A recent verdict in Rochester, NY, suggests not.

Benny Warr, an African American with one functional leg, sued three members of the Rochester Police Department, the city of Rochester and a former police chief for wrongful arrest and excessive force.

Warr, who was 52 when the incident occurred on May 1, 2013, testified that he did not resist police, that he was quietly waiting for a bus, eating an ice cream, when arrested. (A police video shows him buying ice cream.) 

Warr testified that Officers Joseph Ferrigno and Anthony Liberatore maced him, threw him to the ground and struck him after he responded to an order to move by telling them he was just waiting for a bus. He said he lay in a fetal position while the officers “allegedly” beat him.

 A witnesses filmed a portion of the incident on her cell phone. It reveals that Liberatore and Ferrigno knocked Warr’s motorized wheelchair to the sidewalk, with him still in it. A second video, filmed by a revolving police surveillance camera, shows Liberatore bashing his right elbow into Warr’s head as the disabled man lay on the ground. (Both videos are posted on Youtube.)

“I thought they were going to kill me,” Warr told a reporter.

It took an ambulance approximately 25 minutes to arrive to transport Warr to the hospital. In federal court, a doctor testified Warr sustained three broken ribs that day.

Ferrigno and Liberatore testified Warr resisted their attempts to clear the corner, swore at them and swung his arms at them. Police officials said the officers were “clearing the block,” an action intended to prevent residents from congregating on street corners, so as to discourage customers from entering local businesses. 

An all-white jury, seven women and one man, concluded that Warr had not been wrongfully arrested and that two of the three officers at the scene— Ferrigno and Mitchell Stewart — had not used excessive force. They found that Liberatore used excessive force but awarded Warr $1, nominal damages, which means the jury felt a legal wrong occurred, but no harm was done, according to Gary Craig writing in the Democrat and Chronicle. No compensatory or punitive damages were awarded.

Little research has been conducted on race bias in civil cases, but a 2015 study, Psychological and Structural Bias in Civil Jury Awards (https://www.emeraldinsight.com/doi/abs/10.1108/JACPR-09-2015-0190) found that jurors in civil cases involving damages for pain and suffering awarded less to black plaintiffs than to white plaintiffs. The researchers at the University of Oregon School of Law in Eugene, Ore. pulled data from 1,133 cases from January 2000 to December 2010 that were decided in New York, Florida and Illinois. All involved suits in which plaintiffs sought damages for pain and suffering. Using the U.S. Census Bureau data, researchers used statistical tests to measure the relationships between race, ethnicity, sex, and awards for economic damages and pain and suffering. They found jurors tend to award black plaintiffs approximately 41 percent of the amount of pain and suffering damages as white plaintiffs, controlling for other predictors.

Lead author, Erik Girvan, assistant professor at the School of Law at the University of Oregon in Eugene, Ore., wrote, “This paper presents a promising framework and method for understanding how structural and psychological biases related to plaintiffs’ race, ethnicity, and sex may affect jury decision-making and contribute to differential jury awards. Further research should refine these tools, as well as consider their practical implications.”

The outcome of criminal cases reveal similar bias. In 2012, researchers at Duke University examined more than 700 non-capital felony criminal cases in two Florida counties from 2000-2010 (http://www.oxfordjournals.org/page/4595/1). Forty percent of the jury pools studied had no black members and most of the others had one or two black members.

This is significant because the researchers found that in cases with no blacks in the jury pool, blacks were convicted 81 percent of the time, and whites were convicted 66 percent of the time. Conviction rates were nearly identical–71 percent for black defendants, 73 percent for whites—when the jury pool included at least one black person.

 “I think this is the first strong and convincing evidence that the racial composition of the jury pool actually has a major effect on trial outcomes,” said senior author Patrick Bayer, chair of Duke’s Economics Department.

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