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A Step Toward Justice: Facing Race and Fear in the Criminal Justice System

St. Louis Police Cruiser
Wikimedia Commons

A Step Toward Justice: Facing Race and Fear in the Criminal Justice System

The acquittal of Jason Stockley, a White former St. Louis police officer, for shooting and killing Anthony Smith — who was Black — served as yet another grim reminder of the elusive nature of justice in America. The facts generally fit an all-too-familiar pattern. A Black man, woman, or child’s life is interrupted by an encounter with a police officer borne out of that officer’s suspicion. The encounter turns into a death sentence for the officer’s target. The suspect-turned-victim’s death is followed by calls for justice from a community that has long been over-policed and under-resourced. The criminal justice system — which we task with adjudicating these fatal transgressions — finds a way to obscure reality and ignore the facts. In many cases, the story concludes as it did for Stockley: with the victim’s race and status weaponized, an officer claiming they feared for their life because of it, and an exoneration by trial. Sometimes it ends without any charges being filed at all. A conviction is exceedingly rare. Most of the time, the system holds no one accountable. The community cries out in protest, only to have their voices suppressed through violence, force, and intimidation at the hands of the state. In St. Louis, following Stockley’s acquittal, that meant police chanting “whose streets, our streets” while arresting those who challenged state violence

None of this is surprising if you have been paying any attention to the institution that we collectively look to for accountability. Fairness, justice, and equality are anathema to it. In the criminal justice system, Black lives do not matter. That is not hyperbole, but fact. Race and inequality largely define who is suspected, detained, arrested, prosecuted, convicted, and sentenced. In 2014, three years after Mr. Smith’s death, then-Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson shot and killed Michael Brown during a routine encounter on a suburban St. Louis street. That same year, nearly 1600 police departments arrested Black people at rates more skewed than those in Ferguson. In many cities, race is outcome determinative: a study of prosecution data in Manhattan from 2010 and 2011 revealed that Black defendants were 27 percent more likely than White defendants to receive jail or prison time for misdemeanor drug offenses. Nationwide, Black defendants are incarcerated in state prisons at a rate that is 5 times that of their White defendant counterparts. One can go to any criminal courthouse or jailhouse in America and see these statistics come to life. Whether you observe the lines of those waiting to enter courthouses nationwide, or those working in the fields at plantation prisons like Louisiana State Penitentiary, the numbers match the racial dynamics.

The intersection of data, experience, and reality leads to a conclusion that unfortunately raises more questions than answers. First, we must face the harsh truth that we cannot rely on the criminal justice system to end or even curtail the violence visited by law enforcement on communities of color. Indeed, the system seems to encourage the type of police violence often deployed against Black and Brown communities. The law grants officers broad discretion to use lethal force when they feel threatened. Prosecutors, who must work with police to fulfill their duties, are understandably disinclined to lump those they are usually allied with into the same class as the so-called criminals they ordinarily prosecute. And if a case gets as far as a trial, judges and juries, for a host of reasons, have a hard time convicting the police. Often the officer on trial gets the benefit of the doubt in a way that would be unthinkable for a person of color accused of a crime. In Stockley’s case, the judge excused the officer’s statement of intent to his partner — “we’re killing this [expletive]” — during the high speed chase that preceded the shooting. He also accepted as true testimony that a gun was found in the victim’s car — despite the fact that the only DNA recovered from that gun belonged to a police officer: Stockley. The judge bolstered that belief with his own biases about race, place, and crime, explaining that “an urban heroin dealer not in possession of a firearm would be an anomaly.”

These judgments, combined with the institutional barriers to justice, speak volumes. As civil rights and racial justice advocate Bryan Stevenson explains, America’s criminal justice apparatus rests on “America’s history of racial injustice” and is imbued with a racialized presumption of guilt flowing from that history. A system infected by racial bias and informed by a malignant indifference to Black life is an unlikely conduit to justice for the victims of police violence and their families.

That does not mean that we should all give up the struggle to hold law enforcement accountable, or abandon efforts to do so through the courts. After all, the criminal law is supposed to reflect societal norms, and society should not and cannot countenance homicides or other abuses that are committed by state actors, public servants, or anyone else, and informed by racialized fear. Without question, there are an abundance of good people doing the work necessary to turn that ideal into a reality. But the shortcomings of the system should force us to direct more of our energy elsewhere, long before a tragic death drives us to seek justice in an unjust institution.

So where should we begin? By challenging and disrupting the pernicious, false connections between race and criminality that were baked into our collective subconscious at America’s founding and continue to inform the fear-laden stereotypes of today. These biases infect all of our judgments, no matter our race. They are the product of centuries of chattel slavery, segregation, and discrimination. They were developed to prop up systems of oppression. And they are deadly. The simple fact is that fear, combined with stereotypes, can turn being Black and driving with a missing license plate, or shopping in a store, or selling loose cigarettes, or standing next to your broken down car, or fleeing arrest into a fatal police encounter.

