Ham Sandwiches, Indictments, and Unjust Convictions

One of the fundamental problems of the U.S. criminal legal system is the nearly unfettered power of prosecutors to indict, so much so that Judge Learned Hand once quipped that a prosecutor could get a ham sandwich indicted.  (Note that this quip is often ascribed to former New York State Court of Appeals Chief Judge, Solomon “Sol” Wachtler, who was ultimately indicted, and pleaded guilty to harassing his former lover and threatening to kidnap her daughter.  He would spend a total of 13 months in federal prison and a halfway house.)  What should be added to that quip, known by most people not professionally affiliated with the legal system but working outside of its structures,  that is, advocates and policy makers seeking to right the sales of justice, is that these indictments often lead to convictions, many “erroneous,” which have led to far too many innocent people spending decades in prison.  A case in point: Jonathan Fleming was convicted of a 1989 murder that was committed in Brooklyn when the prosecutors knew that when the crime was committed Fleming was with his family in Disney World in Florida.  With typical prosecutorial arrogance, the prosecution left this exculpatory evidence, which had not been turned over to the defense, in Fleming’s case folder.  After spending nearly 25 years in prison, Kenneth P. Thompson, elected as Kings County (Brooklyn) District Attorney in 2014, looked at a number of cases of his predecessors, Charles Hynes and Elizabeth Holtzman, and unearthed Fleming’s case and the blatant prosecutorial “misconduct” that led to his conviction.  Fleming was ultimately released and exonerated.  (There are a number of other cases where people who served decades in prison under Hynes’ watch were exonerated.)

When a prosecutor brags about his or her conviction rate, just think what lengths they have gone to achieve such: knowingly using false testimony in order to obtain a conviction, withholding exculpatory evidence, that is, evidence that may prove innocence, and even manufacturing evidence.  In the final analysis, prosecutors are supposed to seek justice, not convictions, but in a nation where “justice” is equated with convictions and punishments, we have pigs flying out of Grand Juries handing down indictments, most which are tantamount to convictions.

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Death of a Kingmaker

William C. Thompson Sr. passed away on Christmas Eve, a belated gift to the thousands of people who were railroaded under his judicial watch when he was the Administrative Judge in Kings County Supreme Court.

The praises have been pouring in for Judge Thompson, mostly from politicians.  Mayor Bill de Blasio tweeted, “As a judge and the first African American state senator from Brooklyn, William C. Thompson Sr. stood up against racism and injustice in our city for decades.”

I know people normally do not speak ill of the dead, but the fact that he was a trailblazer does not negate the fact that as a judge he presided over countless star chambers and share in the guilt and the sin of hyper incarceration.  The Honorable Bruce Wright mentions “Willie” in his book, “Black Robes, White Justice,” commenting that he was a self-styled “kingmaker” when he was the Administrative Judge in Kings County Supreme Court, when Administrative Judges assigned cases to trial judges.

Willie would marry another judge, Sybil Hart Kooper, and he assigned high profile cases and cases with a high probability of convictions to her when he was Administrative Judge.  For example, she presided over the infamous 1982 murder of William Turks, who was beaten to death by a mob of white thugs.  In fact, at the sentencing of one of the mob, Gino Bova, Judge Kooper said, before pronouncing sentence, “There was a lynch mob on Avenue X that night.  The only thing missing was a robe and a tree.” This played splendidly with the Press, but note though that Bova was not convicted of murder, but of manslaughter, and given 5 to 15 years.  Judge Kooper presided over a number of similar cases involving Black youth, and they were often convicted of murder and sentenced to 20 years to life.

As a court watcher, monitoring Judge Kooper’s cases, Willie would often visit her courtroom and court her while young men of color were facing his Lady Justice, a cruel white bitch who, when in 1985 she was appointed to the Second Department Appellate Davison, trial lawyers whispered to their clients after they had been summarily convicted in her court that she “would do less harm” in the Appellate Division because she would be one of a panel of judges.

Lest we forget, Willie, this trailblazer, became nothing more than a cog in the machinery of injustice, instead of, as the kingmaker, ensuring that the scales of justice would be balanced.

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The White Hats Are Coming…

White supremacist flyers were found in Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx.  Under the heading, “White Excellence,” the flyers called on white men to “defend your heritage” – of lynching and racial violence against Black people? – and stop Blacks and the “spread of radical Islam.”

As a sign of white solidarity, the writers of the flyers requested that white people wear a white hat or shirt every Wednesday while eating or drinking on Katonah Avenue to “show you’re here.”  They concluded that there would be [Ku Klux Klan?] meetings and a demonstration on November 14, 2018.

It looks like the white hats have been emboldened by the Chief Red Hat who currently occupies the White House.

The white hats are not simply coming – they are already here.  They have always been with us in AmeriKKKa.  They stopped wearing white robes in public – now they’ll be wearing white shirts in public on Wednesdays.  (Some had donned black robes after they put their white robes in the closet.)  Now, with a “[white] nationalist” occupying the White House, these minions of racism publicly display their true colors – just the white in the red, white, and blue.  God bless [white] America!

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On this day in American history, November 7, 1931 — Fisk University Dean and Student Die In Car Wreck After Denied Hospital Care Due to Race

On November 7, 1931, Dean Juliette Derricotte of Fisk University in Nashville was driving three students to her parents’ home in Atlanta when a Model T driven by an older white man suddenly swerved and struck Ms. Derricotte’s car, overturning it into a ditch. The white driver stopped to yell at the black occupants of Ms. Derricotte’s car for damaging his own vehicle, then left the scene. Nearby Hamilton Memorial Hospital in Dalton, Georgia, did not admit African American patients, so Ms. Derricotte and the three students were treated by a white doctor at his office in Dalton and then taken to the home of an African American woman to recuperate – though Ms. Derricotte and one of the students, Nina Johnson, were critically injured.

