August 8, 2003


Racial Catch 22 For Bryant

By Earl Ofari Hutchinson

The instant that Eagle County District Attorney Mark Hurlbert announced that he would file charges of sexual assault against Los Angeles Lakers superstar Kobe Bryant, Bryant’s defense attorneys strongly hinted that they might seek a change of venue to Denver County. Though they did not mention Bryant’s race, or the race of his alleged victim, who many assume is white, as a reason to ask for a possible change, race lurked just beneath the surface. He will be prosecuted in Eagle County by a white DA, and likely tried before a white judge, and an all white jury will likely decide his fate.

According to Census figures, Eagle County has only 140 blacks in a population of more than 40,000. In 1996, the county came under harsh racial glare when a judge ruled that the Eagle County sheriff’s department engaged in what it called “racist” pretexts to stop hundreds of black and Latino motorists on drug searches. The county shelled out nearly $1 million to black plaintiffs to settle the suit. But the sheriff’s department still defended the practice.

The defense fears if race becomes, or is made a factor in a trial there, it could stir latent stereotypes of young black males as violent-prone sexual predators. This would trump Bryant’s wealth, fame, superstar aura, and an O.J. Simpson type dream defense team. He has publicly admitted that he committed adultery, and that he lied when he initially claimed that he had done no wrong.

With two gaping character strikes already against him, it wouldn’t take much of a leap of imagination for some jurors to think that he is also capable of committing a violent act against a white woman.

In racially charged trials, a presumption is that white jurors are so blinded by racial bigotry that they will always vote to convict blacks. A 10-year study by The Capitol Jury Project on juror racial attitudes seemingly confirmed this notion. In interviews with more than 1000 jurors in 14 states, it found that white jurors were far more willing to believe the testimony of police, and prosecution witnesses than the testimony of black defendants and witnesses.

Countless other studies have also shown that white jurors are more prone to convict black than white defendants. If the defendant is black, and the victim is white, the likelihood is greater still of a conviction. However, when the number of blacks on a jury increase, the conviction rate for black defendants drop. Blacks tend to be much more skeptical of police testimony.

But Bryant is also in peril of being convicted even if white jurors don’t perceive race as an issue in his trial. In two separate studies in 1998 and 2001, the University of Michigan conducted a series of mock trials with black and white jurors. In those situations where the defendant was black and the victim white, the white mock jurors were far more willing to convict the black defendant if race was not a trial issue. Ironically, in one scenario, the mock crime involved an assault by a black basketball player on a white. In another scenario, the black defendant assaulted his white girlfriend.

The race blindness of many white jurors toward black defendants is almost certainly a fall-out from the Rodney King beating trial in 1992. The jury with no blacks that acquitted the four white LAPD officers that beat black motorist Rodney King of most of the charges seemingly confirmed the ugly suspicion that white jurors can never be objective toward blacks even when they are the victims of abuse. The orgy of looting and burning that followed the verdict, and the national angst over a criminal justice system hopelessly tainted by racism, made many whites sensitive to the issue of race in criminal cases. They do not want to be perceived as bigots, but rather as capable of being fair and impartial toward black defendants. With the national spotlight on the Bryant case, jurors in a possible trial will be under even more intense scrutiny to be fair, and will expect the prosecutors to prove their case beyond any standard of doubt.

For their part, prosecutors will do everything possible to insure that race is not a factor in the trial. They will argue that it’s strictly a case of a rich, powerful, superstar athlete abusing a naïve, and unsuspecting young woman.

They will fight hard to keep the statements made by the victim and Bryant sealed to prevent juror bias. This doesn’t mean that race could not be a factor. Bryant is still a black defendant, although a much-celebrated one accused of a serious felony. If a predominantly or all-white jury in Eagle convicts Bryant, it won’t be because the jurors were out to nail a black. They will convict because they believed he committed the crime.

A conviction, whether race is or isn’t a factor, is the catch 22 for Bryant.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. Visit his news and opinion website: www.thehutchinson He is the author of The Crisis in Black and Black (Middle Passage Press).

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