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Giving new kinds of prosecutors new tools

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Published in the St. Louis American, August 20, 2020

When St. Louis County Prosecutor Wesley Bell recently announced that there would be no indictment of former Ferguson cop Darren Wilson, it ignited a range of emotions from outrage to disappointment. For many, the historic election of Bell as the county’s first African-American prosecutor would mean real justice for Michael Brown, his family and a still grieving community. Those of us who’ve been doing this work for a while know that it is a classic case of using the master’s tools to dismantle his house—to paraphrase a quote from our beloved sister Audre Lorde. That hasn’t worked.

I also was outraged by the Bell announcement but for completely different reasons. In 1983 I was a part of getting the first indictment of a St. Louis cop. Joseph Ferrarrio had recklessly murdered Marilyn Banks, a young, Black mother sitting on her front porch. Ferrario ‘s attorney got a change in venue. Some of us traveled to Kansas City the following spring with fierce determination that we’d bring a victory back home to our community. Instead we witnessed the acquittal of a murderer.

Yes, we got Ferrario fired. Yes, we got the largest settlement in Missouri history (at that time) for Marilyn’s surviving children. But we came up empty handed on criminal charges. Conclusion? We’ve got to work harder.

For more years that I care to remember, groups like the Organization for Black Struggle (OBS) and the Coalition Against Police Crimes and Repression (CAPCR) fought really hard to make rogue cops accountable for their crimes. I traveled all over the country fighting with other communities to get justice. Continually, we hit brick walls and saw killer cops walk free. Then we started to look at why.

What justice-seeking people have found is a formidable blue wall of policies, laws and court rulings that make it damn near impossible to indict, prosecute or convict police officers. These tools made it super easy for police chiefs, police unions, lobbyists, defense attorneys and prosecutors to make cops untouchable.

Missouri Revised Statues Chapter 563 gives wide discretion to officers to use deadly force if he or she uses reason. The definition of reason has been defined  by SCOTUS rulings like the 1985 Tennessee v. Garner case and the 1989 Graham v. Connor case. The situation must be viewed from the eyes of the cop.

These rulings, over-emphasized by attorneys when defending police, make for reluctant jurors— Black and white. Very few are willing to second -guess the ultimate justification by police: I feared for my life. Holding police accountable has been made more difficult because their lethal actions are deemed legal.

Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby brought criminal charges against the six officers involved in the murder of Freddie Gray. When the first three officers were acquitted, Mosby was forced to drop all charges against the other three. This is a repeat in court rooms across the country, leaving families to pursue civil rights violations if they have the resources to obtain an attorney. Even if they get a settlement, it doesn’t affect the personal finances of the cops involved.

There is a new breed of prosecutors who are moving an agenda to hold police accountable. They have been stymied by the impenetrable judicial wall described earlier. They need the help of the communities who voted them in to carry out the reform agenda. We must start eliminating the barriers—the laws, the policies, the culture that protect police at all costs. We have to make killing unarmed, Black people the crime. Let’s give these public servants some new tools to do what we sent them to do.

Roger Stone, Lamar Johnson, Eric Schmitt and Kimberly Gardner

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Published in St. Louis American, July 20, 2020

The man in the White House masquerading as a president flaunted his blatant disrespect of the law when he pardoned another one of his felon friends. At the same time, people like Lamar Johnson have been rotting for 25 years in a Missouri cage for a crime he didn’t commit. That’s why folks are still in the streets in righteous protests. It’s why St. Louis voters must re-elect Kimberly Gardner as circuit attorney on August 4.

Roger Stone was about to see how his fake gangsterism was going to hold up in federal prison until Trump came to his rescue. Stone was convicted of seven felonies including witness tampering, lying to federal investigations and obstruction of justice. Stone was stone-cold guilty of all the charges. Now, we’ll have to watch him strut around in the public square touting his victory.

Stone is the sixth Trump crony to be convicted or who pled guilty of charges coming out of the investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller. However, at least 14 of Trump’s aides and allies have been indicted or sent to prison – all busted doing the dirty work of the president. These were the ones who got caught. The biggest crook of them all is still in 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. For now.

The case of Lamar Johnson is tragic because of the corruption by St. Louis prosecutors who framed an innocent man and sent him away from his family and community 25 years ago. A double tragedy is occurring because there’s no reason for Johnson to still be incarcerated other than he’s a Black man and a Black, female prosecutor is trying to right the wrong.

Johnson’s case was taken up by the Conviction Integrity Unit (CIU) set up by Circuit Attorney Gardner when she was elected. These offices are set up to investigate claims of innocence. Cases are reviewed for troubling legal issues at the time of conviction and the emergence of new evidence. Gardner’s office did a thorough investigation and found several unjust atrocities committed by police and prosecutors.

Gardner’s conclusion led her to file for a new trial on behalf of Johnson, but last year Circuit Judge Elizabeth Hogan ruled that such a motion should’ve been filed with 15 days of Johnson’s conviction. Yes, Hogan basically said Gardner’s motion was 24 years too late. News of the ruling went national, and prosecutors around the country urged Hogan not to use a procedure to block justice. It fell on deaf ears.

Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt echoed that Gardner did not follow the proper process. Never mind that neither police nor prosecutors followed their respective processes in 1994. In fact, they broke the law. They have conspired to do this in many cases over many years.

The National Registry of Exonerations reports that there have been 2,644 exonerations since 1989 when it started tracking the injustices. There are thousands more people languishing in U.S. prisons while trying to prove their innocence. That’s a total of 23,500 years lost by victims and their families due to a racist, unjust system. The time and the life experiences can never be recovered.

Lamar Johnson and others whose cases have made their way to the CIU office sit in limbo as white folks in power try to keep the first African-American prosecutor in St. Louis in her place. It’s reminiscent of the Dred Scott decision – that Black people have no rights that white people have to respect, whether you’re a prosecutor or the prosecuted.

Voters will go to the polls on August 4 to vote for circuit attorney. If motivation is what we need, I encourage you to have a visual in your head of a white, pompous criminal walking the streets a free man while a poor, Black innocent man sits in prison.

 

We are not all in this together

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By Jamala Rogers, April 12, 2020

If people are saying this because they think we should be or they hope we will be, they need to say it exactly so. U.S. history has shown us that we have never been all together in this country and the COVID virus is not the magical super glue to start putting us together now. Still, there are some concrete actions fair-minded people can do to move us closer towards genuine togetherness. The virus has done its job of highlighting our human interdependence. Read more