I DROVE down to Murphysboro, Ill., on February 25 to testify on behalf of a young woman who has been part of our congregation since she was a teenager. It is a case that’s been dragging on since her senior year of college at Southern Illinois University, and I attended the sentencing phase of her hearing.
It’s not unusual for me to be in court with one of the younger members of my congregation. I’ve had to come to grips with the fact that even the smallest offense can turn into an epic punishment for someone that doesn’t have the luxury of being white.
That reality was on full display on this day. Usually when I go as a character witness to speak on behalf of someone, I am aware that they did something wrong. I am not sitting on the stand pretending that what they did was okay, or that because I am their pastor the offense should somehow go unpunished. Instead, I’m there to let the judge, jury and lawyers know that this is a real person, who has a real family and community, and that we are there for him/her as an extended support system.
I’ve seen firsthand the difference that makes in how they are treated. When the defendant (especially a nonwhite defendant) comes up by him/herself, with nobody there to advocate for him or her, s/he often receives unusually harsh treatment. That is a “No duh” to some of you, but a shock to others. To the second group, I could tell you some stories that you wouldn’t believe.
Anyway, this case felt different, because the offense of this young woman was so minor. And even when you listen to the prosecuting attorney’s side of the case, you find yourself wondering if there was really any offense at all, other than having the guts to defend and stand up for herself.
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WHEN THIS young lady was 21, she was hanging out with a couple friends at the local Panera, and they convinced her to come hang out with them at a bar for a while. She is not the bar type and rarely drinks, but decided to go with them for a bit. When she got there, she still had her coffee from Panera, and the bouncer asked why she had that. She told him she wasn’t going to be drinking and asked if she could bring it in. He told her it was fine.
They hung out for a while, and when they left, she still had her coffee. There was a new bouncer at the door, and he told her she couldn’t leave with the coffee cup for fear that it might have alcohol. She told him that it was just coffee, and that the other bouncer had given her permission and proceeded to exit. He slapped the coffee cup out of her hand, and that was when things got crazy. They exchanged words, and after he called her a Black b#*#, she slapped him. At that point, two other bouncers got involved, and they beat her up pretty good.
It finally got broken up, and she and her friends just wanted to leave. But there was a cop there by that point, and he was buddies with the bouncers. He wanted to make an example out of her, and according to some of the early testimony of one of the bouncers, they told the cop to just leave it alone, that it was over and done with.
But the cop went out and pursued her and started harassing her. She didn’t like how he was talking to her, so she tried to take out her phone to record him. He slapped both the phone and purse out of her hand and told her that she better not get smart with him or else. She collected her things and asked if she was under arrest, and he said no. But then, just as she was about to leave, he changed his mind and arrested her and put her in jail for 36 hours.
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THAT SEEMS like it should be the end of the story. Even then, I would have seen it as unfair that she went to jail for 36 hours while there was no accountability for those who harassed her. But it was far from the end. This cop decided that he was going to make an example out of her for being smart with him, and he went on the warpath.
He went back and wrote a number of citations, adding on as the weeks went by (something that seems illegal to me…I’m still working to understand how that can happen). When I asked her lawyer how that happened, he said that it seemed like the cop had it out for her and wrote up as many offenses as he could think of and kept adding on with the hope that something would stick.
When all was said and done, he wrote her up for seven offenses—a felony charge for assaulting an officer, three misdemeanors for assault and battery (one for each of the three bouncers), one misdemeanor for trespassing (during the altercation with the bouncers, she was pushed outside and then came back in), and two misdemeanors for resisting arrest.
When you hear that someone faces seven charges, you think of someone who robbed a store, not a petite 21-year-old woman who got into it with three full-size bouncers (one of whom is particularly massive).
She found a lawyer who was well known in the community to defend her and ultimately used up all her savings on the defense trial (which is a travesty in itself—she is the first person in her family to go to college, and she used her hard-earned money that should have gone to her social work degree and used it on this crazy trial). Her lawyer defended her case before a jury and was shocked by the outcome. She was found innocent of the felony, which was a “No duh.” The police officer claimed that she kicked him, but there was zero proof of that.
But the jury found her guilty of all six misdemeanors.
The defense attorney said it was one of the most shocking things he has ever witnessed in his 40 years of law in Murphysboro. She has an impeccable track record and has never had even a small brush with the law. He said he couldn’t find a single explanation for the jury’s decision other than the fact that the officer was so determined to make her suffer.
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HER CASE is one of those situations where you could see racism being played out both in subtle and obvious ways. The assistant prosecuting attorney (APA), who I got to see in full action yesterday, was dripping with contempt for this young lady. It is so bizarre. I don’t know what was happening in the prosecutor’s heart or how her actions play outside of the courtroom, but she struck me as an absolute racist. She repeatedly painted a picture of this young woman as dangerous, irresponsible and reckless.
