It’s not clear how effective the instinctive effort to put Michael Brown posthumously on trial for being an African-American teenager who was “no angel” will turn out to be. It was begun, of course, by the Ferguson police as soon as was humanly possible; their “investigation” of the shooting was from the get-go aimed at justifying it as an act of self-defense, much like George Zimmerman’s, by a man being forced to use his deadly force in an encounter with a demonically powerful (if unarmed) black adolescent.

As one might expect, Ta-Nehisi Coates has said pretty much everything that needs saying about the assumption that Michael Brown deserved to die for his sins:

A large number of American teenagers live exactly like Michael Brown. Very few of them are shot in the head and left to bake on the pavement.

But this isn’t just about how the court of public opinion deals with this case. At some point, unless Darren Wilson just skates, it will be litigated in a court of law, presumably before a jury, in which he will formally enjoy the presumption of innocence so many people would apparently deny Brown.

Something about a parallel case from the distant past kept nagging the back of my mind, and sure enough, I found a 1979 Texas Monthly account account by Gary Cartrwright of the acquittal of two Houston cops for killing a black man, thanks to the skill of their attorney, Richard “Racehorse” Haynes, in putting the victim on trial:

[The] two Houston cops…were accused of kicking a black man to death after arresting him for attempting to “steal” his own car. The cops had already been acquitted by a district court in Houston — now they were being tried in federal court on charges that they had violated the man’s civil rights. For starters, Haynes got the trial moved from Houston to the conservative German American town of New Braunfels. “I knew we had that case won when we seated the last bigot on the jury,” Racehorse remarked later. As the trial progressed, Haynes developed these scenarios: (1) that the prisoner suffered severe internal injuries while trying to escape; (2) that he actually died of an overdose of morphine; (3) that the deep laceration in the victim’s liver was the result of a sloppy autopsy.

Sound familiar? Give a sympathetic jury an alternative theory they can seize on, however implausible, and they just might take it–particularly if the defendant is an officer of the law and the victim–who will be described as a victim of his own excesses–fits the jury’s idea of the people cops are hired to keep under control.

Maybe we’ve made some progress since 1979. But I’m no so sure.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore is a political columnist for New York and managing editor at the Democratic Strategist website. He was a contributing writer at the Washington Monthly from January 2012 until November 2015, and was the principal contributor to the Political Animal blog.