Once again, the mother of a black teenage boy is crying that there won't be justice for her dead son. This time, it's because prosecutors have dropped charges against the white Little Rock, Ark., police officer who was set to go on trial next month on charges he shot and killed 15-year-old Bobby Moore III two years ago. The state first brought charges after a police investigation showed that the officer's story didn't match the evidence at the scene of the shooting and that the use of deadly force was not justified.
Now prosecutors say that even though they still believe the officer is guilty of a homicide, it's apparent that a jury would never convict the officer. How can they be so sure? Because they've tried the case twice already. Both trials ended in hung juries. In the first, an all-white jury voted 10-2 for a conviction. In the second, a jury that included two African Americans voted 11-1 to acquit the officer.
Such diametrically different jury outcomes are surprising in a case where the main facts are not in question. We know former Little Rock Police Officer Josh Hastings fired into the car Bobby was driving. Bobby was shot three times, including once in the left side of his head. The real question for the juries in both trials was whether Hastings had a reasonable fear for his life based on a perceived threat posed by Bobby.
That "reasonable fear" question was at the heart of the high-profile trials of George Zimmerman and Michael Dunn. Both men claimed that their use of deadly force was justified under Florida law, and in their respective trials, juries didn't hold either man responsible for shooting and killing a black teenage boy. (Dunn's was a hung jury, and he is scheduled to be retried.)
Now Hastings won't be held responsible for killing Bobby. In opting out of a third trial, the prosecutor said, "The role of the prosecutor is to put before a jury the facts of the case and to advocate for the people of the state of Arkansas and the victim, not to seek a conviction at any cost." They've given up on seeking justice for Bobby.
Despite the obvious similarities and trial outcomes, the Hastings case in Little Rock has not garnered the same type of outrage or national attention as the Zimmerman and Dunn cases. No big protests or marches. No debates about race and the judicial system on national television. No live coverage of testimony on CNN or MSNBC. No "Justice for Bobby" campaign.
Black kids are shot and killed every day in this country. Many die at the hand of other young blacks. You'll never hear about most of them. The overwhelming majority don't make national headlines, and it's extremely rare for any to become movements or rallying cries. Social media, bloggers, celebrities, good PR and a powerful storyline can all contribute to getting a story national attention.
The deaths of Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis sparked important public debate that forced us to address the country's biases and the frequent perception that young, black men are thugs or threats and should be viewed suspiciously. Had there been a national fervor about Bobby's death, the debate might have been a little different.
He wasn't an innocent kid walking home at night or playing his loud music in the car when he was shot and killed. He was out robbing people. He and his two friends had broken into several cars in the early morning hours of Aug. 12, 2012. Hastings was the first officer to respond to the scene after a report of suspicious persons. He saw Bobby and his friends get into a car, then stepped in front of them as they attempted to drive out of a parking lot.
According to the two boys with him, Bobby had stopped the car (which was stolen) and was attempting to back up when Hastings fired. Police say the evidence matched the boys' version of events. However, Hastings claimed that Bobby was trying to run him over and that he feared for his life, and that's why he fired. The juries couldn't reconcile the different accounts, leading to the two hung juries and, finally, the prosecutor dropping the charges.
Bobby's death is a tragedy worthy of national attention, but so is his life. He was a poster child for issues that disproportionately impact young black men and the black community: poverty, crime, death by gun. Yet too often these things are discussed as statistics and not as human tragedies.
Bobby was no saint. He made decisions and was in the process of adding to his criminal record the night he died. That shouldn't cloud the fact that he was just a 15-year-old child. And he was a victim before Hastings ever fired a shot.
We are all failing countless young black kids who are caught up in a cycle of poverty, crime and violence. But accepting that responsibility and embracing young, troubled kids as victims is a much more difficult and uncomfortable conversation to have. It's easier to rally around an innocent kid wearing a hoodie who has Skittles in his pocket than it is to sympathize with or to understand a kid driving a stolen car. But that's exactly what we have to do.
One child's death is no more or less tragic than the other. But in an interview after the first Hastings trial, a juror claimed that during deliberations, one holdout for conviction said Hastings was "preventing future crimes" by killing Bobby. That is downright scary. Once again, we ask how much value is placed on young black life in this country.
After prosecutors dropped charges against Hastings, the Little Rock NAACP released a statement pledging to "sound the alarm when people are so blatantly denied justice." That's a fine and worthy cause. But we can't forget to also remain diligent in sounding the alarm about the plight of young black men before they're dead.