The culminating day of the Jeremy Morse trial was, in the words of a relatively modern blues saying, déjà vu all over again. Throughout the trial of the Inglewood police officer accused of assaulting teenager Donovan Jackson, the media have conspicuously downplayed the Rodney King comparison. But Monday’s final presentation by the defense should reinforce the similarity for good. There was the seconds-long video clip showing a cop roughing up a black male in the approving company of other cops; what appeared horrific to most of the world on repeated viewings was endlessly vetted by the defense so that our eyes might finally glaze over and we might all believe that a prone black male really was a threat to the white officer, not the other way around. Again, the defense argued very civilly that the public got it all wrong — this incident was not about history or big emotions or big issues, but a rather boring matter of standard restraint policy and legal inches that is best settled by rational men wearing suits and wielding pointers. Such is the even temperament of justice.
Of course, some in the gallery weren’t buying it. A small but vocal contingent of black observers who were there Monday had shown up every day to keep a kind of vigil, and to refute with their very presence the idea that race had nothing to do with it. During the testimony of the last two defense witnesses — a lanky New Zealander who claimed to have seen it all from his hotel balcony and an amiable expert use-of-force police trainer — the black observers listened intently, grunting their dismay at certain statements and approval of the prosecution’s rebuttal of them. When Morse told the judge he wasn’t going to testify, they shook their heads partly with relief, partly with disdain. A couple of women huddled briefly afterward with Deputy District Attorney Max Huntsman, who appeared to have redeemed the prosecution after the debacle last week with its own use-of-force expert, Charles Heal. Longtime Compton resident and activist Mollie Bell praised Huntsman and was optimistic about justice prevailing, though not necessarily about Morse being convicted. She said she’s seen officers let off lightly too many times before. “I came to see some righteousness done,” said Bell pleasantly but firmly. “How many times have we seen this happen? When Tyisha Miller was sleeping, what was deadly force? When Margaret Mitchell had that screwdriver, what was deadly force?”
It’s a question that’s become more rhetorical than it should be, as is the related question of when exactly police conduct crosses the line from being poor judgment to being a crime, especially where African-Americans are concerned. And missing entirely from the whole Donovan Jackson affair is any discussion of Jackson himself as a tragic but human figure — a boy of limited skills, modest ambitions and no prior contact with police suddenly and permanently thrust upon the world stage as the latest victim of racial and social conditioning that is hardly unique to law enforcement. One of the black trial watchers was a former special-education consultant, Shirley Dixon-Farrior, who scribbled notes tirelessly in court and was as passionate about the case as she was about the future of special-needs kids like Donovan. But the trial didn’t bring that to light, because, she said disgustedly, “It’s just been a circus.” Whether this show turns up a surprise ending remains to be seen.