To be clear, a wholesale recognition of the far flung effects of racialized fear on the choices made by law enforcement is just the first step in addressing a longstanding institutional problem — much like the way an addict must acknowledge that they have a problem before they can take to treatment. Jason Stockley — and so many like him — should be wrestling with that transformative fear long before they decide to become a police officer, don a uniform, and strap on a gun. Far too often, it seems, they are not. Until that changes, we can simply expect more of what the criminal justice system already dispenses in disproportionate doses: injustice.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are mine and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Fair Punishment Project.

Las Vegas jury decides that a brutal murder does not justify the death penalty

John Valerio shows that violent offenders can change.

Las Vegas jury decides that a brutal murder does not justify the death penalty

John Valerio shows that violent offenders can change.

John Valerio admits that what he did in Las Vegas, decades ago, was monstrous. “There’s not a day that goes by that I’m not remorseful and that I don’t think of Ms. Blackwell and the things that happened in 1986,” he told a jury last month. “I was a menace. There’s no other way to put it. I made a lot of mistakes.”

Valerio stabbed a sex worker 45 times in 1986. The victim, 26-year-old Karen Blackwell, was found dead in the backseat of a car ten days later. She had been stabbed in the head, neck, chest, abdomen, and vaginal region, and for this heinous crime, Valerio was convicted of first degree murder in 1988. The jury that found him guilty concluded that the crime constituted “torture, depravity of mind, or mutilation” and sentenced him to die. But on August 28, 31 years after the horrific crime, Valerio learned that he wouldn’t be executed after all. Instead, he will spend the rest of his life behind bars without the possibility of parole.

The 52-year-old was resentenced by a new group of jurors in Clark County, after his original punishment was overturned by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in 2002. The appellate court ruled that “depravity of mind” was too ill-defined to be used in capital sentencing — a conclusion that was also drawn by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1980.

With a rare opportunity to drastically alter a death row prisoner’s fate, jurors decided last month that Valerio should be held accountable for his horrifying crime but does not deserve to be killed by the state. Chief Deputy District Attorney Marc DiGiacomo argued that Valerio is unchanged and that the death penalty is “right” and “just.” But speaking before the new jury, defense lawyer Tom Pitaro emphasized second chances. “The question is, do you fundamentally believe that the human spirit is redemptive, reforming and changing, and can be? Doesn’t mean it has to be, but can it be?” he said. “You are now sentencing John Valerio, 2017, at age 52. You’re not sentencing John Valerio, 21, 1986.” Valerio also stressed that he is a transformed man who “[makes] better choices today.” Jurors ultimately agreed that someone with a violent past can not only change for the better but also receive mercy — a concept championed by opponents of the death penalty and overlooked by many advocates of criminal justice reform.

The decision also reflects shifting national attitudes about capital punishment, specifically. The number of people executed each year has been dropping steadily since 1999, per data from the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC), which tracks and analyzes capital punishment trends. Likewise, the number of new death sentences has plummeted since the late 1990s, reaching a record low of 31 in 2016. Last year was the sixth consecutive year that fewer than 100 people were sentenced to die. Steadily declining public support for the death penalty can be attributed to a greater understanding that the process is flawed and inhumane.

Valerio’s case shows that the power of redemption, and having to confront someone whose life rests in your hands, also play a role. During an interview with the LawNewz Network early this month, Pitaro explained that one juror firmly believed in the death penalty for people convicted of first-degree murder. But after seeing and hearing Valerio, her opinion changed. “The abstract and the real is what this case was about,” Pitaro said.

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What Donald Trump Can Learn From Colin Kaepernick

What Donald Trump Can Learn From Colin Kaepernick

Donald Trump should take a few lessons in leadership from Colin Kaepernick, Malcolm Jenkins, Anquan Boldin, and other NFL players who bravely use their platforms to lift the voices of the least powerful, and do so in a way that honors this country’s deep and important protest tradition.

Last year, Colin, a 29 year old Pro-Bowler with a 126 million dollar contract, took a knee during the national anthem to protest police shootings of unarmed citizens and other injustices in the criminal legal system. He took a knee for Eric Garner, a man who NYPD officers choked to death even as he pleaded — “I can’t breathe.” He took a knee for Walter Scott, a man in North Charleston, South Carolina, whom a police officer shot in the back while Scott was running away. He took a knee for Freddie Gray in Baltimore, for Tamir Rice in Cleveland, for Michael Brown in Ferguson, and for the hundreds of other disproportionately black, mostly impoverished, often unarmed people that police officers kill each year.

