by Alec MacGillis
By the end of our first afternoon of deliberations in the jury room up the narrow stairs from the courtroom, the water cooler was running low, the lock on the bathroom door kept sticking and the wheezing HVAC system was making it even harder to make out the audio in a crucial jailhouse phone recording. We were also nowhere close to a consensus on whether or not Domonic White was guilty of attempted murder and lesser charges in the 2021 shooting of Chris Clanton in the presence of Clanton’s 5-year-old son.
It was hardly unusual for a jury to struggle to come to an agreement. What made this case unusual was the context provided by the victim’s identity. Clanton was an actor on “The Wire” and is now appearing on “We Own This City,” the new HBO miniseries produced by the creators of “The Wire” and based on Baltimore journalist Justin Fenton’s nonfiction book about an eye-popping police corruption scandal exposed five years ago.
At the heart of the new series, which began airing one week before the trial, was the profound damage that police corruption had done to community trust in law enforcement. “Now, even if you find the witnesses and have a case,” says one cop in the second episode, “now when you need to get 12 people together to make a jury, 12 people to believe that you aren’t lying on the witness stand about who shot Tater or who robbed the Rite Aid, they look at you and remember when some other cop lied on them about their son or brother. The lawyers will tell you that you lost the city juries on that stuff.”
We were now those 12 people, charged with assessing testimony by members of that same Police Department to decide who had shot an actor from the television show that was dramatizing this corruption.
It was more than I had bargained for when I had reported for jury duty at the Circuit Court for Baltimore City two days earlier. I had never been selected for a panel, likely in part because I am a journalist, which is often enough to prompt a lawyer’s request for dismissal. This time, I had been chosen, and I had not minded. I was overdue to serve that basic civic duty, and it happened that I’m in the midst of reporting on the nationwide resurgence in gun violence. It could only help to get perspective from within the jury box, a corner of the criminal justice system that we hear far less about than other aspects of the system.
But now, at the end of the first day of deliberations, I had a more pressing concern. By the luck of the draw, I had been seated first on the jury and had thus been appointed foreman. I had no idea what exactly that role entailed, beyond reading out an eventual verdict, but a hung jury sure sounded like failing at the job, however it was defined. And after more than three hours of inconclusive deliberations, that seemed like where we were headed.
Clanton, 36, had come to testify on the second day of the trial. He entered with the bearing of a man distinctly displeased to be there. He made his way across the high-ceilinged courtroom in torn gray jeans and a beige jacket over a lavender hoodie, with a thick beard, passing in front of his alleged assailant, who sat placidly in rimless glasses, cleanshaven in a tie and white shirt.
Even before Clanton identified himself and disclosed his TV roles, the mere fact of his presence was notable. In Baltimore and many other cities around the country, it is not at all uncommon for shooting survivors to refuse to identify their attackers to the authorities. It’s the most extreme manifestation of the no-snitching ethic — don’t tell the cops who the shooter was even if you’re the one who was shot — and it’s a big reason why the closure rate for nonfatal shootings is even lower than it is for homicides. But here was Clanton, come to testify against a man he had once considered a close friend.
We jurors had already heard from one of the two officers who responded to the shooting just before 7 p.m. on April 29, 2021. Kaivon Stewart and his partner had just shared a pizza at a 7-Eleven on Belair Road, in a mostly Black working-class section of northeast Baltimore, when they heard a gunshot close by. Stewart, who was at the wheel, headed southwest down Belair and, on a small side street called Eierman Avenue, the officers saw a man with a gun standing over another man lying on the ground, as if poised to shoot. They were not close enough to identify the shooter, beyond the fact that he was a Black man dressed all in black.
They pulled into Eierman and jumped out of the cruiser. The shooter ran off into an alley to the right, heading northeast. Stewart ministered to Clanton, who had been shot in the left ear. He was bleeding heavily but was conscious.
Parked on the street close to where the victim was found, Stewart said, was a blue 2007 Pontiac G6 with the engine still running. Inside the car was a cellphone with a lock screen photo of a couple that, police would later determine, was the woman to whom the car was registered and her fiance, White, who is 39. Not among the items recovered: a gun or any shell casings.
