As a Black lawyer who also is a political and social commentator, each time a mostly white or all white jury acquits some police officer for killing some unarmed Black man, woman or child, I find it increasingly more difficult to argue that the justice system is fair. While I have won the overwhelming majority of the criminal cases that I have tried, most of those cases involved Black defendants and Black victims, cases where the race of the jury is not as crucial as when the defendant is Black and the victim is White.
Even worse is that unlike many of my White lawyer colleagues who have the luxury of not considering the racial composition of a jury in certain cases, I find myself still amazed on those occasions when an all White jury renders justice for a Black defendant or family.
One year ago this week, I served as trial counsel for Casey Deanna Cason, a 23-year old Black woman accused of murdering her good friend Alaina Szortyka, a 22-year old White woman. While Stand Your Ground (SYG) has been a much-lauded law by conservatives across Florida, I was not surprised in the least when the judge denied my motion despite the fact that Szortyka had multiple drugs in her system when she stormed through the fence at my client’s home and beat her head into the ground repeatedly over some “he said-she said” until my client, fearing she would die, used a kitchen knife to stab her friend once in the neck.
Because the judge ruled that SYG did not apply to my client, a jury that consisted of three White men and three White women, along with three White alternate jurors—all in a majority White County with a 93 percent conviction rate–was empaneled to try the case.
Interestingly enough, the Cason case was held in the same county courthouse in which Ruby McCollum, a Black woman, was convicted by an all White jury in 1953 for the murder of Dr. C. Leroy Adams. For those unaware, Adams was a wealthy White man who had just been elected to the Florida Senate. McCollum, who along with her husband Sam were wealthy Black business owners in their own rights, shot Dr. Adams after claiming that he had repeatedly raped her over a period of years and had fathered at least two of her children. The prosecution claimed that McCollum shot Adams because of a disputed bill, a claim that made no sense considering her own wealth. The presiding jurist in that case, Judge Hal Adams, while not related to Dr. Adams, did serve as an honorary pallbearer at his funeral (Talk about conflict of interest). To no one’s surprise, during the trial, Judge Adams prevented McCollum from telling her story and following her conviction by an all White male jury, she was sentenced to die in the electric chair. After the Florida Supreme Court overturned her conviction in 1954, to avoid a second trial, McCollum was ruled insane by the Court and sentenced to the Florida State Mental Hospital.
Having learned this history as a child from my mother, who was a young girl growing up in Tallahassee when the McCollum case began, each morning when I walked into the courtroom to defend Miss Cason, I glanced up toward the balcony where Black spectators were forced to sit per segregation rules and imagined that their spirits were there with us. Among the specators to McCollum’s trial was the legendary Zora Neale Hurston, the famed Black anthropologist and writer who covered the proceedings as a reporter for the Pittsburgh Courier.
In the McCollum case, race was a major factor in the litigation as the defendant was all but prevented from painting a true picture of the abuse she suffered at a hands of the White doctor. In my case, I was allowed every opportunity to present it as I saw fit. While I was disappointed that the judge did not grant my Stand Your Ground motion, I at least was allowed to present and vigorously argue it and preserve the issue for appeal—a luxury that McCollum’s lawyer was not provided in 1953.
Further, I must declare that throughout the week, there was an extremely high degree of professionalism on display between courtroom personnel. This included local law enforcement officers who, sensing potential violence, ensured the defense team’s safety after the not guilty verdict was rendered.
Yes, you read right—potential violence loomed over the proceedings, making it the most stressful case that I had ever tried. It was clear that several individuals who sat in that packed courtroom each day were posting about every aspect of the trial on social media, and the nasty comments coming from the cyber peanut gallery ranged from the standard issue offensive “n-word,” to thoughts that my client should get strung up to a tree and lynched or fried in the electric chair. The social media chatter was so overtly racist and menacing that I slept with my weapon on the pillow next to me in my hotel room that week just in case somebody was serious about teaching that “n-word lawyer” a lesson.
After the all-White jury rendered a verdict of “not guilty,” local law enforcement insisted that I and my team remain in the courthouse until they cleared the area. After so doing, for the first time in my career, our cars were escorted to the interstate to ensure no shenanigans.
I provide this remembrance to remind all as the great William Faulkner once did that in the South, “the past isn’t dead–it isn’t even past.” I would add that unjust verdicts in Ohio, Minnesota and elsewhere proves that our nation’s racist past remains prologue for an oft racist present. But there are times, however fleeting, like the Cason case, when the system works in a color-blind manner. Those are the times that keep me and other Black Lawyers and activists pushing the boulder uphill, like the mythological figure Sisyphus, with hopes that in time, justice will become universally color blind and just, not color conscious and patently unjust.