November 1, 2007
When is Juror Doubt Reasonable?By David Paulin
The worldview embraced by the O.J. Simpson jurors has run amuck. A riveting murder trial in Michigan ended last week in a mistrial demonstrating that some jurors are capable of ignoring serious evidence of horrific crimes.
Orange Amir Taylor III, a 21-year-old African-American and former student at Eastern Michigan University, was accused of smothering or strangling fellow student Laura Dickinson, 22, in her dorm room last December. It seemed like an open-and-shut case. Taylor's semen was found on Dickinson's inner thigh. Strong fiber evidence placed him in the room, as did security cameras, among other evidence.
Taylor's lawyer Alvin Keel nevertheless offered a defense that conceded criminality and perversity during the week-long trial: His client was indeed in Dickinson's room, but only to commit burglary. What about his client's semen? Upon seeing Dickinson's lifeless body, his client masturbated over it, Keel explained:
Dickinson's body was discovered more than two days after her death, following complaints of a foul smell. Her body's decomposition made it impossible to determine with 100 percent certainty that she'd been strangled or smothered; those causes were ruled as the most likely causes of death, however.
Keel, for his part, argued that the young woman could -- yes could -- have died due to heart failure, having suffered a heart arrhythmia in 2005. But Dickinson was found in a highly unusual position for a heart attack victim: Naked from the waist down, she had a pillow over her head. Her tampon was found in a corner of a room, although friends described her as a neat person.
Debunking the heart attack story, a prosecutor pointed out that Dickinson had been cleared to participate on the school's rowing team. In video surveillance, she appeared fit and alert upon returning to her dorm.
After two and one-half days of deliberations, the jury was "hopelessly deadlocked" because of two hold-outs. Only one of them spoke publically. Lauretta Codrington of Ann Arbor, one of two black jurors, said she was unconvinced that Dickinson was even alive when Taylor entered her room.
The mistrial stunned trial watchers in light of the avalanche of evidence against Taylor. Yet none of the trial's participants and high-level observers, according to press accounts, vilified Codrington nor suggested that her not-guilty decision had racial overtones. It goes to show that not everybody views the world through a racial prism. America is indeed a different place than it was during its Jim Crow days.
To consider where much of America's racial ill will may be found today, consider this trial with a slightly different cast of characters. Presume the murder victim had been a black co-ed and her alleged killer (whose semen covered her inner thigh) had been a preppy white lacrosse player. Furthermore, what if a white juror on a mainly black jury had voted to acquit the defendant who told the sort of story Orange Taylor did? Can anybody doubt what would happen?
While Codrington eagerly made her case to Court TV, the other juror who voted to acquit - apparently a white female - remained reclusive. A member of Dickinson's family, Josh Dickinson, 27, said that juror struck him as an "ultra liberal" during jury selection. He said he was therefore not surprised by the mistrial. "I got the sense that she was one of those people who wouldn't convict anyone," he said.
Interestingly, the trial got little media coverage outside of Michigan. No ethnic lobbies were on the trial's sidelines shouting "racism" or "social injustice." Orange Taylor surely did not make the best poster boy on which to champion such causes, his only alibi having been what Prosecutor Blaine Longsworth called the "pervert" defense.
Dickinson's murder was not the only shock suffered by Eastern Michigan's students and staff. After Dickinson's death, university officials initially claimed there was no evidence of a crime, keeping their investigation secret. Two months later, they dropped the bombshell that shocked Dickinson's family and the university community: Orange Taylor had been arrested on rape and murder charges.
The university's handling of the crime -- illegal under Federal statues -- led to school President John Fallon's exit, and forced the campus police chief and another top official into early retirements.
After the jury deadlocked, Orange Taylor's father said he was confident of his son's innocence and "vindication of all charges" during the upcoming retrial. Young Orange, he said, was simply a "young man in the wrong place at the wrong time." He observed as well that the murder rap and trial had given Orange "a mega dose of reality. I think this will make a better person out of him, but this was a very painful way for him to mature.''
A new trial is set for Jan. 28. If there's another hung-jury, it will provide a mega dose of reality of a different sort.
David Paulin, an Austin, TX-based journalist, blogs at The Big Carnival.