Eliana Fleischer, ’20, received the Fredric M. Jablin Award for Undergraduate Research to undertake her senior honors thesis, “Skewed Justice: The Failure of the Legal System to Hold Police Accountable.” Dr. Julian Hayter, associate professor of leadership studies, is serving as her thesis advisor. A Richmond Scholar, Fleischer is majoring in leadership studies and political science and minoring in law and the liberal arts. She plans to work for a civil rights nonprofit for a few years following graduation before enrolling in law school.

What are you researching?

I want to answer the question, why are police officers so infrequently convicted after shooting unarmed African-American men? I became interested in this topic upon researching the legal system after the Black Lives Matter movement began.

At first, I assumed the criminal justice system was malfunctioning. After researching the subject, I have come to realize that the system is working as it was designed to work, which is to favor law enforcement by setting an extremely high bar for the conviction of police officers. 

Can you explain why you think the system favors the police?

My research suggests that at each of three critical points in the criminal justice process, the system favors and protects the police.

First, prosecutors, who typically have a very close relationship with the police, have an incredible amount of discretion in whether and how to present a case to a grand jury. The defense doesn’t present its case to the grand jury.

There’s a saying that prosecutors can indict a ham sandwich; yet when presenting a case to a grand jury, they often advocate for police officers accused of an unjustified shooting. If the grand jury does not vote to indict, the case doesn’t go to trial.

Second, in the last 30 years, the Supreme Court has broadened the doctrine of qualified immunity, which acts as a legal shield for police officers. Additional Supreme Court precedent requires a judge to instruct jurors to evaluate the case from the police officer’s perspective in the moment the shooting occurred and without the benefit of hindsight.

For example, if a police officer believed someone had a gun, even if hindsight showed the person was unarmed, the jurors must evaluate the officer’s actions without acknowledging that the person did not have a gun.

Third, the methods used to select jurors can result in seating predominantly white juries. I researched the effects of psychological and implicit bias to see why this would matter and learned that white jurors perceive African-American men as bigger, stronger, and more physically aggressive. This perception makes police officers’ actions seem more justified.

What aspects of your college education helped prepare you to do your research?

Last summer I received a Burrus Fellowship to support my Jepson internship as a paralegal doing legal research for immigration lawyers at the firm Jezic & Moyse in Wheaton, Md.

In reviewing a case on appeal, I thought of a way a detained immigrant’s rights had been violated in his original trial that had not occurred to my boss. Helping to write part of the brief in that case was the proudest moment in my internship.

Being a member of the Ethics Bowl team for the past two years also helped prepare me to tackle an honors thesis. Our coach, Dr. Flanigan, challenged us to think on our feet and respond to arguments we’d never heard before. It was like working a muscle in my brain I didn’t know I had. I improved my ability to reason, argue, and write.  

Finally, my Jepson at Cambridge study-abroad program exposed me to law classes taught by Emmanuel College law professors. The classes I took demonstrated how current laws and legal processes are shaped by history. This knowledge has been valuable as I write my thesis.

Fleischer will present her honors thesis research at the Jepson Research Symposium in April.