Then came Clanton’s testimony. Glowering, he related what had happened on the evening in question. He had been visiting his mother’s house nearby with his five-year-old son. He had walked down Belair with his son to get him a drink at the 7-Eleven. On the way, someone Clanton knew had called out from a porch on Eierman to let him know that he soon wanted another haircut from Clanton, who does occasional barbering on the side.
Clanton and his son had walked up to the porch, where a small group of men was gathering, among them White. White, whom Clanton called Nick, had been a good friend of Clanton’s when they were young men, Clanton testified, but they had barely seen each other in the decade since a friend of theirs had been killed. Clanton said he was “genuinely happy” to see White after so long but felt an immediate “tension” from him.
Not understanding why he was getting “the cold shoulder,” Clanton said, according to my notes, he followed White down from the porch toward the running car. “I figured if I could get him by himself, he would open up.”
“Whassup?” he said he kept asking White. “I ain’t seen you in a minute.”
“You know what’s up,” White responded, according to Clanton.
They came down to the side of the Pontiac, Clanton testified, with his son trailing, behind the car’s trunk. Clanton pressed again for an explanation of what was bothering White. Then, Clanton said, White pulled a handgun out of his waistband.
“I turned real fast because I thought, if this guy is going to kill me, my mother got to see something,” Clanton said, referring mordantly to his desire to preserve his face for an open-casket funeral.
Lying on the ground after being shot, with White standing over him, Clanton said he heard the siren of the arriving cruiser. “I ain’t never been so happy to see police in my life,” he said. Everyone had scattered. All Clanton was thinking about, he said, was his son, who had been pulled to safety by a neighbor.
A day or two later, after he was released from the hospital, detectives came to his home and he identified White as the shooter. Clanton described the medical fallout: Doctors had made his ear whole again, but he still had bullet fragments in his head that they decided were too risky to remove, and he suffered occasional seizures.
It was time for the cross-examination from White’s attorney, Roland Brown, a veteran defense lawyer with a bearish build and assured manner. After a few perfunctory niceties toward the shooting victim, he needled Clanton, asking whether he had been drunk or high when the shooting occurred, asking if he was really sure it was White whom he had followed off the porch.
Clanton bridled. “I know exactly who shot me,” he said. “I have to deal with this every day. We were all best friends. I didn’t know he was feeling some kind of way toward me.”
As a kid growing up in Baltimore, Clanton’s eighth-grade social-studies teacher was Ed Burns, the homicide detective-turned-teacher who was a co-creator of “The Wire,” alongside David Simon. On “The Wire,” Clanton played Savino Bratton, who appeared in Season One as an enforcer for drug kingpin Avon Barksdale and then in Season Five working for successor kingpin Marlo Stanfield. In that season, Savino joined others in the Stanfield crew in hunting for legendary stick-up man Omar Little, before being fatally shot by Little.
On “We Own This City,” Clanton has switched sides. He’s now playing a police officer, Brian Hairston, who is not shy about challenging untoward behavior by fellow officers. In the first episode, he is with Danny Hersl, a notoriously rough officer, when Hersl gratuitously beats up a suspect. “Look, I’m canceling that jail wagon and calling for a fucking ambulance,” Hairston tells Hersl angrily.
“What the fuck?” Hersl says. “Throw a Band-Aid on him in Central Booking. He’s all right.”
“You banged him, Hersl,” Hairston says. “Fuck if I’m going to have him dumped in a jail van bleeding and have Marilyn Mosby indict my ass.”
Mosby is the Baltimore state’s attorney who, in May 2015, brought charges against six of the officers involved in the arrest and transport of Freddie Gray. (Gray died, his spinal cord nearly severed, seven days after being moved, shackled and unbuckled, in a police van.) None of those charges resulted in conviction, but they loom over the events portrayed in “We Own This City.” They are cited repeatedly as the excuse used by many cops in deciding to hang back on the job, even as violence surged to unprecedented levels following the riots after Gray’s death.
