Mike Carter, Seattle Times, June 14, 2017
Prospective jurors in a federal civil-rights trial over the deadly shooting of an unarmed African-American man in Fife may be allowed to see a court video about unconscious racial bias, a judge ruled Wednesday, overturning an earlier decision to grant an objection to the video by lawyers for the officers involved.
U.S. District Judge Barbara Rothstein also clarified an earlier order to say that evidence of racism will be allowed into the trial, if it exists.
The 10-minute video, which has been shown to all prospective jurors in this federal district since March, is intended to make jurors aware of unconscious biases, said Court Clerk William McCool.
Thomas’ family has sued the multi-jurisdictional Pierce County Metro SWAT team, two of its member cities, Lakewood and Fife, and several officers alleging wrongful death and unnecessary force. The case is set to go to trial next week in Seattle.
Attorneys for the Pierce County police officers being sued by Thomas’ family say showing the video would “re-inject race” into a trial where the judge already has excluded attorneys from making references to racism.
“The necessary implication from the video will be that” the white officer who fired the fatal shot, Lakewood sniper Brian Markert, “was (like everyone else) unconsciously biased when he shot Leonord Thomas because Leonard Thomas was of a different race,” wrote attorney Brian Augenthaler, one of several lawyers representing the cities and officers.
“Whatever minimal assistance this video could provide to the jury is greatly outweighed by the unfair prejudice to the defendants,” he wrote.
McCool, the court clerk, explained that the unconscious-bias video was put together by a committee of judges and legal scholars led by senior U.S. District Judge John Coughenour, who appears in the video in his judicial robes, explaining that unconscious biases are “something we all have, just because we’re human.”
Coughenour, who was appointed to the federal bench in 1981 by then-President Ronald Reagan, wraps up the video stating, “The fact is, honest, intelligent, really good people are impacted by unconscious biases every day,” and says that being aware of them — the intent of the video — “can actually help us all become more conscious about the decisions we make.”
McCool said the video was introduced in March in Seattle and Tacoma courthouses, and that other federal judicial districts have expressed interest in using it or making their own.
“We’re very proud of it,” he said.