You just received a not guilty! Can you give me a little background on the story?
Sure. My client David, is an off road trucker who had never been in trouble with the law before. I mean nothing. Never. He is a very self-contained guy. He doesn’t say very much but when he does, he has a very heavy cadence to his voice. If he’s in a conversation with somebody, people turn around and look. It wouldn’t have to be yelling, people just look. He wears his pants low with a white t-shirt because he’s always in his truck and it’s comfortable. He had gone to the same Wal-Mart in Colorado several times and he had noticed that there was this security guard that followed him around the store. The first time that he really took notice of him he was actually leaving the store and the security guard just walked up to him and said, “I want to see what is in the bag.” He snatched the bag from him and the receipt from his hand and actually went through the bag to match everything. David had been stopped before by police. He’s a black man. It’s not that unusual for him, but let me just say this again: this guy has never been in any trouble with the law, never. So this security guard is following him throughout the store again and David just had had it. He decided he was going to talk to a manager. He went through the line and saw that the manager was busy talking to people so he went out to his truck to put his stuff down and he went back into the store to speak with the manager. As David was coming back into the store, this security guard was leaving and David thought maybe he could reason with him or just to say to him “look you know can’t just follow me around in the store, you’ve never seen me steal anything in this store, I don’t steal stuff. I want you to stop it”. The security guard got angry and told David that he didn’t care what he wanted and that he could leave the store. Now think about this. If I had walked into that store and I had seen someone following me and I asked for a manager, I would have gotten a manager. But there was something that this guy just didn’t like about David. David finally says to the guy, “You know what this isn’t working, I want to talk to the manager”. Instead of calling a manager, the security guard called the police. Wal-Mart apparently has a police station in their store. The police officer marched right past the security guard to David and told him that he was trespassing. David told him he wasn’t trespassing and then turned around to leave. The police officer followed him out of the store, threw him up against the wall, and told him that he was going to be arrested. I mean I can’t even imagine. This was probably his worst nightmare. If something like this happened to me, I would be terrified. David said “Let go of me, I haven’t done anything wrong I just asked to speak with a supervisor”. David doesn’t stop struggling, the security guard then gets involved. David in an effort to push the security guard accidentally hit the police officer and the police officer sprayed him in the face with pepper spray. We found out later that it was the end of his shift, he was tired, he wanted to get the hell out of there and he wasn’t interested in getting David’s story, he wasn’t trying to hear it. This police officer and the security guard just profiled him.
How do you prepare a jury in Coloroa where it is mostly white people for a case like this where racism played a part?
As I learned at TLC, the first thing I did was talk to the jury about race. We had a white police officer who is saying that this black guy resisted arrest and my concern was that the mostly white jury was going to say that he shouldn’t have struggled, no matter how wrong he was. My defense was that you have a right to resist. Since the security guard was also black, that was a twist and I was concerned that the jury would think that a black person (security guard) wouldn’t profile another black person (my client). TLC teaches us that we all have biases — the latest Warrior magazine is full of issues about bias of all kinds. Black people are not immune from having biases — we watch TV just like everybody else. I knew that I needed to talk to the jury about my own bias. I’m a black woman who has black nephews, a black father, black people in my house, I live in a predominantly black neighborhood, and yet I am not immune to racial bias. While we all have them, these biases are not supposed to cloud somebody’s work, particularly a police officer. I was able to talk to the potential jurors about these issues during voir dire, and we ended up with an all white jury. Interestingly enough, there were two black men who I struck from the jury after our voir dire. Initially, I was kind of excited when I saw black men on the jury. My bias, right? But when I got them talking, I realized that one guy didn’t like my client, and the other guy didn’t like me, so it was really helpful to be able to recognize that! I got that horrible silence when I said – “Okay I have these biases, does anybody else?”. It was like crickets. It was awful. I immediately had this shame attack where I just sat there in silence for about 10 seconds. I’ve learned through my own personal work and through TLC that I won’t live in it very long. I know that there were people on that jury who felt that they could not get up to admit it. I get it. They know that I’m telling the truth about my own self. Then I started looking at them. I could see that a lot of them were shuffling in their seats and kind of looking down so I knew that there was some truth in what I said. They didn’t want to cop to it to a black lawyer, they didn’t want to cop to a black defendant. I am so grateful for those two white male jurors who replaced the ones we dismissed for cause. They came on and were able to really tell the truth.
What happened with the police officer on the stand?
This is the first time that I found myself just completely befuddled and disgusted by the way that an officer was answering my questions. I mean, he did not care that I knew that he was not telling the truth. He did not care that my client knew that he was not telling the truth. He seemed to feel that the jury was on his side just because he was white, and they were white, and my client was black. That’s the feeling I got and I got so angry. I can be very direct and let the witness know that I’m angry without alienating the jury. I have never been as tough as I was with this police officer. I think it worked because of the kind of tough that I was.
How did you get good at that?
Quite honestly, I think it’s being a black person, a black woman in particular, and having to navigate the world. My world has a lot of white men in it. And I know that there is a way to get what I need from somebody without alienating them. That’s sort of one of the gifts I’ve received by being a black woman and having white men everywhere in most aspects of my life! I have learned a lot, that’s for sure.
What made you want to become a lawyer in the first place?
My dad. When I was a kid in the early 70’s my dad used to get into so much trouble. He used to say to me, “Jessie, I just can’t find a decent lawyer. I need you to be a lawyer.” I also have this natural, often obnoxious sense of righteous indignation and I mean often and it’s obnoxious. I’ve tried to curb it so as to not alienate people, but I think that’s something that I was born with. That sense of this is not fair and I need to do something about it because I’m so mad. Being a criminal defense lawyer worked into that really well. Initially I was a prosecutor but what I truly wanted to do was to help victims. I learned that while being a prosecutor, the overwhelming majority of the time it’s not about the victim at all. I fell into this criminal thing. It’s so much harder, but it feels so much better to me than being a prosecutor, so much better. I am very lucky in that I get to choose the cases that I want to take as someone works by myself. It’s hard on the pocketbook sometimes, but I get a lot of joy this way. About 30% of my practice is criminal and I will probably will never let it go because I just need that.
Did you notice a big change in the way you practiced after you graduated from TLC in 2009?
I did. I was so discouraged right after I got out of law school. I believed that I had to be somebody else when I was in court and I wanted nothing to do with it. After graduating from TLC, I’d learned that Jessica Jackson can just walk into the courtroom and fully integrate her whole self. That’s the biggest gift that TLC has given me. TLC taught me that it’s very important to be who you are, to be honest. I carry that with me about this work. Sometimes that can be hard. I’m making myself vulnerable and sometimes people know a lot more about me than I would rather have them know, but who cares? The older I get the more comfortable I am with integrating all of that stuff in myself — personally, and in the court room.
What do you think have been the major contributors in your success as a lawyer?
You know, I’m still working on that idea of “being a success”. I’m working on it. One of them is I really like my clients. I really care about them. Having a sense of humor when sh** goes left. Having a level of bravery to take chances on stuff that you don’t think other people would. I think that’s important. My family. People who love me. Support from my friends in TLC, I did not like lawyers until I went to TLC. I met my mentor in my class in 2009. We have been friends since. I have all this support from TLC and these folks from there that reached out to me and I’m so grateful that they did. I think those are all qualities that define my success.