Category Archives: psa

1 thing you should do after Ferguson

There are lots of websites out there giving you advice on what you can do to help and change things after Ferguson.

It’s cute. It’s stuff like “understand things better” or “hold hands y’all” or “be good to each other” or “realize that black lives matter”.

It’s hogwash. None of that will change anything. I’m here to give you the straight dope. The skinny. The real deal. The inside info.

Here’s what you should do to change things.

  1. Get on a jury.

  2. Vote to acquit.

Done. The more marginal, he-said she-said, uncorroborated, victim-less crimes you acquit defendants of, the less incentive there will be to prosecute such crimes, the less injustice there will be, the fewer police resources will be spent on bullshit and fewer people will die.

Here’s a comedian telling you essentially the same thing, but funnier:

This isn’t about Michael Brown

i-am-a-man

This isn’t about Michael Brown1. Or rather, it isn’t about just Michael Brown. It certainly isn’t about only this Michael Brown. It’s about race, power and a system that just affirmed itself.

It’s about anger at a system which has trained the powerless to accept their lack of power over and over again. It’s about anger at a system, that despite the promises of the civil rights era, has only affirmed the status quo: some lives are worth more than others. Some people will always get punished more harshly than others.

It’s about anger that those who are the most underprivileged, the most disenfranchised continue to be subjugated under the guise of the best system in the world.

It’s about anger that the ethnic majority has historically viewed and continues to view minorities as dangerous and frightening. It’s about anger that the majority is doing its best to clutch onto its slipping grasp through intimidation and fear.

Michael Brown was shot and killed by a police officer, like many, many others have been shot and killed by police officers. Darren Wilson wasn’t indicted or charged for that shooting like an overwhelming number of police officers haven’t been charged. While whites are certainly victims of police brutality, minorities are overwhelmingly so.

The anger is because it seems that Michael Brown was shot because of his race – and that doesn’t mean Officer Wilson shot Michael Brown specifically because Michael Brown was black. Rather, Wilson shot Brown because of what he believed about black people; what we’ve all read and heard about black people; what we’ve all been conditioned to realize about black people; what popular media regularly portrayed black people as.

wilson-testimony-1

And more:

So when he stopped, I stopped. And then he starts to turn around, I tell him to get on the ground, get on the ground.

He turns, and when he looked at me, he made like a grunting, like aggravated sound and he starts, he turns and he’s coming back towards me. His first step is coming towards me, he kind of does like a stutter step to start running. When he does that, his left hand goes in a fist and goes to his side, his right one goes under his shirt in his waistband and he starts running at me.

At this point it looked like he was almost bulking up to run through the shots, like it was making him mad that I’m shooting at him.

And the face that he had was looking straight through me, like I wasn’t even there, I wasn’t even anything in his way.

Like an animal. Michael Brown was an animal to Darren Wilson.

That’s what this anger is about. That this non-indictment exposed the gaping race chasm in America: white people love police and authority when it comes to maintaining the social order. That social order is fairly simple: there are the whites who can do whatever they want, then there are the “criminals” and the “minorities” and the “gays”, except those that act like the white people. The system exists to contain the teeming masses of minorities/criminals and to keep them in check. If a black man is killed by a police officer, well that’s his fault.

As I’ve written before, for White America, the police force exists as a private security force, to keep them and their belongings safe and secure and separate from the uncouth, uncivilized and dirty Blacks and Hispanics. (Here’s another must-read on the subject from The Atlantic.)

For the rest of America, the police force is sadly nothing but an oppressor acting with the imprimatur of the greatest Democracy in the World.

That’s what this anger is about. It’s about the death of one boy, for sure, but it’s also about the death of the right to be free and the right to be equal in America.

It’s about the death of Dr. King’s dream.


Fear the death of rights

Human rights, individual rights. We all have rights. We all should have the same rights. Yet we often withhold those basic rights that we’d want for ourselves from others in civilization because we dislike or disagree with them. Why is that? Is that because we’re afraid of them? Some of them, undoubtedly, have forfeited the right to have those protections – either for a short period of time or forever – but the easiest road to stripping humans of their inherent rights is to treat them as inhuman.

We are also incredibly selective in our willingness to recognize the existence of these rights. Some, in America, recognize the First Amendment rights, but only for groups they support. Some recognize only Second Amendment rights. Some are willing to subjugate all the rights to their personal interests without any sense of irony.

