Teaching criminal law has enhanced my faculty as a legal practitioner. One of the greatest benefits comes from interacting with students who do not always share my perspective. These students often probe the law in ways I had not previously thought. They challenge my positions and at times adjust or focus my beliefs.
Kenechukwu (Kene) Okocha, U.W. 2007, is a former Dane County assistant district attorney. He currently is an assistant U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia and instructor at The Washington Center for Internships and Academic Seminars. The views expressed in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Attorney’s Office, the United States, or the Washington Center.
For example, a student asked me about my thoughts on the Florida prosecutors’ decision to bring charges against the killer of unarmed African-American teenager Trayvon Martin. The prosecution was controversial and had many racial implications. Some attribute the killing to launching the Black Lives Matter movement. The jury acquitted the shooter at trial despite the prosecutors’ efforts. The student informed me that he thought the jury reached the right result and it proved the prosecutors made a mistake in bringing the case.
I initially told him I am not quick to second-guess prosecutorial decisions for multiple reasons. First, as an outside observer, I am not always privy to the same information obtained by the litigants or juries. Much of my knowledge comes from the media, which is often unable or unwilling to provide a complete portrayal of the facts. Second, a case may seem one way in trial preparation and end up differently when forged in the crucible of trial. Witnesses may unpredictably falter during cross-examination, and defense counsel may offer surprising undercutting evidence. I cautioned against jumping to conclusions about cases covered heavily in the news. I suggested he access court records and review unfiltered information for himself to make a truly informed opinion.
Though my response was sincere, upon reflection, it felt incomplete. I thought about my experience prosecuting in Wisconsin and Washington, D.C., two very different arenas. I took a moment to review my observations of the actions and expectations of prosecutors, defense attorneys, and juries in those two different places. I realized I had a more worthwhile takeaway, and I opened up to my student. The conclusion I shared was simple: jury verdicts tend to match the prevailing beliefs and values of the community. Voir dire filters out extraordinary biases, but those that are pervasive in the community will usually remain.
Voir dire filters out extraordinary biases, but those that are pervasive in the community will usually remain.
The history of the American Civil Rights era is replete with stories of lynchings and extrajudicial killings of African-Americans seeking to avail themselves of their rights. A footnote on some of those stories are accounts of juries acquitting their murderers at trial. In many of those instances, the law and facts were clear. Through their acquittals, the jury made even clearer the community’s values.
My student helped me better understand that juries tend to reflect the community’s biases and values. A jury’s determination of whether a certain amount of marijuana is for personal use or distribution, or the circumstances that make the usage of a hunting rifle illegal, may be drastically different in an urban versus rural location, or in a homogeneous versus diverse population. A community’s prevailing biases and values may tip the scale one way or the other.