Get Informed

Subscribe to our newsletters for regular updates, analysis and context straight to your email.

Close Newsletter Signup

Michael Brown’s mother lost her bid for City Council, but is one of many bringing personal experience with the criminal system to politics

What you’ll read today

  • Spotlight: Michael Brown’s mother lost her bid for City Council, but is one of many bringing personal experience with the criminal system to politics

  • Did Baltimore cops ‘conspire’ to suppress evidence, leading to a wrongful murder conviction?

  • Julián Castro wants to decriminalize migration

  • When ‘violent offense’ includes marijuana possession, what does it mean?

  • In a nod to transparency, NYPD will no longer use controversial law to refuse requests for police records and body camera footage

In the Spotlight

Michael Brown’s mother lost her bid for City Council, but is one of many bringing personal experience with the criminal system to politics

Yesterday, Michael Brown’s mother, Lesley McSpadden, lost her bid to represent Ferguson’s Third Ward on its City Council. McSpadden (who also goes by Lezley) is the mother of Michael Brown, the unarmed Black 18-year-old whose shooting death by a white Ferguson police officer––who was not indicted––helped propel the Black Lives Matter movement. As a member of the council, she would have had the chance to push for institutional change in the city and oversee the same police force whose officer shot her son. “Almost four years ago to this day, I ran down this very street, and my son was covered in a sheet,” McSpadden said during a press conference last year. She said that one of her top objectives for the city was to improve police accountability and reform. McSpadden also called for improved community mental health resources, and better after-school programs for local children. [P.R. Lockhart / Vox]

“I don’t want my children to grow up in a city where what happened to Michael can happen to anyone else,” she wrote in The Root. “We need to rebuild the entire system from the inside out. The only way that can be done is by having people, like me, who have been harmed by the system working inside it to make the right change that is needed.” [Lezley McSpadden / The Root]

Even though McSpadden lost her race, Ferguson’s City Council looks drastically different from the way it did five years ago, when her son was killed. The majority-Black city was, in 2014, governed mostly by whites. The mayor was white, as was the police chief, and 94 percent of the police force. Only one of its six City Council members was Black. “These facts, as much as anything, have shaped the protests over the police shooting of Michael Brown,” wrote Jordan Weissmann for Slate. “Ferguson, with a 67 percent Black population, is a place where the largest community has little political voice.” A local political science professor attributed that to low turnout at the polls among Black residents. [Jordan Weissmann / Slate] But the following year, a “surge in voter turnout helped elect two new Black city council members in Ferguson.” After months of street protests, the turnout for the following election was 30 percent, more than double recent municipal elections.” Until then, Ferguson had had only two African American council members in its 120-year history. [Carey Gillam / Reuters]

Representation by those directly affected by the criminal legal system and police misconduct has become increasingly important as candidates for all sorts of political posts––district attorney, mayor, city councilmember, and president––seek to convince voters that they are worthy of being called “progressive.” Some simply say the word “progressive,” without much in the way of policy proposals to back it up. Others make it a central issue of their campaign but later retreat in seemingly cynical political moves. New York City’s mayor, Bill de Blasio, fits the latter description. Last summer, after ending solitary confinement in the city’s jails, he defended the Department of Correction, which was skirting the rule by shipping prisoners upstate, where they were put in solitary. De Blasio said the actions were rare and necessary for safety. “He’s done nothing to fix the broken N.Y.P.D. disciplinary process,” said Carolyn Martinez-Class, a police reform advocate, adding that he had “taken the city back decades on police transparency.” [J. David Goodman and William Neuman / New York Times]

When Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights announced plans for a “Mass Bail Out Action” for women and teenagers last fall, de Blasio said the foundation’s “intention is noble but they should focus on low level and non-violent offenders only.” This was unacceptable to criminal justice reform advocate Akeem Browder, the brother of Kalief Browder, whose death by suicide after spending three years on Rikers Island for a crime he did not commit became a rallying cry for reformers. “I am incredibly disappointed with Mayor de Blasio,” said Browder. “He travels the country talking about building a true progressive platform, but shies away from true progressive action right in his own backyard.” [Jeff Coltin / City and State NY]

Akeem Browder decided to challenge de Blasio and run for mayor last year on the Green Party ticket. His contact with the criminal legal system, something he discussed openly, was not limited to his brother’s ordeal. Twenty years ago, when he was 15, Browder was arrested after his girlfriend’s mother caught them having oral sex. “It was like kidnapping, rape, forcible touching, sodomy, a bunch of stuff,” he said. “They threw the book at me.” He ended up pleading guilty, and having to register as a Level Three sex offender. He later spent a year and a half in prison after pleading guilty to burglary and identity theft charges in 2006. [Danny Lewis / WNYC]

Browder lost his race, but he had various qualities voters might seek if they care about criminal justice issues: He knew how stigmatizing a criminal record can be, especially with the label “sex offender”; he knew what it’s like to do time; and he knew the impact such contacts can have on a person’s family. Browder also helped destigmatize all of these issues by speaking of them openly during his campaign.

