degree murder conviction, let alone a death sentence. And it is a misrepresentation that one of the jurors said they would never put a young Black man in jail for the rest of his life. That simply wasn’t said in that type of context. Race had nothing to do with it.
There’s a plausible narrative that more than one person was involved in this crime, and if you go back to the news stories in 2014 you will see that investigators were searching for more than one suspect. The jurors agreed that the victim was murdered, they agreed Resiles was at the scene and therefore they agreed he is guilty of murder. But not 1st degree. Resiles DNA was at the scene, but it was NOT on the murder weapon. There was no evidence Resiles entered the property armed and the two knives found at the scene were both owned by the son, including the murder weapon. There was nothing of noted value taken from the home. This is a highly secure, upper class gated community and yet there were no camera images of anyone coming or going from the home. There’s more detail that I will not divulge, but there were enough gaps in the narrative & evidence provided by the prosecution to support the notion of reasonably doubt.
Bottom line is there is almost always more to the story than what we hear in the media. These jurors were all dedicated and did the best they could to reach an appropriate level of justice based on the complexity of the law (the jury instructions were more than 30 pages long).
This, from an anon commenter to the news story, may be accurate or a wholesale fabrication. And to be fair, the foreperson’s assertion that the three who refused to consider murder based on the race of the defendant may as well be inaccurate, even if that’s what she sincerely believes to be the case.
Jury deliberations are secret so they can freely discuss, argue and debate the merits of the case. And experience is that jurors take their responsibility very seriously and try their best to render a fair verdict. But the foreperson’s assertion raises the specter that activist jurors are tainting the integrity of the verdict.
Even if she’s wrong, this suggestion will give rise to concerns that will impact voir dire, the makeup of the jury, and worst of all, demands for investigations and intrusion into the jury deliberations. There is much to criticize about our jury system, but the potential that jurors are refusing to render verdicts unencumbered by ideological concerns can make the system, and efforts to improve the system, worse. We need to able to trust the integrity of verdicts or trials become a charade and there can be no trusted finality to the jury’s verdict. That would be a disaster.