We, in America, have built a society upon a foundation of individual freedom and inalienable rights but we constantly pile heaps upon heaps of fear and ignorance on that bedrock to the point that it is now so completely obscured that it remains a distant memory.

It is a difficult thing to do, to be honest: to stand firm on your principles and be honest and true to them in the face of overwhelming fear, emotion and sensationalism. As humans, we are also petty, cheap, jealous, base and vindictive. Tolerance is an achievement, not an inherent state of existence. The ability to hold two conflicting ideas in one’s head takes effort, whereas vilification of some ‘other’ takes nothing but the triggering of some base emotion.

We are also social creatures. We have the herd mentality. We need to be part of a greater whole. We want to be liked. We want to be wanted. We need approval. And approval is most easily gained by further dumping on those that the majority is already abandoning. Joining the crowd and appealing to base instincts of fear and ignorance and hatred is far easier than standing firm against that tide.

This is why it makes perfect sense that judges do, perhaps subconsciously, succumb to negative advertising and shy away from standing behind principles of freedom, equality and due process. That’s why politicians lose their seats because of spurious allegations of “supporting child molesters”. It’s why the Debo Adegbile‘s of the world can’t get the recognition they deserve.

When we decide whether certain rights (guns) should be granted based on whether we like the people who are seeking those rights (gun nuts) then we decide that rights aren’t rights at all, but rather privileges that can be taken away without any recourse.

When that happens, it won’t matter if you’re a child molester or a law-abiding citizen owning a firearm. You’ll be as much of a criminal in the eyes of everyone else.

 

 

Death by any means

It’s bad enough that the duty of prosecutors to disclose and give to the accused any exculpatory and impeachment evidence is entirely self-regulated. It’s quite another when prosecutors flout that requirement to obtain convictions while hiding behind the quickly falling veil of justice. It’s worse yet when they intentionally hide evidence in a case in which they are seeking to murder the accused.

This may sound familiar to you and that’s because I wrote back in February about Virginia prosecutors and their quest to kill Justin Wolfe. If only this were a follow-up to that post. It is not. This is yet another instance of prosecutorial hide-the-ball in a death penalty case, this time from Colorado in the case of Sir Mario Owens1.

Determined to demonstrate just how far he believed Arapahoe County prosecutors had strayed over the line in the effort to obtain the death penalty against his client, defense attorney Jim Castle resorted to a visual aid. During a hearing late Friday, he presented District Judge Gerald Rafferty with a wheeled cart piled with documents that he said prosecutors were obligated to turn over to the defense before trial but failed to do so — a transgression of due-process rights known as a Brady violation.

“There are so many violations in this case, I can’t cover them all,” Castle said. “How did this happen? This shouldn’t happen. If it’s allowed, we will accept a new low for justice in Colorado.”

I’m not going to go into a long-winded rant about the injustice of this. I’ll just let you see how outrageous it is.

  • [Co-defendant] Robert Ray’s wife, LaToya Sailor, testified that she wasn’t willing to come forward about what she knew until after Owens was arrested because she feared Owens would harm her son. Despite the fact that police documents indicate Sailor was already cooperating with authorities prior to Owens’ arrest, prosecutors made her supposed need to be protected from Owens “an issue in the case” and hammered away at it to the jury.
  • Another document withheld from the defense indicated Sailor, the beneficiary of a car from then-District Attorney Carol Chambers, had initially offered to assist in an accessory case against Ray but didn’t want to tie him directly to the Marshall-Fields shooting. (Ray was sentenced to death for Marshall-Fields’s murder and received a life sentence for Wolfe’s death.)
  • Witness Jamar Johnson was facing two counts of conspiracy to commit murder if he failed to cooperate in the Ray-Owens prosecution, but defense attorneys weren’t made aware of that possible motivation or how it might have shaped his testimony.
  • Greg Strickland, the only witness to identify Owens as the shooter of Marshall-Fields and Wolfe, testified that he’d received no assistance in any of his own cases in return for his testimony. But records indicate he received a plea deal in Adams County in exchange for his cooperation.

Some prosecutors take the position that if they don’t ask or know about information that would tend to prove the accused’s innocence, then they don’t have to abide by the Constitution. DA Carol Chambers apparently subscribed to that school of thought, because this isn’t the first case in which her ethics were called into question.

It is precisely this blood-lust that leads to a convict-at-all-costs attitude. And when the priority is a conviction, it is justice that dies.


