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How video may influence juror decision-making for police defendants

On 20 October, 2014, Chicago Police Officer Jason Van Dyke shot and killed Laquan McDonald, a 17-year-old black boy. In his initial police report, Van Dyke indicated that McDonald had been walking down the street holding a knife and behaving erratically, and eventually McDonald pointed the knife toward Van Dyke, advancing at him. Van Dyke claimed that he shot McDonald in self-defense, although he did not report the number of shots he fired. Yet, video from a camera mounted on a police cruiser revealed that McDonald was not approaching but rather walking away from Van Dyke when Van Dyke began shooting. Moreover, Van Dyke continued to shoot McDonald after he was lying on the ground. Van Dyke emptied his firearm, shooting McDonald a total of 16 times. The Cook County coroner determined that nine of the 16 bullets entered McDonald’s back, leading him to rule McDonald’s death a homicide.

It took 13 months for the dash-cam video showing Van Dyke killing McDonald to be released to the public, but it is probably no coincidence that Van Dyke was charged with first-degree murder on the same day. Even though it was the first time in almost 35 years that a Chicago police officer was charged with murder for a death caused while on duty, marking a significant turnaround in the handling of such cases, the release of the video precipitated public outrage and a series of protests over the course of several years in Chicago.

Indeed, instances of police use of excessive or deadly force can now be captured not only by police dash-cams and body-cams but also by smartphone and surveillance cameras. As a result of video technology proliferation, many instances of police-inflicted injury and death have been video recorded, providing documentary evidence that a disproportionate number of victims are racial and ethnic minorities (e.g., the 15-year-old girl who was forced onto her stomach while an officer put his knees on her back in McKinney, Texas; Eric Garner who died as the result of an illegal chokehold in New York City; Walter Scott who was unarmed and shot in the back in Charleston, South Carolina, etc.). In recent years, these videos have become increasingly available to the public and widely disseminated, fueling the launch of the Black Lives Matter movement demanding justice for minority victims of police violence. Yet, little research has explored how video is impacting juries when police actually go to trial as defendants.

Image credit: person holding black smartphone recording a video by chuttersnap. CC0 via Unsplash.

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Cases like the murder of Laquan McDonald’s raise a variety of issues relevant to understanding jury decision making in the trials of police defendants. First, the mass protests launched in response to the video of his murder point to a growing distrust of the police by the public. In general, exposure to video footage of police use of excessive or deadly force might negatively affect public perceptions of police and court legitimacy. This has implications for understanding the attitudes of citizens in the jury pool, more of whom are likely to be skeptical of police now than in the past.

Second, police officers’ defense attorneys are likely to attempt to filter potential jurors who are distrustful of police out of the jury pool. Because minorities trust police less and perceive them as less legitimate relative to white people, such jury selection practices are likely to result in the systematic elimination of black jurors. Of course, the counterpoint is that prosecuting attorneys are likely to seek to dismiss white jurors who evince higher levels of trust in the police, too. The problem is that defense attorneys will be more successful in their efforts because black people are underrepresented in jury pools so there are fewer of them to eliminate to begin with. As a consequence, juries in cases involving police defendants may be unrepresentative of the populations from which they are drawn and of those victimized by the crimes at issue.

Third, because a video of a specific incidence of police violence may be circulated widely before the officer’s trial begins, it may be difficult to identify impartial jurors who either have not been exposed to the video or resulting media coverage, or at least remain unbiased by their exposure to such pretrial publicity. Moreover, even after jurors are seated in a trial, it is important to ensure they are not exposed to such publicity while the trial is in progress—an increasing challenge in the age of Google and Twitter.

Fourth, the proliferation of video technology in recent years also has increased the likelihood that video evidence of injurious or deadly yet contested police interactions will be introduced during trial, directly affecting jurors’ case decisions. Although jurors have been found to perceive police witnesses as more credible than lay witnesses, when police testimony is contradicted by video evidence, jurors might be more likely to believe what they see with their own eyes. Jurors generally find video evidence to be particularly reliable and convincing, in part, because they consider video to be a reflection of objective reality. Indeed, one juror in Van Dyke’s case—the only black juror—indicated that Officer Van Dyke should never have testified because he came off as not believable.

It has long been recognized that advances in technology can be an impetus for changes in laws and policy. As Laquan McDonald’s murder and others like it illustrate, technological advances also have the potential to shape jurors’ attitudes and decision-making.

On 5 October, 2018, nearly four years after Laquan McDonald’s death, a jury found Van Dyke guilty of second-degree murder and 16 counts of aggravated battery. Yet, Van Dyke’s case is a rare instance in which a police officer was tried and convicted of murder committed while on duty. For the most part, grand jury outcomes favor police defendants, and even when a police officer does face trial, police officers tend to maintain secrecy and refuse to testify against their colleagues, which serves to protect police defendants who may have abused their power. Much more research is needed to understand grand jury decision making and the impact of the “blue wall of silence” in this context. Still, it seems reasonable to conclude that the fact that McDonald’s murder was captured on video and disseminated broadly played a role in Van Dyke’s conviction—a conviction that bucked historical patterns and might reflect the beginnings of a new trend toward police accountability.

Featured image credit: Laughing photo by Spenser. CC0 via Unsplash.

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