Although Browder, McSpadden, and others have not been successful, their presence in the field has helped promote the importance of perspective among elected officials. When those in charge of making the rules have never been vulnerable to the legal system, or seen a child or parent through the process, their promises mean less. The urgency in their rhetoric is simply less believable.

And besides, some such candidates win. McSpadden is a member of Mothers of the Movement—a group of Black women who have lost children to the police and to racism-fueled vigilante violence. She is the second woman in the group to run for political office; in 2018, Lucy McBath, whose son Jordan Davis was shot and killed in 2012, won a congressional election in Georgia. [P.R. Lockhart / Vox] “I lost my son Jordan, but I am still his mother,” McBath said in a campaign video. “We thought maybe he would be a community activist. What I thought I saw in him is what I’ve become.” She added, “I can speak truth in Washington.”

Stories From The Appeal

Jerome Johnson embraces attorney Nancy Forster in July 2018.
[Photo illustration by Elizabeth Brown. Photo courtesy of Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project]

Did Baltimore Cops ‘Conspire’ to Suppress Evidence, Leading to a Wrongful Murder Conviction? Attorneys for a man exonerated in a Baltimore murder say detectives suppressed exculpatory evidence and that the police’s homicide unit has a pattern of similar conduct in decades of cases. [Amelia McDonell-Parry]

Stories From Around the Country

First immigration proposal of the 2020 primary would decriminalize migration: Presidential candidate Julián Castro came out with the primary’s first immigration proposal, which would significantly reduce immigration enforcement. Castro would repeal the provision of U.S. law that makes “illegal entry” into the country a federal crime, which has been on the books since 1929 but has only recently been routinely enforced. Prosecuting illegal entry is what gave the Trump administration the power to separate thousands of families in 2018, by referring parents for criminal prosecution. He is not advocating open borders, as being in the U.S. without papers would still be a civil offense and deportation would still be the penalty, but Castro is saying that migrants should not “be charged with a crime, immediately deported, or detained for more time than strictly necessary for crossing the border.” [Dara Lind / Vox]

When ‘violent offense’ includes marijuana possession, what does it mean? The calls for leniency for “low-level nonviolent” crimes have hit some resistance because more than 50 percent of state prisoners are behind bars for violent crimes. But many of the “violent offenders” in U.S. prisons are there for crimes that don’t seem violent. “According to a Marshall Project survey of all 50 states’ laws, you can get charged and convicted as a violent criminal in more than a dozen states if you enter a dwelling that’s not yours. That might seem like a property crime, but it’s often deemed a violent one: burglary,” writes Eli Hager. Purse snatching is considered a “violent” crime in several states, as is the manufacture of methamphetamines, and theft of drugs. “In Minnesota, aiding an attempted suicide is listed as violent, as is marijuana possession (depending on the amount). In North Carolina, trafficking a stolen identity and selling drugs within 1,000 feet of a school or playground are both violent crimes, according to the state’s ‘habitual violent offender’ statute. And in New York, it’s deemed a violent felony to simply possess a loaded gun illegally—with ‘loaded’ defined as simply being in possession of bullets.” [Eli Hager / Marshall Project]

In a nod to transparency, NYPD will no longer use controversial law to refuse requests for police records and body camera footage: Even though it was announced on April 1, it does not seem to be a joke: The NYPD says it will no longer use a controversial section of the state’s civil rights law (50-a) to deny Freedom of Information Law requests. After the NYPD reviewed its disciplinary actions, it vowed several improvements. According to Ann Prunty, the assistant deputy commissioner of legal matters, the department will not “use 50-a as a basis to deny disclosure for arrest reports or other routine police reports” and the NYPD will no longer use 50-a as a reason not to disclose body camera footage. Prunty notes, however, that they will analyze requests under the FOIL process, which has a number of other exemptions. In February, an appellate court said the NYPD could release body camera footage, but department officials said it would be done on a “on a case-by-case” basis. [Alison Fox / AMNewYork]

Thanks for reading. We’ll see you tomorrow.

Have a tip for The Appeal? Write to us at A good tip is a clear description of newsworthy information that is supported by documented evidence.

The Appeal in Your Inbox

Subscribe to our newsletters for regular updates, analysis and context straight to your email.