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Current Page: Opinion | Tuesday, December 09, 2014
Benjamin Watson and Sin Versus Skin: Ferguson, New York and Our Home

Benjamin Watson and Sin Versus Skin: Ferguson, New York and Our Home

I gazed at an officer who was not dead though shot in the back of the head.

While the tape in courtroom played, chills covered me.

The drama of the Joe Martin trial riveted us jurors into the reality of ugly crime, of a fallen world in which noble people are treated ignobly. Joe's eyes cried out in hope –beaconing for someone, perhaps our jury, to reach in and rip the horrible memories away. His maimed assailant sat in a wheelchair directly in front of the witness stand.

The courtroom was packed for the Joe Martin case. Emotional. Intense. A crackling in the tape . . .

The events surrounding Michael Brown's death in Ferguson, Missouri, and Darren Wilson's plight and resignation, constantly pound reminders of Joe Martin's trial in to my head. Because I was one of the jurors in the Joe Martin trial, it's my visceral connection to one of democracy's primary questions, "What is justice?"

This is what I remember: "Step it up!" came from the police recording. The officer had stopped the defendant because he matched that night's APB for armed robbery, even including his "grey sweat suit." After numerous requests to stop reaching into his pockets, and while another siren was approaching, the defendant began to run. Officer Joe, with his gun still holstered, followed.

In the darkness of a railroad neighborhood with deserted factories, Officer Joe began to tackle the defendant when he felt a sharp pain accompanied by a gunshot. Blood flowed. The officer's life was in peril — with a second policeman witnessing much of the conflict.

Wounded Officer Joe Martin un-holstered his gun for the first time, shot half his rounds into the defendant, then fell.

"Code One! Code One! . . . [badge] 9810 is down . . . "-- a throng of officers were en route.

They found the defendant in grey sweats with his finger still in the trigger, groaning, yet still alive. He was losing blood, and as the crafty defense attorney passionately reminded us, he had lost much more -- his privates were "shot off!" He was "de-sleeved."

I had an unwanted and unenviable front row seat in the jury box. A few hours later I found myself elected jury foreman. The defendant, a 33-year old black male, had shot Joe Martin, a white officer, at point blank range. Powder burns as proof. I spent a year in the deliberation room that week.

The racial profiling discussions dominating the news after Ferguson raised the very questions we debated in the Joe Martin case, even in the light of much evidence.

The jury quickly found the defendant guilty of the first two charges, but after 12 hours, we returned a 10-2 hung jury on "attempted murder." Ten white jurors. Two black jurors. One of the latter had voted both ways during the several straw votes. The other defended him as "just a young man trying to go home!" "He had suffered enough."

Ten hours later she exploded, "I should have said this yesterday. Is this about who he is or what he did?" At that point, the rest of the jury realized that race had once again clouded logic in Marion, Indiana.

On the same city corner where two black men were hanged in 1930 without a trial, she sat in a room attempting to do a noble thing. However, in the face of compelling evidence, color once again clouded coherence.

The gifted public defender had spent nearly two hours discussing racism and racial profiling. His argument was compelling – but not for this case.

Logic was lost. The person in the wheelchair had pleaded not guilty to resisting arrest –though his attorney admitted he had fled. "Not guilty" to assault with a deadly weapon – though admission to carrying the [loaded and cocked] gun that matched the damage to the officer's skull and shoulder. "Not guilty" to shooting the officer – even though his gun's bullet was taken from Joe's body, and his gun failed to discharge accidentally when professional tested (hit 105 times with a rubber hammer). He was caught with the smoking gun, literally, with finger in the trigger. At 1:15 AM, carrying over $200, gambling dice, an illegal gun, and though a near perfect match for an APB, and on drugs, "he was just another young black man" goes the faulty logic, singled out while "just trying to go home."

The black juror had felt the pain too often that Michael Brown's parents feel. Like Eric Garner's relatives in New York. Like them, she wanted sustained change not temporary violence. But perhaps Benjamin Watson's Facebook comments speak best into the Ferguson, New York and Marion cases. This NFL star from New Orleans resonated with millions when he penned, "It's not a skin problem but a sin problem." Now and in 1930.

The Joe Martin trial didn't end with our initial verdicts – the judge revealed that the defendant was a convicted felon. Within minutes, our jury found him guilty of this class B felony of having a gun. The noble-vote juror switched views immediately and forcefully demanded a guilty vote. Unanimous. We returned, only to find we had one more charge to try – Habitual Criminal; three violent felonies. Guilty! Quickly and emphatically, 12-0.

I walked away from the trial/s, understanding the reluctance of an African American to send "yet another young black man" away for life. The context of the juror's conscience had, for her, given logical reason for "reasonable doubt" in the face of overwhelming evidence. A life riddled with racism sees some things rather clearly, providing racism is really at work. But here, the facts got in the way. Officer Joe Martin was simply at work and not profiling.

I find myself silently saluting the Officer Joe Martins of my town and county – regardless of their color. I've driven by the bloodstained field at 18th and McClure and prayed for Officer Joe, for all Officer Joe Martins, and, for young men in grey sweat suits who really are just trying to go home. And now for Darren Wilson and Michael Brown's parents. For those like Eric Garner just trying to breathe in New York. And, for more leaders like Benjamin Watson to surface.

It's sad to hear that any man loses his privates, but it would be more disturbing to hear of any person separated from justice. From a well-studied public defender to a brilliant State's prosecution and a stately judge, the case of Officer Joe Martin gives little doubt that "reasonable doubt," "right to an attorney," and "trial by peers" can work. In case you're wondering, Officer Joe is back on the streets with a scar of courage behind his right ear. The policeman coming to his rescue, an African American, is now Sheriff. The defendant was sentenced to several decades – not only for taking a shot at justice but running from it.

I've only met Officer Joe Martin once in person, but every day in principle.

Jerry Pattengale was recently named Indiana Wesleyan University's first University Professor. He serves as Exec. Dir. for Education at the Museum of the Bible (DC) and has distinguished appointments at Baylor University, Sagamore Institute, Tyndale House, Cambridge, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, and serves on the boards of Religion News Service and Yale's Jonathan Edwards Center.

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