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Picking Baltimore mayor's jury: Yes, get around race issue, but how?

Justice SystemRegional AuthoritySheila Dixon

I met someone at a party once, and when he told me where he worked, I asked if he knew this friend of a friend who also worked there. Mike Somebody, I said, an Asian guy.

Oh, my new acquaintance tsk-tsked, I don't really see people as one race or another.

Oh, of course you don't, so pure is your heart, so blind are you to color. And, I suspect, so totally full of it.

And yet, I get where Mr. Kumbaya was coming from: I'm tired of race myself. Sick of talking about it. Attracted to the notion that we're beyond it.

But back here in the real world, race remains a factor. It just isn't the only factor, but once it's introduced, it tends to suck up all the oxygen and the discussion begins and ends there.

I was thinking this Tuesday as I tried to keep score on who was getting seated in the jury that would sit in judgment of Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon, standing trial on charges that she stole gift cards intended for the city's needy.

After two days of questioning, lawyers were winnowing down the pool, seating or striking candidates until they had 12 jurors and 6 alternates. I scribbled down whether they were black or white, male or female; I noted who was challenged by either the state prosecutor or Dixon's defense attorneys and thus kept off the panel, and their race.

I know, I felt slightly disgusted keeping a racial scorecard on the jury. I guess in my defense I'll just say there was no other way to keep track of potential jurors who, because of the sensitivity of the case, are known publicly only by number.

The jurors' names, ages, neighborhoods, occupations, education and all those things that make them whole human beings will remain confidential. We don't know how any of them answered the two-page questionnaire about their background and knowledge of the case, and at this point, we don't even know what questions are on the questionnaire.

So we talk about their race, and to a lesser extent their gender, because those are the only things we know for sure about them, or think we know about them from eyeballing them in the courtroom. And as it turned out, those of us tallying our race cards couldn't agree on which column to place at least one juror.

Does it matter? I would have to say yes, but it's a very qualified yes. It matters, but a lot of things matter. It tells you something; it just doesn't tell you everything.

Is it possible for Baltimore's first woman mayor, and an African-American one, to go on trial and have race and gender not be factors? Probably not, but how much of a factor is a little less certain. Given that the state prosecutor is a white male adds something else to the mix.

The potential jurors were asked as a group in court whether Dixon's race and gender would affect their decision; at least publicly, not a single person admitted that they would. Which proves nothing, of course, other than we probably are all what the writing gurus call unreliable narrators when it comes to ourselves.

By my tally, Dixon's lawyers used seven challenges to keep six whites and one black off the panel of jurors and alternates. The prosecutor, meanwhile, used three challenges to keep three blacks off the jury and alternate seats. (Both the prosecution and the defense get the same number of strikes without having to specify a cause, but don't always use their entire allotments.)

What does it mean? In the end, that we have 12 individuals - seven black, three white, one Asian and one who gets a pass on being labeled - who somehow have to become a unit if they're going to return a unanimous verdict on the mayor of their city.

It's a heavy burden, and not one many would want. In fact, when Judge Dennis M. Sweeney excused a group of potential jurors on Tuesday, one let loose with a big, "Thank you, Jesus!"

To those seated, he pledged to make the experience as pleasant as possible. One way to do that, I think, would be for the rest of us to look beyond their race as the sole factor in what they ultimately decide.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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