Police Shooting, Cosby Trials Show Workings of American Justice

25 June, 2017

In America, people accused of crimes can choose to have their case heard by a judge or jury.

Legal experts say most people choose a jury, usually made up of 12 people from the community where the crime took place.

Two recent criminal cases heard by juries were the subject of international news coverage and emotional disputes about their outcomes.

In Pennsylvania, a jury deadlocked on charges that Bill Cosby drugged and sexually assaulted Andrea Constand in 2004. To deadlock, means all 12 jurors could not agree on a decision.

Cosby, now 79, was a beloved television and movie actor, writer and comedian. But his reputation suffered when many women came forward to charge him with sexual misconduct.

At the trial, the jury was asked to decide only about the charges from one woman, Constand. She said Cosby had drugged her, making her unable to resist his sexual attacks.

On Wednesday, a juror told ABC News that 10 of the jurors believed Cosby was guilty on two of the three criminal charges against him. Two of the jurors believed he was not guilty of those charges.

Like almost all criminal trials, Pennsylvania requires juries to reach a unanimous ruling. That means all 12 jurors must agree on guilt or innocence.

A new trial for Cosby is likely in four months.

Shooting by Minnesota police officer

The other case to draw major news coverage in recent weeks centered on the shooting death of Philando Castile by a police officer in Minnesota.

The 32-year-old Castile was a school lunchroom worker. He was driving with his girlfriend and her 4-year-old daughter when they were pulled over by Officer Jeronimo Yanez. The officer said he shot Castile because he thought Castile was reaching for his gun.

Castile's girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, used her phone to livestream video on Facebook of her discussions with the police officer after the shooting. She said Castile had explained to the officer that he had a permit to carry a gun and was reaching into his pocket for identification, not a gun, when he was shot.

The 12-person jury unanimously decided that Yanez was not guilty of killing Castile.

Protesters gather outside the Minnesota State Capitol June 16, 2017, after police Officer Jeronimo Yanez was cleared in the fatal shooting of Philando Castile.
Protesters gather outside the Minnesota State Capitol June 16, 2017, after police Officer Jeronimo Yanez was cleared in the fatal shooting of Philando Castile.

Barbara O'Brien teaches law students at Michigan State University. She explains why the federal government and most state and local governments require unanimous jury verdicts.

If only the agreement of 10 of 12 jurors were required, there would be little reason for the jury "to consider why two jurors believed the government's case did not prove guilt," O'Brien said.

She also said a unanimous decision carries "more legitimacy, particularly in a criminal trial," where a lot is on the line. A guilty verdict in a case can bring a long prison sentence.

Police shooting and Cosby case watched closely

The public has shown intense interest in the Minnesota killing and the Bill Cosby case.

The Minnesota shooting and the jury decision caused large demonstrations from people who say police are too quick to shoot black people without justification.

‘If it doesn't fit, you must acquit'

The most watched case in recent history was the 1995 murder trial of former football and movie star, O.J. Simpson. He was charged with killing his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend, Ronald Goldman. The jury decided he was not guilty, despite evidence that included his wife's blood found in his car and on a pair of his socks.

The moment most people remember from the eight-month trial came when defense attorney, Johnnie Cochran, asked Simpson to try on a glove. Police said the glove also contained blood from Brown Simpson. The glove appeared to be too small for his hands.

"If it doesn't fit, you must acquit," Cochran famously told the jury.

The eight-month trial was televised live by Court TV.

The live broadcasts brought the Simpson case more attention than either the Cosby case or the Minnesota killing. Television cameras were not permitted in the courtrooms for those trials.

But what all three cases have in common is that observers have raised a lot of questions about the juries' findings.

Congressman Cedric Richmond, a Louisiana Democrat, commented on the not guilty decision in the Minnesota case for the Congressional Black Caucus. He chairs the group of African-American lawmakers.

"This verdict tells African Americans across the country that they can be killed by police officers with impunity, even when they are following the law, and that it is reasonable for any person interacting with an African American in any way to fear for his or her life," Richmond said.

Earl Gray, one of Yanez' lawyers, said that the police officer had feared for his life and therefore was permitted to fire his gun.

The jury's failure to reach a decision in the Bill Cosby case brought criticism from both those who believed Cosby was guilty and those who thought he was not guilty.

Cosby's wife, Camille Cosby, commented on the social media service Twitter. She criticized her husband's accusers and the news media for being unfair to her husband.

Actress and writer Lena Dunham wrote on Twitter that victims of sexual assault face unfair questions about their personal lives.

I'm Jill Robbins.

And I'm Bruce Alpert.

Bruce Alpert reported on this story for VOA Learning English based on reports by the Associated Press and other sources. Mario Ritter was the editor.

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Words in This Story

assault - v. the crime of trying or threatening to hurt someone physically

reputation - n. the common opinion that people have about a person

misconduct - n. bad behavior

verdict - n. a ruling in a court case

legitimacy - n. real, accepted, or believable

particularly - adv. more than usually

consequence - n. something that happens as a result of a particular action or set of conditions

justification - n. a good reason to do something

glove - n. a covering for the hand that has separate parts for each finger

acquit - v. find someone not guilty of a crime

impunity - n. without fear of penalty