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WRETCHES HANG THAT JURYMEN MAY DINE, October 6, 2010
By DAVID BRYSON (Glossop Derbyshire England)

In England in Alexander Pope's time the death penalty (liberally awarded) was by hanging, in modern Mississippi it appears to be by lethal injection. Pope was in no doubt that jurors would cast a `guilty' verdict for no better reason than that they or the judge wanted to get to lunch rather than keep haggling over the details of the case. John Bennett Allen is of much the same persuasion regarding some cases in America, and of course the great state of Mississippi has a bit of a reputation for its special style in the administration of justice.

The Skeptical Juror - Cory Maye

To say that Mississippi justice has been whiter than white might be true, but if so in entirely the wrong sense. Things have probably improved over the decades since the civil rights legislation, but entrenched racial attitudes, especially when they are subliminal and not explicit, do not die out that easily. In the particular case under consideration here a white police officer was shot dead by a black man in the course of an attempted drugs bust. It is a capital offence to kill a police officer intentionally and knowing that he is a police officer, but if the suspect does not fulfil these conditions the offence is a lesser one, and our author more than hints that if the gunman had been white his yoke might have been easier and his burden of sentence lighter.

This book is based on the work of the investigative journalist Radley Balko, of `The Agitator' fame. It is apparently one of a series all written to the same formula, but the formula is a good one in my own opinion. The factual parts consist of tidied-up transcripts of the evidence and arguments at the trial, together with a lengthy postscript consisting of a series of `alternate scenarios' presenting aspects of the investigation, the affidavits, the warrants, the briefing and the actual shooting that had not featured in the trial. Besides these, there is an assessment of the way in which Judge Kruger, a supposed stickler for due process, actually went about his responsibilities in authorising the search warrant which led to the tragedy. All the parties named in these sections are given their real names, we are told, the documents cited are real and the only liberty taken is in making coherent grammar and syntax out of the stumbling real-life oratory of the participants.

The unusual part is the reconstructed events of the jury-room. The author makes it quite clear that these are entirely imaginative, although influenced by his own experience as a juror in other trials. The deliberations of the real-life jury apparently took all of one hour and 10 minutes, which must make us conclude that it was an open-and-shut case to them, and Cory Maye was convicted of the capital charge. In this `fictional' account the jury is hijacked by a strong-minded woman who is in no doubt of the accused's guilt, and whose priority is to get the verdict delivered by dinner-time. This story is entertainingly told, and to a British reader it has a faint suggestion of what Margaret Thatcher's cabinet meetings may have resembled. At this stage our author casts himself as the doubting Thomas among the participants. Only two of the 12 jurors are black, the state having exercised summary powers of exclusion of 9 others of the same ethnicity, all on visual grounds with no arguments advanced. This, of course, is something that the defence ought to have challenged, and it is only the first of a string of uneasy misfits littering the police and expert statements that Bennett Allen starts to sense for himself, and which he will later amplify in his Alternate Scenarios. However he is stumped by the apparent clincher that if Cory Maye said that he was lying down when he fired the fatal shot how did the entry-path of the bullet come to be downwards? This, claimed the forewoman of the jury triumphantly, proved that Maye was lying, and if he was lying about this detail he forfeited the right to be believed in any matter. Myself, I would call that a big logical leap, but Bennett Allen sticks with the strange question of why on earth an accused would lie about a detail so completely irrelevant to his guilt or innocence. Something, he concludes, has been suppressed in the evidence given by the state and its expert coroner.

And so it turns out. The coroner, found to be fraudulent, was debarred from further service, the defence team were sacked for failing to spot the inconsistencies in the police evidence and consequently to represent their client adequately, Judge Kruger turned out not to have been such a stickler after all, and the `good-guy' policeman killed seems to have been cutting corners in the laudable name of the war on drugs. The police evidence had been faked, it seems, the coroner was complicit and so was the state's legal team. The operation had gone wrong, and a black man's life seems to have been a price they were all willing to pay to save embarrassment.

We can't leave justice entirely to the professionals, I fear. Missisippi may not be any paragon, but no reader or reviewer from this side of the Atlantic should be so complacent about our own legal processes as to cast any first stone, because the irregularities are many and they are still coming to light here too. I commend this book for its readable - and sometimes downright gripping - format, but above all for the spirit of fairness and determination that still offers one a flicker of hope.


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Truth in Justice