May 15, 2005

Does It Matter If Jurors Are Black or White?

by PG

I had the same reaction as Orin Kerr to the story about Christopher Colt Amox, a 20-year-old white man, punching Billy Ray Johnson, a mentally disabled African American man, causing the latter to fall down and begin vomiting, and Amox and three other young white men putting him into a truck and leaving him on top of an anthill at a tire dump for three hours. One of the men, being an employee of the Sheriff's Department, called in claiming to have found a body. Johnson suffered a concussion that could have been fatal and has caused him to be unable to walk without help or speak clearly, yet the juries recommended suspended sentences for Amox and one of the men, and the other two pled guilty and received 30 days. The judge was bound by jury recommendations, but added what jail time he could.

All of this took place in Linden, Texas, about 100 miles north of my hometown and 150 miles north of Jasper. At least when James Byrd was assaulted, tied to a truck and dragged until he was dismembered, the persons found guilty were convicted of capital murder. Two were sentenced to execution. (For those who think that Texans are racist...)

The Linden district attorney said "the juries' decisions were in line with other juries who sympathize with first-time offenders. [...] 'This is not that horrible of an outcome. They were all convicted, they'll all be on probation, they'll all have a criminal record, they'll all be watched.'" Arvin at Rebuttable Presumption takes a similar view. The Jasper juries included African Americans; I haven't found any information about the racial composition of the Linden juries, and I can't shake the feeling that I would find the DA's claim more plausible if I knew that it hadn't been an Emmett Till-esque all-white jury. Which is not to say that the four men involved were motivated by racism, nor were they charged with a hate crime, and Arvin appears not to realize that Kerr may be talking about racism by the juries in undervaluing the victim, not the by defendants in committing the crimes.

Despite having done horribly on my criminal law exam -- it's the first test I've had in law school after which I thought, "I may have failed that" -- the course actually did a lot to increase my interest in the subject, which I can't say for Contracts, the low grade point of last semester.

Under the Texas Code, Amox committed aggravated assault, even with only one punch, due to the serious bodily injury. Ordinarily this is a second degree felony, but because he did it to a disabled person it became a first degree felony (Sec.04). I actually didn't know that it was a higher grade of assault to do injury to a person 14 or younger, 65 or older, or disabled person.

The Code's definition of disabled is much narrower than, say, the ADA's: "person older than 14 years of age who by reason of age or physical or mental disease, defect, or injury is substantially unable to protect himself from harm or to provide food, shelter, or medical care for himself." I don't know enough about Johnson to say whether he was correctly designated as disabled within the meaning of the statute.

The three other men could be charged under the same section, for causing injury through omission when they had a duty to act on Johnson's behalf because they secluded him from the aid of others. (Belated crimlaw moment: This duty to act can exist regardless of whether the person is a child, senior citizen or disabled.)

These charges are serious, and they could have carried heavy penalties. Certainly the men will have unfair records relative to their wrong-doing, as Amox, the person who committed the assault, was convicted only of a misdemeanor, while the others were convicted of or pled guilty to third-degree felonies. Whether they have received insufficient punishment, considering mitigators such as eventually ensuring that Johnson received care, their youth and lack of previous criminal records (and white supremacist ties, unlike the Jasper offenders), is not entirely clear. At this point, I really am more inclined to think the jury is guilty of racism than that the four men are.

May 15, 2005 08:39 PM | TrackBack
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