By Dan Haley
The lawyer asked this question: "What was on your mind when you got to the scene?"
The young woman, the mother of two by the man now dead in the West Side shooting, said through tears, "The cycle is repeating. The cycle is repeating." She referred to the death of the father of her children, to the death 10 years earlier of the father's father, of the death early on of her own father.
Early deaths, some violent. Fatherless children. The cycle repeats again in this West Side neighborhood.
For 18 years, I've been the publisher of the Austin Weekly News on the West Side. We've covered violence and death. We've covered police officers being killed on the street. We've covered police shootings of citizens. But at something of a remove. Seldom in Austin do we cover a trial though we typically would of a murder just across the border in Oak Park.
On the West Side, there are too many.
A week ago I finished serving on a jury hearing a civil, not a criminal, case brought by the mother of a young man shot to death on a side street in Austin. It was early in the morning, the day before Thanksgiving, 2010. The young man was, by the admission of his mother and his girlfriend, a small-dollar drug seller, a mostly unemployed and mostly uneducated black man. He was also, they told the jury, an active father who took his small kids to the nearby park, a good son who'd cook up big breakfasts. He'd been to prison for his drug selling. He most certainly made mistakes in his life. And clearly he showed bad judgment the night he was shot to death by a veteran police officer.
That officer, black and himself raised in a tough neighborhood, admitted he was scared that night — "absolutely," he said — when he came around the side of a van pulled over in a traffic stop and faced five or six or seven young men who had spilled out of the van. Some of them ran away from him and his partner. Three, though, he claimed, ran straight at him. One, the victim, was, he alleged in particular detail, attempting to tackle him, to bring him to the ground, to grab his gun from his holster. Instead, said the officer, despite physical contact, he managed to turn away from the victim, grab his own weapon, and shoot three times. One bullet hit the victim, low on his right side, above the hip. He went to the cold grass of the parkway and his last words, according to both the officer and the other single witness, were, "You shot me."
The officer heard an "arrogant" taunt from a person he believed was actively trying to kill him. "I thought I was going to die that night," he told the jurors. The witness, the last friend in the van, the only one who did not manage to get away, heard it as an incredulous response from an unarmed buddy who was, like the others, attempting to flee.
I've never been on a jury before. Always thought journalists and lawyers were automatically dismissed. But our jury of 12 — 14 counting two alternates — included both myself and an attorney. Those five days of testimony and deliberation were remarkably intense, the witnesses moving, the lawyers on each side skilled and tactical. The jury — 12 white people, a Hispanic, a South Asian — was sincere and totally focused on details and nuance.
The instructions to the jury were specific. Did the lawyer for the family make the case persuasively enough, so that we felt it "was more likely true than not." Ultimately they did not. So the case went in favor of the officer and the city of Chicago, the co-defendant — not that the majority of the jury seemed to believe the city's version either, though the police officer was seen as honorable if terrified.
The jury seemed to conclude that the events that early morning were a welter of confusion and fear, unfolding rapidly in a small, dark space. We were frustrated by a lack of physical evidence. The judgment was made by the jury — sincerely but for me, at least, with reservation. And the cycle repeats.