Ghosts, colors and symbols

(Background on the Alvin Clay story can be found here.)

Our furled banner wreathed with glory

And though conquered we adore it

Weep for those who fell before it

Pardon those who trailed and tore it



On the fortieth anniversary of the night they drove Old Dixie down, a monument to the stars and bars was erected on the grounds of the State capitol building in Little Rock. In the glory days of Jim Crow it was finally possible to “pardon those who trailed and tore it.” Why not? By then, the forces of Reconstruction had been overthrown as surely as the Confederacy had been destroyed in 1865. Jim Crow was the almost as good as the Peculiar Institution-slavery by other means.

I happened upon this impressive monument this morning as I walked from Central High School to the new federal courthouse: “Arkansas remembers the faithfulness of her sons and commends their example to future generations.”

What do future generations make of this message? We can certainly admire the bravery of the Confederate soldiers and the grave dignity of Robert E. Lee; but can we forget what these men were fighting for?

As I walked to the courthouse this morning I once again passed by the statues of the Little Rock 9. Both fear and determination flicker in their eyes. No attempt was made to glamorize these kids; they were caught up in events they could only dimly understand and they knew it. The statues were unveiled in 2005, the year before the federal courthouse was dedicated-almost fifty years after Yankee soldiers returned to Little Rock in 1957.

Neither the Little Rock 9 statues nor the Confederate memorial were erected immediately after the events they commemorate. Cultures change, but at a glacial pace.

As I walked the final half mile to the courthouse the air was thick with ghosts. We have not arrived; our world remains in flux. We still live in the agonizing tension between Jim Crow and Dr. King’s dream. We have traveled far, but we have much further to go.

The racial contrasts in the courtroom were stark. Of the 54 potential jurors called, only three were African American. Pulaski County is two-thirds white . . . but still.

By early afternoon we were down to twelve white jurors and two white alternates. They didn’t look the slightest bit like Alvin Clay’s peers. On the positive side of the ledger, they fit the color scheme established by four white prosecutors, a white FBI agent, a white judge, a white court reporter, a white bailiff and several white security officials.

Alvin Clay and his three black defense attorneys were awash in a sea of white.

You notice things on foot that drivers miss. When I struck out from Central High School at 7:30 this morning, I was in an all-black world. The motorists, the folks rocking on unpainted porches, the young girls heading for school, the old man standing in front of Missionary Baptist Church–all were black.

I reached a hospital a few blocks later and everything changed. Now I was in a white world. The shift wasn’t gradual; it was like crossing an invisible line.

I’m not suggesting that men like Judge Leon Holmes or lead prosecutor Steven Snyder are driven by racial animus. Not in the crude, overt sense, at least. Snyder’s opening was devastating. He is a small man, about my height but twenty pounds lighter. He appears to be pushing 60, but his hair remains jet black. He almost never smiles-a fact that adds to the earnest effect. Molten righteousness smoldered in his eyes.

Snyder has mastered the art of the declarative sentence. Most prosecutors begin their opening remarks with equivocal phrases like, “I believe the evidence will show that . . .” Snyder told the jurors that Alvin Clay was guilty. Moreover, Clay is craven, greedy, heartless and wicked to the core. He said it with utter conviction; like a man convinced.

I can only imagine what the jury made of Snyder’s hour-long philippic. During voir dire (the jury selection process), Judge Holmes reminded the venire that an indictment is not evidence of guilt; that the testimony of a police officer should be given no more weight than the testimony of a civilian; and that respect for the flag should not dispose the jury in the government’s direction.

Nobody was buying. In fact, a few people even confessed as much. One woman allowed that she couldn’t help attaching a high degree of credibility to the testimony of a police officer because “I would figure that they had all the evidence.”

Another woman was disqualified for admitting that the mere fact of Clay’s indictment made her think he was probably guilty of something. “You can’t help but think there’s got to be a reason,” she said.

Every juror was thinking the same thing; they just knew they weren’t supposed to admit it.