Six hours after the accident, one of the less seriously injured students was able to reach a Chattanooga hospital by phone, and arrangements were made to transport Ms. Derricotte and Ms. Johnson the 35 miles to that facility. However, it was too late: Ms. Derricotte died on her way to the hospital, at age 34, and Ms. Johnson died the next day.

The Committee on Interracial Cooperation opened an investigation into the incident, and Walter White, secretary of the New York-based NAACP, traveled south in December 1931 to learn more. He later concluded, “The barbarity of race segregation in the South is shown in all its brutal ugliness by the willingness to let cultured, respected, and leading colored women die for lack of hospital facilities which are available to any white person no matter how low in social scale.”

“The Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) is proud to present A History of Racial Injustice – 2018 Calendar.  America’s history of racial inequality continues to undermine fair treatment, equal justice, and opportunity for many Americans.  The genocide of Native people, the legacy of slavery and racial terror, and the legally supported abuse of racial minorities are not well understood.  EJI believes that a deeper engagement with our nation’s history of racial injustice is important to addressing present-day questions of social justice and equality.

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On this day in American history, November 7, 1955 — U.S. Supreme Court Affirms Ruling Outlawing Racial Segregation in Public Recreational Facilities

In Mayor and City Council of Baltimore v. Dawson, African Americans living in Baltimore, Maryland, sued the city’s mayor and city council for maintaining racially segregated, publicly-funded beaches and parks. A federal district court initially dismissed the complaint, holding that the “separate but equal” doctrine established in 1896 by the United States Supreme Court in Plessy v. Ferguson permitted racial segregation as long as the facilities or services involved were substantially equal between races.

On March 14, 1955, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit overturned that ruling, rejecting the city’s argument that racial segregation was justified as a means of ensuring order and avoiding racial conflict. In its decision, the Fourth Circuit held that “segregation cannot be justified as a means to preserve the public peace merely because the tangible facilities furnished to one race are equal to those furnished by the other.” In the view of the court, legal support for the doctrine of “separate but equal” had been swept away by recent landmark Supreme Court rulings like Brown v. Board of Education, decided the previous year.

The City of Baltimore appealed the ruling to the Supreme Court. On November 7, 1955, the Court affirmed the Fourth Circuit’s decision in a per curiam order endorsing the lower court’s rejection of segregation in public recreational facilities and adopting its decision as national, binding precedent.

“The Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) is proud to present A History of Racial Injustice – 2018 Calendar.  America’s history of racial inequality continues to undermine fair treatment, equal justice, and opportunity for many Americans.  The genocide of Native people, the legacy of slavery and racial terror, and the legally supported abuse of racial minorities are not well understood.  EJI believes that a deeper engagement with our nation’s history of racial injustice is important to addressing present-day questions of social justice and equality.

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Every Election Has Been Important in My Lifetime

Political pundits are proclaiming that this is the most important election of our lifetime.  Every election has been important in my lifetime.  As a child of the ‘60s, as a kid, I heard the stories of Black people being killed because they wanted to vote or they in fact voted, and even White people helping Black people to vote were killed, threatened with violence, or beaten.  This is in my lifetime, not a distant, past America.  Today, the vote is as important as it was in 1964, 1920, and 1870. Maybe more so.  Long before Trump and his politics of fear and racism, the color red associated with today’s Republican Party was real blood, the blood of people, mostly Black people, who took seriously the Constitution and all that jazz about creating a perfect Union.  They knew – well, they hoped – that America could be better, that she didn’t have to succumb to fear of her own People, that voting booths did not have to be killing fields, but the avenues for civic engagement, for participatory “democracy.”  It wasn’t so long ago when I was a child watching a cartoon about classical democracy, about animals running for the highest elected office, “King of the Jungle.”  The cartoon stressed the importance of even one vote, dramatizing it by the election being a dead time, with one animal having not voted.  The two candidates canvassed the jungle to find him to convince it to vote for one or the other.  So vote.  Your vote does matter.  If it didn’t, then certain forces would not be trying to suppress or diminish it.

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On this day in American History, November 6, 1909 — Colored Alabamian Reports Murder of Black Wagon Driver in Alabama

In October 1909, a black wagon driver “who did not drive as far to the right as a white man thought he should” was shot dead in Montgomery, Alabama. According to an article in Colored Alabamian magazine, the white man avoided punishment “as if he had only shot a common dog.”

The article asserted that white people’s evasion of capital punishment was not a rare occurrence in the city. Weeks after the death of the wagon driver, “[a] Negro walked into a Loan office where he was somewhat involved. His statement was not satisfactory to the white men who followed him into the street and shot him to death.”

The report described the story as a common narrative in the community. “White men who shoot and kill Negroes are not adjudged guilty of murder by the law.” The magazine called for white officials to bring all murderers, regardless of color, to the “bar of justice and punished to the fullest extent of the law.”

“The Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) is proud to present A History of Racial Injustice – 2018 Calendar.  America’s history of racial inequality continues to undermine fair treatment, equal justice, and opportunity for many Americans.  The genocide of Native people, the legacy of slavery and racial terror, and the legally supported abuse of racial minorities are not well understood.  EJI believes that a deeper engagement with our nation’s history of racial injustice is important to addressing present-day questions of social justice and equality.

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