That general apathy, in turn, is cited as the reason why the officers of the unit at the heart of the corruption scandal, the Gun Trace Task Force, were given such a long leash. “Simply put, Hersl and guys like him get out of their cars and they make arrests,” a judge says in the first episode. “And that’s more than you can say about too many police in this city who are collecting a paycheck.” Or as Sgt. Wayne Jenkins, the head of the corrupt unit when it reached its apex of depravity — stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars, planting drugs and guns on suspects, filing wildly fraudulent overtime claims — puts it in the fourth episode: “As long as we produce, as long as we put those numbers up, they don’t fucking give a shit about what we do. We can do whatever the fuck we want.”
That aura of haplessness around the Police Department has lingered since the scandal was exposed, as the city’s homicide rate has remained elevated at the levels it spiked to after the protests over Gray’s death. So it was hardly surprising that Brown, White’s defense lawyer, tried to capitalize on that perception of the police in trying to bring us jurors over to his side. He wasn’t trying to get us to disbelieve the police because they were untrustworthy; rather he was trying to get us to dismiss the evidence because it was the result of inadequate effort.
He grilled the lead detective on the case, Anthony Forbes, over his failure to find witnesses to the shooting. Why had he not tried harder to canvass that block of Eierman? Was it because he was too “starstruck” by Clanton and thus willing to go simply on his word?
Brown also took that tack to try to dismiss a seemingly damning piece of evidence that came up during the prosecutor’s questioning of the detective, a phone call on a recorded jailhouse line one day after the shooting from an incarcerated 20-year-old man named Darian White to the man that the detective said was his father, Domonic White. Why, Brown asked, had he not gone to the Division of Vital Records to confirm that Darian was the son of Domonic? Brown did not offer evidence to suggest that the two Whites were not related. The intent was simply to raise doubt and to underscore that Forbes and his fellow officers were lazy clock-punchers.
We got to hear the phone call the next day. It was scratchy, but I could make out a father telling his incarcerated son that “shit got ugly yesterday,” which is why he was going to have to “turn myself in” or let the police come get him. He also expressed affection and concern for his son and told him that “I was getting ready to go a different route” the day before but that his son had been “on my mind.” “That’s the only reason I didn’t do it,” the father said.
It was the defense’s turn to call its only witness, Mark Pratt. (Domonic White himself would not testify in his own defense.) Pratt was a longtime friend of White’s and a cousin of his fiancee. Pratt was hanging out with White at a small shopping plaza before the shooting, as security camera footage showed, and then drove behind him to Eierman to buy marijuana for an NFL draft-watching gathering.
He offered a completely different account than had Clanton. There was no tension between Clanton and White, he testified. Instead, what happened was this: As the group on Eierman was getting ready to split up, two young men in black face masks appeared from the alley to the left, coming from the southwest, and approached Clanton. One of them shot him, and when the police came, the pair ran back the way they had come, down the alley to the southwest.
The prosecutor, Veronica Colson, challenged Pratt over why he had not mentioned these two young men when asked by the police at the scene if he had seen anything, and why he had also not come forward about them after he heard that his good friend had been charged in the shooting a month later. She did not challenge a factual contradiction between his account and that of Stewart, the responding officer: that the man with the gun had run up the alley to the right, to the northeast, in the opposite direction of what Pratt was now offering.
The details of the gunman’s alley escape became more relevant in Colson’s closing argument, when she played for the first time some additional security-camera footage showing White emerging (with no gun visible), about 30 seconds after the shooting, from the other end of the alley — consistent with the police account — and strolling off across Belair Road.
In his closing argument, Brown began by reminding us that Clanton was an actor, seeking to raise doubts about the veracity of his testimony. And he zeroed in again on the corner-cutting in the police investigation. “Were you impressed by the shooting detective?” he said.
There is a moment in jury selection in Baltimore where the judge asks the assembled citizens if any of them has been a victim of gun violence or has an immediate family member who has been a victim of it, or has a family member who has been charged with gun violence. Invariably, more than a third of the people stand up.