At one point, as the APA was going on a diatribe about how dangerous the defendant was, the defense lawyer finally interrupted. He stood up and said:
Your honor, in 40 years of practicing law, I’m not sure I’ve ever defended someone with a more pristine record. She put herself through a great high school, she is the first in her family to graduate college, and she’s going to enroll in graduate school once this gets resolved. She has a long track record of volunteerism in the neighborhood where she lives. She has 11 letters of recommendations from a wide array of people who know her, including doctors, lawyers and clergy. She has her pastor here, who is attesting to her nobility and character. When you see a young woman who has such a sterling record, and then there is one instance where her character is called into question, doesn’t that make you wonder what’s really happening here? The accusations being made by the APA are just ludicrous. On top of that, the record already states that the bouncer is the one who initiated the physical confrontation. At what point do we stop calling her a criminal and admit that this whole thing is just plain ridiculous?
The judge asked the APA to respond, and her words sent a chill down my spine. “This may not be the most egregious offense we’ve seen from a college student, but that doesn’t change the fact that she made a poor choice,” she said. “If she would have kept her mouth shut, none of this would have ever happened. We have to make an example out of her.”
Remembering those words floods me with anger, even as I write them right now. If she would have kept her mouth shut? Really? Did the APA really just say that? That was what the defendant was guilty of? Opening her mouth? And now you are going to make an example out of her?
Right then the judge should have said, “Of course that is true. This is a witch-hunt. It is ludicrous.” But he didn’t.
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IN FACT, that is some of what burns me the most. The judge seemed like he was kind hearted and sympathetic. He was very moved by the fact that I came and mentioned it a number of times. He publicly stated how impressive her record was and wished her luck in her future endeavors. He told her that he hoped she got into a good graduate school and said he was impressed with who she was, and that he believed she would make a positive impact.
But kind intentions aren’t enough. He let her hang on the two counts of resisting arrest, and those are real. They will have real consequences. The defense lawyer pushed the judge on this very fact, holding him to his words. He asked the judge to overturn the ruling on the two counts of resisting arrest.
Do you want to know what the officer claims about how she “resisted arrest?” The officer claims that she went limp when they tried to put her in the car. That’s it.
The defense lawyer gave an impassioned plea. Even if she did go limp—and that seems arguable—it doesn’t actually match the minimum description of resisting arrest from an officer of the peace. He begged the judge to dismiss those two counts and to let her move on with her life.
But the judge didn’t. Even as he thanked me for coming, and even as he acknowledged how impressive it was that she has 11 letters of recommendation, and even as he noted that she has no hint of a track record that would remotely suggest that she is a troublemaker or violent, he refused to waive those two charges.
The defense lawyer told me later that not only could he have done it, but that he should have done it. There was nothing substantial in the evidence to even make the claim for resisting arrest. From a legal standpoint—not just a moral one—the right thing to do was to overturn those. But he protected the status quo, and she will be the one to suffer.
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THERE WAS other stuff too. I could go on and on. When the pictures of her bruises were shown—pictures I personally saw and that were obvious signs of her having been beaten up—the APA claimed that her skin is too dark and that the pictures shouldn’t count as evidence because it can’t be proven that they are actual bruises. Dear Lord, that woman made me crazy…
At the end of the day, I know that this young woman will be able to overcome the two misdemeanor convictions and keep moving forward. But she will never forget the way the APA talked about her and demonized her. When the trial finally ended, she just hugged me and sobbed uncontrollably for what felt like hours. No words were exchanged, but I knew exactly what she was feeling.
It breaks my heart not only that this happened to her, but that some version of this happens to hundreds of young people everyday. There is a narrative that gets pushed onto them—a narrative that claims they are dangerous, reckless and a threat to society. It is an unequal narrative biased towards some and against others, and it is unjust, racist and wrong.
Because of that, something little like getting into it with a bouncer can turn into jail time and a potential felony. Something bigger, like making the kind of mistake that many of us white folks made when we were the same age, quickly escalates into serious incarceration time and the vicious cycle outlined by Michelle Alexander in her book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.
A blog post titled “Black Boy Interrupted” by the Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates put words to something that I deeply feel but often struggle to articulate:
Our policy is color-blind, but our heritage isn’t. An American courtroom claiming it can be colorblind denies its rightful inheritance. An American courtroom claiming it can be colorblind is a drug addict claiming he can walk away after just one more hit. Law and legacy are at war. Legacy is winning. Legacy will always win. And our legacy is to die in this land where time is unequal, and deeded days are unequal, and blessed is the black man who lives to learn other ways, who lives to see other worlds, who lives to bear witness before the changes.
First published at Daniel Hill's blog.