What is it like when somebody calls you by the N-word? A criminal defense attorney asked his client on the stand last week.

“They think I’m not a human being, they think they’re better than me,” 32-year-old Jarrad Smith replied.

Smith was on trial for attempted murder, aggravated assault and a firearm offense after shooting another man in the parking lot of a South Dakota strip club in the early morning of Dec. 6, 2016. The shooting victim, 27-year-old Kyle Haverly, survived a bullet wound in the abdomen.

Because of previous felony convictions, Smith could be sentenced to life in prison if convicted of even just one of his charges.

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The shooting happened in the club parking lot in the early morning of Dec. 6, 2016.

Smith claimed self-defense. His lawyer said Haverly called Smith by the N-word several times despite Smith’s objections, threatened to hang him and punched him in the head. Smith, a native of St. Louis, Mo., is black; Haverly, of South Dakota, is white. The men did not know each other. Both had been drinking.

Haverly admitted using the N-word, saying it was valid since the word appears in the dictionary. Haverly’s companion during the incident told the court it was spoken as a greeting to a “friend.”

The three-day trial was the first I ever covered that invoked racism in the U.S. It was also the first time I’d heard a black person talk at length about how being called the racial slur made him feel, how it has been a regular occurrence since childhood. I’ve spent most of my life in pretty homogeneous Asian societies.

The prosecuting attorney objected to the case being framed in racial terms. It was about Smith escalating a fistfight into a gunfight, the prosecutor said. No one else had a weapon.

 

But during closing arguments, Smith’s lawyer talked about the power of words, quoting  African-American writer and civil-rights activist Maya Angelou (1928-2014).

“Words are things, I’m convinced,” Angelou said in a TV interview aired in January 2011. “You must be careful about the words you use … careful about calling people out of their names, using racial pejoratives and sexual pejoratives and all that ignorance.

“Someday we’ll be able to measure the power of words. I think they are things. I think they get on the walls, they get on your wallpaper, they get in your rugs, in your upholstery, in your clothes and finally, into you.”

At 8:11 p.m. on Thursday, eight hours after the case was handed to the jurors, the nine women and three men filed back into the courtroom to deliver their verdict.

Smith was convicted of one count of aggravated assault. He was acquitted of his other charges: attempted first-degree murder, another count of aggravated assault and commission of a felony with a firearm.

He is waiting to be sentenced.

Update: On July 25, Smith was sentenced to 7-1/2 years in prison. Prosecutors asked for 30 years; his lawyer asked for five years.

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