Race, trials and videotape

January 26, 1996|By Clarence Page

WASHINGTON -- If you want to know why black Americans tend to show a lot less faith in the criminal justice system than white Americans do, especially now that O.J. Simpson is back in the news, just check out the case of Michael Watson.

Mr. Watson is a graduate student now, but he used to be a star basketball player for Mount St. Mary's College, in Emmitsburg, Md., leading the small school to the Northeast Conference championship last year.

Mr. Watson is black. This was not a big issue for him until recently. That changed on the day before Thanksgiving, when he sat in the courthouse in Frederick, Md., waiting for justice.

On trial were three white men charged with assaulting Mr. Watson and committing a ''hate crime'' against him in a convenience store in rural Thurmont.

Mr. Watson stopped at the store late one night in October, 1994, with his girlfriend. According to Mr. Watson, one of the men picked a fight, shouting, ''You don't belong here. This is Klan country.'' Mr. Watson says the man used the N-word.

Klan country? As it turned out, Mr. Watson had dropped into the vicinity of the town where the state's Ku Klux Klan leader lived. Hours before the incident, a busload of robed Klansmen marched to the state house in Annapolis. Surrounded and, it is worth noting, vastly outnumbered by anti-Klan protesters, the Klansmen shouted ''White power!'' One carried a picture of Martin Luther King, Jr., in a bull's-eye with the words ''Our Dream Came True".

The three defendants declined to testify, but through their attorneys they denied they started the fight. A black lawyer for one defendant claimed in court that Mr. Watson had provoked the fight.

But the prosecutors were confident. Mr. Watson had an impressive piece of evidence on his side. The assault was captured on the store's security camera. The videotape had no sound, but, as viewers of ESPN, the cable sports channel that later picked up the story, would see, it shows quite clearly the white man shouting at Mr. Watson. Then the two other white men join their friend to hurl Mr. Watson to the counter and punch him while he holds up his hands to cover his face.

But, despite that evidence, the all-white jury decided after two hours of deliberation to find the three not guilty on all charges.

The O.J. Simpson verdict, handed down less than two months earlier, upset a lot of people. Many thought a mostly black jury had let a black man go free because of his race. The Watson case reminds us that affronts to justice by all-white juries are not a thing of the past. Injuries from the incident benched Mr. Watson for several weeks of therapy during his last playing season. More than a year after being thrown against the convenience store counter, he still has stiffness and pain in his back and sees a chiropractor, he said.

But a bigger injury may have been suffered by his confidence in ''the system.'' All along, Mr. Watson recalled, he had played by the rules.

He ''grew up in the worst part of Philadelphia,'' he says. Yet, he bore no animosity to whites. He treated everyone fairly &r regardless of race and that's how most treated him, he said.

His attitude has changed now, he says. He tries not to be bitter about it, but still he is wary and skeptical. ''I was a little naive. Now I am awakened . . . because it has touched home.''

U.S. Justice Department investigators recently announced they are looking into Mr. Watson's case to see if his alleged attackers might be tried under federal civil rights charges, like the police officers who beat Rodney King. A decision is expected in a few months. Comparisons between the two cases are appropriate. Videotape figured in each. Yet jurors chose to disbelieve the unpleasant truth the tape revealed and chose another version that they found a little more comfortable.

Yet, Michael Watson has taken the time to let the world know he does not hold bitterness in his heart toward all white people.

When three residents said in a letter to the community newspaper that ''the blind ignorance of a few shame us all,'' Mr. Watson replied in a letter of his own:

''I extend my hand to them and others of goodwill in the community to build a unified front against racial intolerance.''

With that, he showed how nobly a spirit beaten down can rise again.

Clarence Page is a syndicated columnist.

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