This is an excerpt from an article in ProPublica about the experience of reporter Alec MacGillis as the foreman on a recent Baltimore jury. Alec MacGillis is also an editor-at-large at The Baltimore Banner.
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 the book by Baltimore Banner reporter Justin Fenton, formerly of The Sun, about the eye-popping Gun Trace Task Force scandal exposed in the Baltimore police department 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 just south of Moravia Road 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, the Baltimore state’s attorney, 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 on 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?
The defense, proclaiming Domonic White’s innocence, would go on to offer a completely different theory for who shot Chris Clanton. To find out how the jury reached its verdict and what this says about the relationship between police and the community in Baltimore today, see the full story at ProPublica.org.