Physical symbols are enormously powerful: a statue in honor of the confederacy, an officer’s uniform, the rough equivalence between the prosecution and the eagle on the Great Seal. The case is officially styled, “The United States vs. Alvin Clay.”

What true patriot wouldn’t be pulling for the United States?

Everywhere you look in the courtroom, the eagle is clutching an olive branch in one talon; a sheaf of arrows in the other. The United States government thinks Alvin Clay is guilty and the eagle is nodding in agreement. The courtroom layout tips juror loyalty in the direction of the government. Whatever pious niceties we repeat to ourselves during voir dire, this isn’t supposed to be a fair fight. That’s why the defendant loses 95% of the time.

The rulings from the bench fell consistently in the government’s direction. The prosecution is free to argue that Alvin Clay obtained his contractor’s license in furtherance of the conspiracy alleged in the indictment, even though Clay didn’t meet Ray Nealy and Donny McCuien until a year later.

The defense, on the other hand, cannot suggest that Alvin Clay is the victim of a vindictive prosecution. This is a major blow. As the honest juror said, there must be some reason why Clay is standing trial. If the defense can’t present their explanation, the natural assumption is that Clay must be guilty as charged. Why else would the government invest hundreds of thousands of dollars to put him away?

Just before lunch, the defense team got its first peek at the grand jury transcript. There wasn’t much time to digest it all, but a few facts leapt off the page. The present indictment is based entirely on the testimony of Rodney Hayes, the man who repeatedly perjured himself three years earlier. Hayes claims that Clay forged the signatures of the three references on his contractor’s application. A quick call to one of the women yielded an anguished response. “I told him I signed that thing,” she said.

When Judge Holmes learned that the government’s star witness was perjuring himself again, he told the government that they could only claim two forged signatures. Later in the day, a second signatory gave the lie to Hayes’ bizarre testimony. By tomorrow morning we will probably be down to one forgery. How blatant must the perjury become before Judge Holmes tosses the entire indictment? We may soon find out.

5 thoughts on “Ghosts, colors and symbols

  1. Very interesting. The ghosts I mean. They inhabit the courtroom as well as the environment outside.

    One of the Arkansas Confederate ghosts is/was my great grandfather Ely. He died at the battle of Poison Springs in Arkansas, in 1862 I think it was, leaving a wife and four daughters to fend for themselves as best they could back in Erath County Texas. One of those four daughters was my grandmother, Artimecia Ely. I wonder what great grandfather Ely would make of the courtroom proceedings.

  2. Glad you are doing this blog. It sounds like another world. Can’t the Clay lawyers appeal any decision based on the “jury of his peers” rulings?

  3. Marilyn:

    Unfortunately, it is difficult to demonstrate racial bias unless you can point to some mechanical flaw in the jury selection process. So long as a jury is selected according to accepted standards (as I’m sure this jury was) there is no grounds for a challenge even if the defendant is black and all jurors are white. The civil rights community has never focused enough attention on this issue.

  4. Mr. Bean,

    Although I have yet to read the background facts of this case, Idid read your blog on the trial’s outcome. I am deeply saddened by Mr. Clay’s conviction, especially in light of the all white cast of characters aligned against the Black defendant. Why has the Southern Poverty Law Center, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and other Civil Rights organizations pressed harder for an honest application of “trial by a jury of one’s peers”? W#here is the ACLU on this critical matter? Is no one trying to organize young African-American trial attorneys to mount a consistent battle to eradicate this singularly racist impediment to real justice for all Americans?

    Although I can offer nothing more at this time than questions (fixed income-total diability, wife is an elementary school teacher in a Northern California city; upside -down negative mortgage equity, etc.), I offer my prayers and add my voice seeking an appelate-court overturning another racially motivated miscarriage of justice. Thank you and Friends of Justice for bringing Alvin Clay’, the Jena 6 and other situations like these to light and working diligently, elequently and righteously to make “equal treatment under the law”—civil rights a long overdue reality. But for the grace of God, ther go we all!

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