I’ve been stunned by this moment every time I’ve seen it, even though I shouldn’t have been, because the response is in line with what you would expect from the numbers. Since the start of 2013, when I returned to Baltimore for my second stint living in the city, there have been 2,916 people murdered there, and more than twice as many have been wounded in nonfatal shootings. This is in a city whose population has fallen from 621,000 to 585,000 over that time. The toll is even more concentrated if considered through the lens of neighborhoods and race. The Black share of Baltimore’s population is 63%; the Black share of the city’s homicide victims is typically over 90%.
So overwhelming is the response to that question that answering yes is not disqualifying for service. Instead, Judge Charles Blomquist called each person who answered in the affirmative up to the bench to talk with him and the lawyers about how the experience might inform their perspective as jurors. The same went for another screening question, about whether our views of the police would keep us from being impartial in weighing their testimony.
The jury selected for White’s trial was not racially proportionate to the city, as is often the case in a city where so many Black citizens are disqualified from service for past criminal history. Eight of the 12 of us were white, alongside three Black women and one Puerto Rican woman. This stood in contrast to the major players in the trial: the defendant, victim, both lawyers and three police officers called to the stand were all Black.
It did not take long after we ascended to start our deliberations, though, to discover that there was a whole different level of diversity when it came to a task like this. Baltimore is an overwhelmingly progressive Democratic city, a place that voted 87% for Joe Biden in 2020. But perspectives range widely when it comes to the local issue that most consumes public attention — public safety — and that range does not break down neatly along racial or class lines.
Soon after we got started, five jurors made clear that they had serious doubts about the prosecution’s case. They didn’t find Clanton credible. Several noted that he was, after all, an actor, while several others said that he wasn’t being candid about whatever beef had fueled White’s anger, or that they simply didn’t like how he had come across. “He was arrogant and braggadocious,” said one of three young white women on the jury. “I didn’t buy his act.”
Above all, though, they wanted more evidence, and for this these jurors blamed the police. Why had the police been unable to recover a gun? Why had the detective not tried harder to find other witnesses? Heck, why had the police not tried harder to catch the shooter in the first place? “If I’m going to be involved in sending someone to jail for a long time, I’m going to need hard evidence,” said the one Black woman who was inclined to acquit.
The skeptical jurors were not suggesting they did not trust what the police were saying. Rather, they were adopting the critique offered by the defense: They were criticizing the police for not having done their job better. It was a striking dynamic, given that this may have been one of the rare cases where the presence of cops likely saved a man’s life. But it fit with the dynamic described on “We Own This City” — a department succumbing to indifference and thus lackluster at doing its job, whether for reasons of self-pity or self-protection.
This was the local context for the jurors’ reluctance to convict White. But it nonetheless startled several members of the jury who were convinced of his guilt, a group that included the two other Black women on the panel. Members of this group kept coming back to the main pieces of evidence: the victim’s testimony, which was seemingly corroborated by the responding officer’s account of the gunman’s flight into the alley; the camera footage of White emerging from that alley; and the recorded jailhouse phone call. Wasn’t that enough?
By day’s end, it wasn’t, and we headed home.
Never had I been more depressed in my work as a reporter than when covering the Gun Trace Task Force trial, in 2018, for an article that examined the broader unraveling of order in Baltimore. The cause of the despair was the impunity that the trial had laid bare, that the officers had for years been able to operate in a world where nothing mattered, in a moral void.
I was thinking again about impunity at home after our inconclusive deliberations. A man had been shot in the ear in the presence of his 5-year-old son, one of 728 nonfatal shootings in the city in 2021. Baltimore police generally solve only a fifth to a quarter of nonfatal shootings, and the state prosecutes only a subset of that subset. In this case, though, the person who had very nearly been killed in the shooting had decided to give a name to the police. This was not an easy thing to do in this city, and even more difficult was then having to come to court with the former longtime friend whom he had identified as his attacker sitting just a few feet away, and tell the story again, to an appraising jury and aggressive defense lawyer.
The next morning, back in the jury room, I tried, haltingly, to articulate my thoughts about Clanton’s decision to testify and the weight it seemed to deserve, given the difficulty in taking that step and the other evidence that corroborated his account.
But the jury was still stuck in the same divide it had been in the previous day. With seemingly little to gain from more discussion, we watched more of the camera footage from along Belair Road, which served the purpose of raising additional questions about the account provided by Mark Pratt, which did not match up with it in several respects.
