Was Keene’s Not Guilty Verdict Literally Black and White?
ELDORADO, TX — (OPINION) Michael Gary Keene’s jury trial for manslaughter and an accident involving death was moved from San Angelo to Eldorado because of pretrial publicity led by San Angelo Live.
The change of venue was a coup for defense attorney J.W. Johnson and his team. Johnson argued successfully before 51st District Judge Barbara Walther that Keene couldn’t get a fair trial in San Angelo because the pretrial publicity was so intense any jury pool would be unable to reach a fair verdict.
But was moving the trial to Schleicher County any better? Here’s what I saw Monday. You decide.
I arrived at the Schleicher County courthouse ten minutes early. I’d been there before. I knew where the courtroom was. When I walked up the stairs to the courtroom, I was told that the trial wasn’t being held in the courthouse, it was being heard in the Memorial Building, a meeting hall on the courthouse grounds.
The Memorial Building was built to honor veterans of World War II according to some of the locals.
The building is around 60 years old and in need of repair, but it is roomy and functional for holding district court. There is adequate space for the jury to retire to a secure room to deliberate and for the judge’s chambers to be private and the space for the jury and attorneys is roomy compared to the two small courtrooms on the second floor of the Tom Green County courthouse, but that’s another story.
I entered the memorial building and found a seat on the right side of the aisle and watched as the seats filled up. The blue plastic folding chairs were unsteady, but adequate. There were about 60 of them with 30 on the left and 30 on the right.
I watched as members of Gisele Jarmon’s family trickled in and sat on the left side of the aisle behind the prosecutor’s table where District Attorney John Best and Assistant Attorney Ashley Knight were seated. Jarmon was a 23-year-old mentally challenged black woman who according to testimony had the mental capacity of a 7-year-old. Her family and friends were black.
Michael Gary Keene is white. The right side of the aisle filled up with relatives and friends who were white.
Black on the left; White on the right.
Gisele Jarmon was 23 when she died after being struck by a vehicle while walking in the access road on Loop 306 near Southwest Blvd. during a dark, rainy night in June of 2015. Keene was driving the vehicle that struck and killed her. He was 20 at the time. He is 23 now as he was acquitted of the charges against him causing her death.
At one point during the testimony Monday I looked out the window in the west door of the Memorial Building and could see the endless line of sand hauling trucks turning from Highway 190 onto US 277 South headed to the oilfields. I happened to see a sand hauler turn off of US 277 onto Highway 190 with a Rebel Flag flying from the back of the sand trailer and it hit me like a ton of bricks.
I’d just got back from walking the streets of Eldorado during the lunch break. I walked up and down among the simple, humble, rural and modest homes. I thought what a calm and comfortable place. There are brick homes with nice yards and single wide trailer houses with grass growing up around pickups that haven’t been moved in years. There are boarded up store fronts from decades gone during better economic times.
Across from the courthouse there is a building with a historic marker with a sign that says “First National Bank” established in 1930.
The thought crossed my mind that in 1930, Jarmon’s family would’ve been segregated from the white people of Eldorado. Full disclosure: I am a 54-year-old white male. I’m a Conservative. I’m a Republican.
That said, I couldn’t help but sit in that makeshift courtroom and watch a black family sit through day after day of testimony and evidence and see an all to familiar look on their faces; they were simply looking for justice.
I looked around the courtroom and saw a white defendant with four white attorneys and a gallery of white supporters. I saw a white judge and two white prosecutors. I saw a bailiff who was not black, and three Schleicher County Deputies guarding the doors who were not black.
Then I watched the jury file back into the courtroom. While the jury may not have been all white, there were no black jurors.
I went to a convenience store for lunch. The only black customers were family and friends of the Jarmon family. Some of the workers at the store were not white, but none of them were black.
In fact, I walked the streets of Eldorado, I went into the businesses of Eldorado, and I sat in the courtroom with a jury specifically chosen by the 51st District Court and accepted by the all white prosecutors and defense attorneys, and never encountered a black person outside of the witnesses from Jarmon’s family.
All that said, did Michael Keene face a jury of his peers and was he found innocent of the crimes alleged in the indictments?
At the end of the day, Gisele Jarmon is dead. Michael Keene is not guilty. Those facts were established by a judicial system which included not one black person in a town where there are few black people and not a one on the jury.
And the trial was moved out of Tom Green County because of pretrial publicity on the contention that Keene couldn’t receive a fair trial.
But did Gisele Jarmon receive justice?
We report. You get to decide.