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Appearances join history in stoking racial embers

Somebody please tell me that this is not a case of here we go again.

Last week, a Hillsborough County jury convicted a young black man of third-degree murder and manslaughter in the May 2002 death of a young white man.

There was no dispute over what Alan Thompson did. He punched Christopher Fannan once on the side of the head. The punch ruptured a blood vessel at the base of Fannan's brain.

There was no indication that race played a factor in what happened. Nor was there any evidence Thompson intended to kill Fannan.

Thompson joined his brother and a friend who believed that they had been dissed earlier by a group of teenagers in the parking lot of a Citrus Park Steak n Shake. Almost as soon as Thompson pulled up at the restaurant and got out of the car, he swung at Fannan. The two didn't exchange a word. Fannan never even acted to defend himself.

At the time of his death, Fannan was 18. Thompson was 21. They didn't know one another but had attended the same high school, Sickles.

Thompson first went to trial last November. It ended in a mistrial. Five of the six jurors wanted to convict but one juror held out, convinced that Thompson never intended to inflict what the law calls "great bodily harm." The holdout was a woman, the only black person on the jury.

A second trial was held last week. The jury was all-white and doubt-free. They deliberated for all of a half-hour before convicting Thompson.

His relatives immediately cried race. They said he hadn't been convicted by a jury of his peers, because no one on the panel was black.

If you're black, or even if you're not, it could look like a conspiracy _ that, after failing to win a conviction the first time, the prosecution went out of its way to ensure no blacks were on the jury the second time around.

But was there a conspiracy?

A handful of blacks were in the jury pool of 50 people, prosecutor Curt Allen said Monday. Three blacks made it to the end of the selection process but were ultimately rejected.

Jurors are supposed to be unbiased. These three black candidates either admitted they weren't or had connections that suggested possible taint.

A black woman was removed from the jury pool because she had a nephew who had died violently, and she said she would be inclined to believe the prosecution.

Another black woman was removed because she had followed the case in the news and had reached the opposite conclusion, that Thompson didn't intend to commit murder.

The third black person removed was a man who worked for Media General, the owner of the Tampa Tribune and Channel 8, which were expected to cover the case.

These are the facts, the messy details that get overlooked when events are refracted through the emotional lens of race. The view can produce distorted, misleading conclusions, condemning whites when they shouldn't be.

And yet cases come along, far bigger than Florida v. Thompson, that play directly to black suspicions.

Think Rodney King. A suburban Los Angeles jury without a black person on it acquitted the white police officers who were caught on videotape beating him.

I would like to think that, with time, we'd get past all this. But I'm dreaming, absolutely dreaming.

The facts in Alan Thompson's case do not suggest there was a concerted effort to keep blacks off his jury.

But there's a lesson here. Appearances do matter. Without blacks on the jury in a case like this, the outcome will always be suspect. Putting a black on the jury might change the outcome, as in his first trial, or at the very least raise questions about the evidence that is worth pursuing in the jury room during deliberations.

What happened to Thompson feeds every stereotype that blacks have about the court system. The outcome also poses a question: How can a jury decide a man's fate in the amount of time it takes to eat lunch?

_ Mary Jo Melone can be reached at mjmelonesptimes.com or (813) 226-3402.

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