Still, several jurors were reluctant to accept Clanton’s version. The Black woman inclined to acquit offered personal background to explain why she was not willing to take Clanton’s account at face value: When she had tried to break up with a boyfriend, he had cut himself badly and told the police that his girlfriend did it to him; she had been charged in the incident, she said, and exonerated only after she taped a call from him admitting to the ruse.
A young white man inclined to acquit pushed back at a couple of the jurors favoring conviction who thought it was suspicious that White had not returned for his phone and his fiancee’s car after the shooting. If you’re a Black man in Baltimore with a history of encounters with the police, he said, you may decide to stay away even if you were not involved. And the Puerto Rican woman on the jury kept coming back to the failure of the police to provide additional evidence to buttress Clanton. “The police need to step it up,” she said. “The police had a job to do.”
The insistent demand for more evidence, particularly more witness testimony, provoked one of the two Black women who were inclined toward conviction. Speaking up for the first time, she related her own story: Nearly three decades ago, she had been shot in the back on the street by two stray bullets fired by a 14-year-old boy. She had barely survived, and the effects of her injuries lingered to this day. But no one on the crowded street had been willing to identify the shooter, she said. The whole experience left her with a visceral grasp of why no one else from Eierman had come forward to back up Clanton. “No one would come testify for me,” she said.
By noon, I sent a note to the judge asking what to do if we couldn’t reach a decision. He summoned us to the courtroom and told us to keep going. After lunch, we did. Even more talked-out by this point, we decided to play the recording of the jailhouse call one more time.
With each replaying, we were able to make out more of the scratchy exchange. We heard the father on the call accepting that he would have to face some consequences for what had happened the day before. “What comes out of that, it is what it is,” he said. “I know I’m going to have to sit for a little bit.” We heard him elaborating on why he had not gone a “different route” during the incident, out of a desire not to spend many more years separated from his son. “I’m going to keep it a thousand with you,” he said.
Somehow, hearing the call yet again, and being able to make out more of it, had an effect on several of the jurors who had been inclined to acquit. The conversation drifted to the various charges and the distinctions between them: In addition to attempted murder, White was also charged with first-degree assault, reckless endangerment and various firearm-related offences. It became clear that several of the jurors inclined to acquit White for attempted murder were more willing to entertain his guilt for first-degree assault. As they saw it, there were still enough questions about what transpired between the two men that they couldn’t conclude that White had actually been trying to kill Clanton. But they could accept that he had done him great harm.
One by one, the five jurors who had started out with major doubts about the prosecution’s case came around to conviction for first-degree assault and the lesser charges. At about 4 p.m., we let the judge know we had reached a verdict. As we waited to be called down, there was sudden levity in the room, an unspoken sense that after veering close to a rupture, we had managed to come together.
We filed downstairs, to a courtroom that was fuller than it had been at any point in the trial, though there was no sign of Clanton himself. I gave the verdict on each of the charges. White and his lawyer, Brown, reacted with restrained displeasure. We dispersed with barely a word; the camaraderie was left upstairs. But out on the street, I saw the juror who said she had been framed by her boyfriend, sitting on a bench awaiting a westbound bus. I got her attention, and we exchanged a nod and smile.
And that was it. It was early May in Baltimore, the most beautiful time of year in the city. There had by that point been 116 homicides so far in 2022, up 15% from the year before. The following week, a man with an assault rifle would fire 60 rounds on a block in East Baltimore while killing another man and injuring three others. A couple days after that, a pregnant woman would be killed along with the father-to-be; their baby, delivered from the dying woman, was left in critical condition. A day after that, a high school junior would be fatally shot at an after-prom party.
And two weeks after that, a man accused of fatally shooting the widely admired co-founder of the city’s violence-interrupter program, Safe Streets, would be acquitted of murder, despite having been found with the gun used in the killing and despite cellphone data putting him in the area. “Not enough evidence,” said one juror afterward.
It was a refrain I had heard on the White jury, too. But our jury had something that the latest jury did not: a victim alive and willing to testify.
Photo Credit: Billy/Unsplash