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THOMPSON: Too often race a deciding factor in America's courts of law

December 16, 2019 - 12:00 PM

 


OPINION


Every day in America…truth bubbles up in a cauldron-like criminal justice system. But the uneven heat beneath that cauldron means - regardless of truth - some people are treated unjustly. And more often than not it is black Americans and other minorities who are judged unfairly.

It is beyond tragic that people of colour in America still face the challenges they do…discrimination in education…in housing…and racism so ingrained that it almost appears normal. So, it should surprise no one that people of colour don’t get what white folks get simply by birth.

All too often, race is a deciding factor in whether you’re deemed innocent or guilty in America’s courts of law. That is the finding in numerous studies over the past few decades, with the National Registry of Exonerations piling on more proof in 2017.

Canada just recently started tracking data to illuminate issues of bias against people of colour in its judicial system. I wish I had data to compare. But common sense and anecdotal evidence suggest that race is not nearly as much a factor in innocence or guilt here as it is in the States.

Not only are innocent black people wrongfully convicted more often than innocent white people in America, evidence shows clearly that once wrongfully convicted…black people are much less likely to walk out of prison before serving their full unfair and unjust sentences. Those incarcerated for murder who are later proven innocent serve an average of 11.2 years when white…and 14.2 years when black.

Among other disturbing facts…you’re seven times more likely to be convicted of murder simply because you are black in America. Black citizens are three-and-a-half times more likely to be convicted than white citizens in matters of sexual assault. And, in drug crimes, you’re 12 times more likely to be found guilty if you’re black.

The American judicial system isn’t very responsive to change either. And when I say the system…I mean the people who for the most part hold the most powerful positions in law enforcement and the courts in America. These people control the “system” and despite overwhelming evidence that justice isn’t equal…there’s too little driving force to make it more fair and just.

And even though 25 of America’s 100 largest cities have black police chiefs…thousands of small towns across the country have white police chiefs…97 percent. And when it comes to prosecutors and judges…98 percent are white.

How unfair is America’s application of law enforcement and justice? Consider that the National Registry of Exonerations study found that black people convicted of murder are more than twice as likely to be innocent when the victims are white. Less than 15 percent of homicides by blacks have white victims, yet 31 percent of innocent black people who were later exonerated were initially convicted of killing white people.

But make no mistake, this isn’t about white guilt…though good Lord…there’s enough history to feel shame and guilt about. No, this is about doing what’s right…injustice due to race has been confirmed empirically…several times over decades.

A couple dozen wrongly convicted people are released each year…but there are untold hundreds of innocent people still serving time for others’ crimes in the States. The statistics here aren’t just numbers. Each is a person…with a family…with a right to fairness and justice.

Anecdotal stories - by themselves - can be used to support fact or fiction. But anecdotal evidence based on facts is useful in giving a face to racism…and the unequal justice that results.

Three black men - each wrongly convicted of murder as teenagers in Baltimore, MD - walked out of prison free men last month. It was by all appearances a joyous time for them…their families and friends.

But there should be little joy or satisfaction in America knowing that its judicial “system” stole 36 years of life from each of them.

Alfred Chestnut, Ransom Watkins and Andrew Stewart - all high school students - were arrested Thanksgiving morning in 1983 for the shooting death of a 14-year-old boy in an argument over a jacket a week earlier.

Four juvenile witnesses testified in court that the three were involved in the shooting. These witnesses it would be learned decades later had failed on four separate occasions to identify any of the three in photos shown by police and prosecutors.

The witnesses - junior high school students - later recanted. In fact, the investigation that led to the exoneration  of the three men found the juvenile witnesses were coached and pressured by police officers when  parents weren’t present. The teenager who committed the murder was 18-year-old Michael Willis…who was shot and killed 19 years later.

But it wasn’t so much a fair judicial system that finally acquitted the three men. It was Alfred Chestnut, now 52, who fought the system…submitting a public records request in 2018 and who  was finally granted access to sealed court files that pushed the judicial system and brought about exoneration for the three men.

Under Federal statute, these men can be awarded up to $50,000 a year…about $1.8 Million…but it might take a year. Besides, how many of us would give up our freedom…knowing we’re innocent…for that sum? Not me, I look at my life and experiences between age 17 and 53 and think…sorry…not nearly enough!

Sadly, Maryland is one of 17 states that does not compensate wrongly convicted citizens. So, Chestnut, Watkins and Stewart left prison last week with almost no money.…no vehicles, no homes, no retirement plans and no healthcare. They don’t even get re-adjustment counselling…which parolees receive…because there are no provisions for innocent people held in prison to get any kind of support.

I don’t know? It seems a decent judicial system should above all…be just.

— Don Thompson, an American awaiting Canadian citizenship, lives in Vernon and in Florida. In a career that spans more than 40 years, Don has been a working journalist, a speechwriter and the CEO of an advertising and public relations firm. A passionate and compassionate man, he loves the written word as much as fine dinners with great wines. His essays are a blend of news reporting and opinion.


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