Ray Tensing (R) stands near a car after driver Samuel DuBose was pulled over and shot during a traffic stop in Cincinnati, Ohio July 19, 2015, in a still image from body camera video released by the Hamilton County Prosecutor’s Office on July 29, 2015.
An Ohio judge declared a mistrial on Saturday on what was a pretty clear cut case of unjustified police violence involving a white former police officer accused of murdering an unarmed black driver during a traffic stop last year. A Hamilton County jury made up of 10 white and two black jurors informed the judge on Saturday morning that they were deadlocked and could not reach a verdict. The judge accepted the finding. Former University of Cincinnati Police Officer Ray Tensing will remain free on a $1 million bond.
The university fired Tensing shortly after he shot and killed 43-year-old Sam DuBose in July 2015. Tensing had pulled DuBose over for a missing front license plate and then shot him in the head as he tried to drive away. During the short trial that began on Oct. 31, Tensing claimed he feared for his life as he was dragged by the car but bodycam footage appears to show the officer wasn’t dragged at all before he decided to pull the trigger. And a use-of-force expert even testified at the trial that DuBose was not a threat to Tensing.
It is up to the prosecution to decide whether to retry the case. Hamilton County Prosecutor Joe Deters said a decision will be made on the case before the end of the month, noting that the jurors were “leaning” toward conviction in a voluntary manslaughter charge and leaning toward acquittal in the murder charge. “We’ve just got to make an assessment as to whether or not we can win at trial,” he said.
The city of Cincinnati is bracing for protests after the verdict that is likely to only increase already existing tensions between the black community and law enforcement. DuBose’s killing had already fueled lots of protests. "It doesn’t resolve anything. It just reinforces the mistrust… If anything it reinforces it,” the civil lawyer for the DuBose family said. “And for those who trusted that justice would be delivered? That’s on pause."
Many saw it as a larger sign that it’s pretty much impossible to hold police officers accountable for killings while one the job. "The mood here is solemn," Rev. Troy Jackson, executive director of Amos Project, said. "If 12 people in Hamilton County cannot come to an agreement on a murder charge in this case, is it ever going to be possible to convict a police officer? They have carte blanche."
And in a way he has a point. Although the case itself seemed pretty clear cut, deciding that an action by a police officer violated criminal law is “much more difficult than it sounds,” warned Slate’s Leon Neyfakh yesterday. Why? Because Ohio is one of the many states in the country that don’t actually have a formal law clearly outlining when police officers are justified in using deadly force. Ohio is one of the state that uses “interpretations of what’s known as the common law standard—a rule that says, basically, that police can use any amount of force, including deadly force, to ‘seize’ a fleeing felon if necessary,” explained Neyfakh.
Mistrials and acquittals are common when it comes to the rare instances in which police officers are arrested or charged for violence while on duty. "Everybody knows policing is violent, and [jurors] don’t want to second guess those decisions," Philip Stinson, a researcher at Bowling Green State University in Ohio and former police officer, told the BBC last year. Juries tend to "give every possible benefit of the doubt" to police officers who kill while on duty.
Stinson claims that since 2005, 77 police officers have been charged with shooting a suspect while on duty and 26 of them were convicted, 13 with a guilty plea and 13 with a jury verdict.
Tensing is only the latest case involving a police-invovled killing that ends in mistrial. In October, for example, a New Mexico judge declared a mistrial in a case involving two former Albuquerque police officers who fatally shot a mentally ill homeless man in 2014. And in August of last year, a North Carolina judge declared a mistrial on manslaughter charges against Randall Kerrick, who killed Jonathan Ferrel in 2013.
Former North Charleston Police Officer Michael Slager, center, sits at the defense table and listens to his lawyer in the courtroom on Nov. 3 in Charleston, South Carolina.