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Picket Fences

I watched the second half of "Picket Fences" Friday evening (CBS) and found it thought provoking (proving you don't have to watch an entire program to pick up something worth talking about!). Seems this black drug dealer had killed two policemen with an Uzi as they broke down the door of his apartment pursuant to a search warrant. It was all caught on video tape, Rodney King-style. Open-and-shut case! Furthermore, the jury foreman is the star of the show, Sheriff "What's-his-name" (OK, I've never watched the show before and don't know his name!). I missed the trial testimony where James Earl Jones must have cried "racism" in defending his obviously guilty client C. Vernon Mason-style (he later said: "The cops are white. The defendant is black. It's about race. It's always about race!").

When I encountered the program, the jury was beginning it's deliberations. The ebb and flow of those deliberations was mind-expanding, particularly in light of the first Rodney King trial. The first vote was ten votes for conviction on first degree murder charges, one vote for acquittal, and one voter running to the bathroom to throw up because of all the tension.

"Hey, c'mon now. That video tape was crystal clear!"

The juror who voted to acquit believed the defendant feared for his life and, therefore according to the Judge's instructions, fired his gun in self-defense. Gradually, a few other jurors support that viewpoint until they get to a six-six stalemate. The file into court and the sheriff-foreman tells the Judge they can't go further. The Judge, having none of that, sequesters the jury and threatens to hold them in contempt of court if they don't take their responsibilities more seriously. Meanwhile, the jurors are at each others' throats, arguing about power, about insults, and so on.

Finally, one juror gives an emotional speech saying if they acquit the defendant he will definitely kill again. It's a compelling argument. No one wants to put this guy back on the streets, even if they think he might have killed the police in self-defense. They take a new vote. The first eleven votes are to convict, and the jurors feel relieved. The sheriff-foreman votes last, and he has favored conviction all along. But at the last minute, he changes his vote. He says they can't convict the defendant because of crimes he might commit in the future. They can only convict him for what he has done, for the crime he was charged with -- not future crimes. Furthermore, the defendant had to know that the cops would shoot at him since he had a gun in his hand, that he was justified in being afraid and, therefore, he killed in self-defense.

In the next scene, we're back in court. The foreman reads the inevitable not-guilty verdict, and then slumps back into his chair, wondering, no doubt, how he will explain this verdict to the local citizens who are clearly aghast at the outcome. The show ends with a close-up showing the pained expression on the sheriff's face.

The parallels with the Rodney King trial were striking, complete with changed racial identities to make it interesting, to make the viewer think. Of course, the facts were very different. Nevertheless, watching the jury go back and forth, it was easy to see how the police might have been acquitted of beating Rodney King, despite the strong video evidence of their guilt. I found the show compelling. I'm not sure how I would have voted.

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Meanderings 1.03 -- April 3, 1994