Colin’s bravery cost him dearly. Kaepernick’s worst season in the NFL is demonstrably better than the best season many quarterbacks in the league right now have ever had. But he can’t get a job. Many teams who desperately needed a solid starter, or even a reliable backup, this season ignored Colin Kaepernick at their own expense.

Jim Souhan, a respected sportswriter in Minneapolis who covers the Vikings, said it best in his piece entitled “The Vikings Should Have Gambled on Colin Kaepernick.” After a brutal loss for the Vikings, Sohan wrote:

Last year, Keenum threw nine touchdowns and 11 interceptions before being benched. Last year, Kaepernick threw 16 touchdowns and four interceptions. Kaepernick is bigger, stronger, faster, possesses a better arm and has been a starting quarterback in the Super Bowl, where he came within one pass of winning.

The NFL has conspiratorially blackballed Kaepernick for kneeling during the national anthem to protest the unjustified shootings of black Americans by police.

Some owners don’t want him on their team, wrongly conflating a peaceful protest with an attack on our country or our soldiers.

There is no comparison between Keenum and Kaepernick. The Vikings and other teams decided that they prefer comfortable losses to uneasy victories. Sunday’s loss was about as comfortably numbing as they get.

I haven’t been able to shake what Souhan said. Not just the Vikings, but the Browns, the Bengals, the Colts, the Bears, and the 49ers — all winless — made the exact same decision that they, too, preferred “comfortable losses to uneasy victories.”

This is not OK.

Colin Kaepernick did not break the law. He is an upstanding citizen. He has never been arrested. He has never been suspended. In fact, what he did do, by taking a silent knee during the National Anthem to protest injustice and police brutality in America, didn’t even violate NFL rules.

But here he is — in essence — fired, terminated, banned even, from the NFL during the prime of physical career. Yes, I know that the NFL doesn’t hire quarterbacks — the 32 individual teams do — but it is clearer now than ever that what we are watching is absolutely not a football decision.

Both Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers, arguably the two best quarterbacks in the NFL, and two of the best quarterbacks of all time, have each argued that Colin Kaepernick deserves to be in the league right now. Colin has led teams to victory against each of those men on their own fields. Yet players that have never made it to the playoffs once in their career, that have never defeated the Packers or Patriots at home, have jobs and Colin Kaepernick does not.

What we are witnessing is the unethical, immoral sacrifice of Colin Kaepernick’s career because he dared to take a quiet stance against injustice in America. It’s wrong. It’s gross. It’s unfair.

Here’s the thing, though. When Colin took a knee, took a risk, took a stand against an unjust criminal legal system, he helped to ignite a movement.

Yesterday, Donald Trump called them sons of bitches, the NFL players who take a knee each week during the national anthem to protest injustice in America. But that just shows how little Donald Trump knows about protest, about speaking up for the voiceless, about putting your money where your mouth is. Trump calls them sons of bitches, and I call them heroes.

Donald Trump is a man that uses his power and platform to crush our most vulnerable neighbors. Whether he’s promising to build a wall to keep out hard-working immigrants; ordering ICE to round-up and deport people who have made a living and a life in this country; or pushing to strip health care from millions of people, Donald Trump is the antithesis of Profiles in Courage.

By contrast, Colin Kaepernick is a man of impeccable character and integrity. This past season his teammates voted to give him the highest honor available for his life on and off the field. Just this past week the NFL Player’s Association gave Colin their Community MVP Award for his outstanding community service and generosity. And now he is a man without job — standing up for his values cost him everything. But do you know what Colin does when he’s down on his luck? He continues to donate money — over $900,000 and counting — to fight injustice. He spends his weekend handing out suits to formerly incarcerated citizens who are returning to their communities and looking for jobs. He’s a man who puts his money where his mouth is.

Colin isn’t alone. Malcolm Jenkins, the standout safety for the Philadelphia Eagles, who raises his fist each week during the national anthem, like Colin, has donated from his clothing line to provide dress clothes for returning citizens who need a job and a second chance. Along with Anquan Boldin, who retired from the Detroit Lions this year to focus on philanthropy, Malcolm is helping to lead the push for Clean Slate legislation in Pennsylvania, which, if passed, would automatically seal the records of people convicted of certain low level offenses after ten years. Both Malcolm and Anquan also have spoken against life without parole for juveniles (America is the only place in the world that has such sentences), pushed to end cash bail (which keeps people locked up based on their poverty, not their safety risk), and pressed against the long mandatory minimum sentences that fuel mass incarceration.

When these guys take a knee or raise a fist tomorrow, they aren’t disrespecting the flag or our country. These players are engaging in deeply patriotic, selfless, and brave protest to raise awareness to the injustices that persist in America’s criminal justice system. America would be a better place, if Donald Trump showed a fraction of the courage and leadership these players show everyday.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are mine and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Fair Punishment Project.

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