Black men are exigent circumstances

Pursuant to the protections of the Fourth Amendment granted to every resident of this country, police cannot enter a residence or a closed bedroom without a warrant. This would violate the Fourth Amendment. There are certain exceptions to that warrant requirement, such as the existence of “exigent circumstances”.

[t]he term, exigent circumstances, does not lend itself to a precise definition but generally refers to those situations in which law enforcement agents will be unable or unlikely to effectuate an arrest, search or seizure, for which probable cause exists, unless they act swiftly and, without seeking prior judicial authorization.

There are three categories of circumstances that are exigent: those that present a risk of danger to human life; the destruction of evidence; or the flight of a suspect.

The exigent circumstances doctrine, however, is limited to instances in which the police initially have probable cause either to arrest or to search.

So, when one day police officers knocked on the door of the third floor apartment at 239 Knickerbocker Avenue, Stamford, CT, the following was known to them:

  1. GPS data from a third-party’s cell phone, which was believed to be in the suspect’s possession, suggested that the suspect had been in the general vicinity of that address (not that apartment) for some unknown period of time in the past 41 hours, and

  2. That the resident of the third floor apartment had recently been keeping company with two black men in her apartment. The suspect, naturally, was black.

Since the police were searching for a murder suspect from New Jersey, who they believed to be armed and dangerous, they thought it permissible to enter the bedroom without obtaining a warrant, because of “exigent circumstances”. But that’s just sophistry.

As Justice McDonald’s blistering dissent [PDF] states:

Thus, at the time the police knocked on Valvo’s apartment door, all they reasonably believed was that [the murder suspect] Singer possibly was in possession of a cell phone, that this cell phone had been in the vicinity of 239 Knickerbocker Avenue at some moment in the preceding forty-one hours, and that a man who has the same skin color as Singer had been staying in the third  floor apartment of 239 Knickerbocker Avenue for an unspecified period of time.

You’d think, now, that the name of the case is State v. Singer. It isn’t. It is State v. Kendrick [PDF]. Mr. Kendrick is one of those unfortunate black men who happened to be in the apartment at that time and in whose possession a gun was found after this warrantless search.

Mr. Singer was arrested in New Jersey, where the crime of murder had been committed. Further, the cell phone used to ping the general vicinity of Knickerbocker Avenue in Stamford? Never found in Stamford.

But this is all the information relied upon by the prosecution to convince a judge that exigent circumstances existed: the possibility that a black suspect had been in the vicinity of an apartment building and the knowledge that one of the apartments therein had a few black men in them.

That, the majority opinion states, is enough to lead officers to believe that there exists “a risk of danger to human life”.

Can you every imagine any court saying that about white people? The suspect is white, and armed, and that apartment building there has white people in it, so go ahead and burst into any room you want because officer safety!

Of course not. This stands only because being black carries with it the subtext of being a criminal. And, as this Court is wont to do, the result justifies the means: there was a gun, after all. So he was a criminal and he was dangerous.

The dissent makes the point that the police and prosecution may have had further evidence to tie those residents in that apartment to the cell-phone and the murder suspect, but chose not to present it. If that’s the case, this opinion is even more troubling.

What this signals, in that event, is that all the police and prosecution have to proffer to a trial judge in order to circumvent the Constitution is that the suspects are black. That, alone, is sufficient to justify an officer’s fear that the suspect is a danger.

We already know that in Connecticut minorities cannot freely walk the streets anymore without being suspected of criminal activity. Now minorities can’t sleep in their apartments at night without fear of cops busting in without any probable cause. Because our Court has affirmed that being black is the same as being armed and dangerous.

Ferguson: the no-Constitution zone

[The following is my latest column for the CT Law Tribune, to be published this week.]

To give the police greater power than a magistrate is to take a long step down the totalitarian path. Perhaps such a step is desirable to cope with modern forms of lawlessness. But if it is taken, it should be the deliberate choice of the people through a constitutional amendment.

Until the Fourth Amendment, which is closely allied with the Fifth, is rewritten, the person and the effects of the individual are beyond the reach of all government agencies until there are reasonable grounds to believe (probable cause) that a criminal venture has been launched or is about to be launched.

Yet if the individual is no longer to be sovereign, if the police can pick him up whenever they do not like the cut of his jib, if they can “seize” and “search” him in their discretion, we enter a new regime.

So concluded Mr. Justice Douglas in his dissent – the lone dissent – to Terry v. Ohio, perhaps with greater prescience than even he would have envisioned. Today, some 46 years later, the fruits of that unwise policy have ripened and come to bear in America, presenting us with a country that seems unrecognizable.