The Illusion of Justice

Recently, the jury charged with determining the fate of Michael Slager was hung. Slager is the police officer accused of shooting Walter Scott in cold blood and planting a taser by his body after he ran from a traffic stop. Faced with unequivocal video evidence, the members of the jury – 11 white and one Black – were deadlocked and unable to reach a verdict on Slager’s guilt. Reports from the jury indicated that at first 11 members were ready to reach a verdict, but later decided to do a reprise of Twelve Angry Men and deadlocked.

The inability of juries to convict an officer based on plain evidence is maddening, but not surprising. Racism has an amazing ability to construct alternate, anti-fact realities for people to live in. But this does raise questions about the general concept of “justice” and whether it is attainable for people of color who are victims of police violence.

Scholars and lawyers often think of justice as coming in two varieties: procedural or substantive. Procedural justice refers to the idea of fairness in the process through which outcomes are obtained. Many entities have focused on procedural justice, with the aim of changing perceptions of how fair our current justice system is. And while such an approach has some support in the research for contributing to the legitimacy of the system, it can also be an insidious and disingenuous way to distract from the reality that in many situations, particularly in situations where civilians are killed by police, substantive justice – coming to a fair and reasonable outcome – is virtually nonexistent.

In the more extreme situations, the sham of procedural justice is a bit more obvious. It seems ridiculous to peddle the notion that any person of color – or decent human being, more generally – should find solace in the fact that Slager was tried, when he was acquitted despite what some believe is unequivocal evidence of guilt. The trial of Ray Tensing, the officer who murdered Samuel DuBose, also resulted in a mistrial last month, where a jury with enough evidence to convict also could not reach a verdict. A “no bill” from a grand jury refusing to even indict Daniel Pantaleo, does not feel like justice to the many who watched the officer place Eric Garner in a chokehold and kill him. A grand jury presentation did not feel like justice in the case of Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, or David Joseph, and misapplied procedural justice principles can lead one to think that maybe we should be more satisfied with these outcomes because simply because they went through the motions. Yet somehow this seems no more ‘just’ than instances where police killings are decided to be justified without the use of a grand jury, such as the case of Jamar Clark.

As much as the following idea may cause many (particularly lawyers) to have an existential crisis, I think that there is a strong argument for the existence of situations where the achievement of justice is inherently dependent not just on outcome, but on the achievement of a specific outcome (read: a conviction AND appropriate sentence), and that anything short of that is not justice at all. The same system of racism and white supremacy that functioned to acquit the murderers of Emmett Till is the same system of racism and white supremacy that failed to convict Michael Slager and sentenced former-NYPD officer Peter Liang to probation for the killing of Akai Gurley.

In a system where the deck is so clearly stacked against the achievement of substantive justice for state-sanctioned, extrajudicial killings of people of color, one really begins to wonder, who cares about going through the motions?


by: Portia Allen-Kyle


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