Note: This article is part of an ongoing series of articles on the politicization of the US Justice System.
Jury nullification: Ethan Liming’s murder verdict as a classic case of black resentment and white guilt
“But when the leaders choose to make themselves bidders at an auction of popularity, their talents, in the construction of the state, will be of no service. They will become flatterers instead of legislators; the instruments, not the guides, of the people.”
― Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France
Ethan Liming was in many ways the quintessential Gen Z teenager. A seventeen-year-old athlete from a mixed-race family, he grew up with biracial friends in a diverse neighborhood. His life was emblematic of American progress, and of a civic religion that adorates multi-ethnic democracy. Despite this, his death has become the latest battleground for racial justice activists.
Ethan was seventeen years old when he joined three high school friends at LeBron James’s “I Promise” School in Akron, Ohio on June 2, 2022. Together they fired a toy “Orbeez” gun at a group of men playing basketball. A fight ensued, and Ethan was later found dead by police. The details of the incident are, at best, disheartening.
Ethan and friends drive to the “I Promise” court. Two boys exit the car and fire their Orbeez guns at a group of men playing basketball. Ethan is not among them. The shooting stops, a few moments pass, and Deshawn Stafford walks toward the car. Ethan exits the car, the two exchange words, and Ethan fires the Orbeez at Deshawn once more. A fight breaks out and Ethan, despite being a minor, begins to gain the upper hand.
At this point Tyler Stafford and Donovan Jones approach and begin a three-on-one assault. Ethan is knocked out; he hits the pavement, and they continue to beat him while unconscious. Ephrem Stefanko and Micaiah Shady, Ethan’s friends, are calling 911 while locked in Ethan’s car, as one of the Stafford brothers kicks the car window and taunts the two boys to come out and fight. “Y’all know how it is out here,” he reportedly said, as he kicked in the window. “This is my car now.”
The car door is opened and the boys inside are assaulted. The 911 call ends here. After yet another attack, the boys try to move Ethan’s body into the car but are prevented by the Stafford brothers, and subsequently chased down the street where they hide, covered in blood, in the back of a McDonald’s. The Stafford brothers return to the scene, destroy cellphones left behind, empty out Ethan’s pockets, and drive his car away.
The Stafford’s self-defense argument rested on two claims: first, that Ethan died instantly when he hit the ground; and second, that a reasonable person, in a dark and chaotic situation, could mistake an Orbeez gun for a real firearm. But although the coroner’s report and Summit County medical examiner’s testimony agree that Ethan died from his skull striking concrete, they also found that the cause of death is not 100% conclusive. The autopsy found that all Ethan’s injuries were most likely sustained while he was still alive, and he was reportedly seen coughing up blood after the fall.
Other evidence also contradicted the self-defense argument. The Stafford brothers claimed welts and bruises; none were found by police. Furthermore, the brothers admitted during their interrogation that they knew the gun was a toy. This fact alone destroys their case. Without a genuine fear of death, they have no right to lethal self-defense. The notion of the Orbeez toy as an assault weapon is tragically comical, a point which drew the ire of several witnesses during the trial including a twenty-year APD veteran. The Orbeez gun, which currently has an age range on Amazon of 14+, is manufactured and marketed with the purpose of being fired at children. A YouTube search reveals dozens of videos with titles like “SPLATRBALL BATTLE: Archer’s 8th Birthday Party.”
Nonetheless the nature of the ‘gun’ was twisted to fit into an overarching American narrative on race. Over the course of the trial, it often seemed like Ethan, rather than his killers, was the one on trial. The defense’s opening statement gratuitously spelled out Ethan’s privilege. He was popular, a sportsman, from the nice part of town. The Stafford’s were black, poor, from a broken home, Deshawn had a pregnant girlfriend, etc. And, if Ethan’s genetics and zip code weren’t enough for an acquittal, the defense had another card up their sleeve: Ethan was a high school weed dealer. In a court system where junkies with long records cannot have a single misdeed whispered in their latest trial for grand theft auto, Ethan, a homicide victim, had his status as a weed dealer brought up twenty-six times during a single cross-examination.
Ultimately, it worked. Ethan’s killers, who had already had their charges downgraded once, were found innocent of manslaughter. The two defendants received misdemeanors, and one was released for time served. Ethan’s father was devastated. “The Liming Family yet again was victimized by jury nullification where the jury ignored proven facts to come back with an inconsistent verdict,” said their attorney James A. Gutierrez.
Jury nullification, as defined by the Department of Justice, is when jurors “refuse to follow the law and acquit a defendant even when the evidence presented seems to point to an incontrovertible verdict of guilty.” A commonly cited example would be 19th-century trials pertaining to the Fugitive Slave Act, or Reconstruction-era white defendants accused of crimes against black people. But a less discussed aspect is how jury nullification is used to punish groups that are seen to exhibit extra-judicial privilege or a historical burden of guilt. For example, in 1921, an Armenian genocide survivor, Soghomon Tehlirian, assassinated Talaat Pasha, an architect of the genocide. Although Tehlirian’s lawyers did not contest that their client had killed Talat, the jury returned a verdict of not guilty.
A more recent example is the case of Darrell E. Brooks Jr. On November 21, 2021, Brooks drove an SUV through the annual Christmas parade in Waukesha, Wisconsin, killing six people and injuring sixty-two others. The victims were mostly white, and the attack occurred within forty-eight hours of the Kyle Rittenhouse verdict (although this motivation was never definitively proven). Brooks represented himself in court using fringe arguments from the Moorish sovereign citizen movement. A convoluted mess of ahistorical and pseudo-legal jargon culminated in the theory that American common law does not apply to black people. He was allowed to spend several hours a day bullying witnesses, most of whom were the parents or siblings of his victims, before finally attempting a Hail Mary strategy he had learned about online: jury nullification.
Or consider the cases of Devon Dunham, Billy Chemirmir, and Lemrick Nelson, all murderers who either confessed to their crimes, or were caught or recorded in the act. “I need your truck,” Dunham said, before he fired eight shots at a former Hardeeville volunteer fire chief from a 9mm handgun in 2017. He later confessed to police that he intentionally murdered 77-year-old Ernest Stevens. A jury deliberated for an hour and forty-five minutes before finding him not guilty. Chemirmir, a serial killer who murdered 22 elderly white people in Dallas, and Nelson, who stabbed Hasidic student Yankel Rosenbaum during the 1991 Crown Heights riot, also received not guilty verdicts or mistrials.
Some view jury nullification as a necessary judicial check and balance. In practice, it has more to do with revolutionary tribunals of the French Revolution or Castro’s courts in Cuba.
The SPLC and ADL both state that Moorish sovereign citizens and other black nationalist ideologies tend to spread online through social media. Around 2019, the FBI implemented a joint terrorism task force that focused on black nationalist extremism in several venues, including social media. They were soon attacked by NGOs such as the ACLU, and immediately clarified that they would instead focus on violence from white supremacists and far-right militants, particularly the problem of white mass shooters. The SPLC soon followed suit, removing black extremists from their so-called “hate maps.” The issue has since received little institutional attention; the FBI forgoes quelling a coordinated undermining of our judicial system, instead focusing on issues like white parents holding placards at PTA meetings.
When Ethan’s father looked to our institutions for justice, he was told by one prosecutor that his son received “hood justice.” Another stated, in private, that Ethan’s race absolutely affected the case. This was followed by a series of prosecutorial blunders, such as failing to test a pile of camera phones at the murder scene, and bewildering support of the defense’s “one hit death” theory. The state, half-interested since the onset of this tragedy, has an option to retry the manslaughter charge. They probably won’t.