Last week, Baltimore’s chief prosecutor, Marilyn J. Mosby, charged six officers in the death of Freddie Gray.
The charges included second-degree murder, manslaughter, assault, misconduct in office and false imprisonment.
(These were only charges. There will be a defense and a trial. The officers remain innocent until and unless proven guilty.)
Mosby said at a news conference Friday as she laid out the case and announced the charges: “To the people of Baltimore and the demonstrators across America: I heard your call for ‘No justice, no peace.’” She continued: “Last but certainly not least, to the youth of the city. I will seek justice on your behalf. This is a moment. This is your moment. Let’s ensure we have peaceful and productive rallies that will develop structural and systemic changes for generations to come. You’re at the forefront of this cause and as young people, our time is now.”
Mosby seemed to recognize in that moment that this case and others like it are now about more than individual deaths and individual incidents, but about restoration — or a formation — of faith for all of America’s citizens in the American justice system itself.
Faith in the system is the bedrock of the system. Without it, the system is drained of its inviolable authority. This is the danger America now faces.
After George Zimmerman shot Trayvon Martin through the chest and walked free. After there was no indictment of the officer who choked the life out of Eric Garner on video. After an officer shot and killed John Crawford in an Ohio Wal-Mart as he walked around the store with an air rifle he’d picked up off the store’s own shelves, and another officer grilled his girlfriend until she cried, “accusing her of lying, threatening her with jail time and suggesting she could be on drugs,” according to CNN.
After the city of Cleveland claimed — then apologized for claiming — that Tamir Rice was responsible for his own death when officers shot him in the stomach — an injury he would later die from — in a park as he played with a toy gun.
According to The Washington Post: “In the court filing, which was a formal response from the city to a federal lawsuit by the Rice family, city attorneys declare that Tamir and his family ‘were directly and proximately caused by their own acts ...’ and added that Tamir caused his own death ‘by the failure ... to exercise due care to avoid injury.’”
And after Anthony Ray Hinton sat on Alabama’s death row for 30 years — “one of the longest-serving death row prisoners in Alabama history,” according to the Equal Justice Initiative, which won his release last month — for murders he didn’t commit. He was arrested and charged based on the assertion that a revolver taken from his mother’s home was used in two capital murders and a third uncharged crime. Even after experts found in 2002 that the gun didn’t match the crime evidence, prosecutors refused to revisit the case.
It took more than a decade of additional litigation before a judge threw out the case. Prosecutors finally conceded that the crime bullets couldn’t be matched to the Hinton weapon.
“For all of us that say that we believe in justice, this is the case to start showing, because I shouldn’t have (sat) on death row for 30 years, Hinton said. ”All they had to do was test the gun.”
Last year Glenn Ford, Louisiana’s longest-serving death row prisoner, was also set free after nearly 30 years facing execution for a murder that he also did not commit. According to The New York Daily News: “A judge freed Ford from the Louisiana State Penitentiary a year ago when evidence, believed to have been suppressed during the trial, surfaced exonerating him from the all-white jury’s decision in the murder of a nearly blind Shreveport watchmaker, Isadore Rozeman.”
The lead prosecutor in the Ford case, A.M. Stroud III, apologized in a column published by The Shreveport Times, saying: “In 1984, I was 33 years old. I was arrogant, judgmental, narcissistic and very full of myself. I was not as interested in justice as I was in winning. To borrow a phrase from Al Pacino in the movie And Justice for All, ‘Winning became everything.’” He concluded: “How totally wrong was I.”
After last month, NPR reported that Mayor Rahm Emmanuel of Chicago was supporting a $5.5 million reparations package for victims of a former police commander and his officers in that city. As MSNBC’s Trymaine Lee put it, they “for decades ran a torture ring that used electrical shock, burning and beatings on more than 100 black men.”
All of this and more eats away at public confidence in equal justice under the law and reaffirms people’s worst fears: that the eyes of justice aren’t blind but jaundiced.
As Langston Hughes once wrote: “That Justice is a blind goddess / Is a thing to which we black are wise: / Her bandage hides two festering sores / That once perhaps were eyes.”
Faith in the system is the bedrock of the system.