A bizarre encounter on December 17, 2007 has evolved into a riveting drama in a Fort Worth, Texas courtroom. Grace Head, a 66-year old resident of nearby Arlington, stands accused of ordering her dog to attack Silk Littlejohn and her fiance Broderick Gamble. While Mr. Gamble grappled with Ms. Head’s Doberman Pinscher, the defendant struck Ms. Littlejohn across the side of the head with a two-by-four. She then jumped up and down on the couple’s Toyota Camry while smashing the vehicle with a tree limb.
Shortly after Ms. Head was arrested and bonded out, racist graffiti appeared on the Arlington couple’s garage door. Head is not accused of scrawling the hateful slogan, but many in the civil rights community hold her responsible for the act.
The charge against Grace Head is aggravated assault with a deadly weapon and criminal mischief. Prosecutors are claiming, albeit half-heartedly, that the crime was motivated by racial animus.
Silk Littlejohn is a friend of mine. Half a year after this tragic incident, Arlington Mayor, Dr.Robert Cluck, asked the Community Service Division of the Department of Justice to convene a meeting of concerned Arlington citizens. I was one of the 150 people who attended that meeting and, at the end of the day, Ms. Littlejohn and I were among a dozen or so people appointed to an “Arlington Coming Together” committee which has been meeting regularly for the past year.
Relations between the Arlington couple and Mayor Cluck have been far from cordial. When the grafitti appeared on their garage door, the City offered to have it removed, but there was no official statement of regret and outrage. When the couple refused to remove the message themselves until they saw some official expression of concern, the City had it removed without their permission. Ms. Littlejohn believes that Arlington Coming Together was a stop-gap diversion designed to create the impression that a hate crime was being taken seriously.
She may be right. Recently, Mayor Cluck and the Arlington City Council decided to disband ACT in favor of an advisory committee hand-picked by city council members.
These developments have left some ACT members with some serious questions. Fifty years ago, Arlington was a little, primarily white, community situated between Fort Worth and Dallas. Things have changed. Arlington is now a city if well over 300,000, her schools have long been majority-minority and the community has a developed a multi-ethnic flavor. But with only one non-white member on its city council, the highest level of Arlington’s city government doesn’t reflect the rapidly shifting demographics of the community.
Grace Head has entered a plea of not guilty by reason of insanity. She says she doesn’t remember the episode and claims she would never use racial epithets. Three psychiatrists have testified that the defendant is bi-polar and often doesn’t take her medicine, factors that might have sparked a psychotic episode. These witnesses have admitted that everything they know about the defendant comes directly from her–they have no way of peering into her soul and determining what motivated her vicious behavior.
One thing is certain, Silk Littlejohn and Brederick Gamble did nothing to incite violence apart from being black in a predominantly white neighborhood.
Is Grace Head Mentally ill? Most likely she is. But the prisons of Texas prisons are awash in inmates with serious mental health issues. The bar for criminal insanity is set very high and the question will eventually fall to the subjective judgment of twelve Tarrant County jurors.
Where do we go from here? The couple’s pastor, the Rev. Frederick Haynes, has rallied the people of his south Dallas Friendship West Baptist Church in support of his parishioners. Chockwe Lumumba, a civil rights attorney from Jackson, Mississippi, has been retained to represent Littlejohn and Gamble in a possible civil suit against the defendant and the City of Arlington. (Lumumba, incidentally, represented Curtis Flowers in the second of five trials he has endured in Mississippi.)
The City of Arlington has worked hard to get the victims of this crime to back away from the aggressive pursuit of legal claims. The DA’s office is prosecuting this case at the couple’s insistence but appears to have little heart for the fight. This case has been on the docket for months, but Ms. Littlejohn wasn’t asked to tell her story to prosecutors until a week before trial. The DA’s office didn’t try to find psychiatric experts to rebut claims of legal insanity and appear to be angling for a criminal insanity verdict.
Can these issues be addressed through our adversarial legal process? To some extent, yes. Actions have moral and legal consequences and that’s what the courts are for. But the criminal justice system won’t bring closure to either the victims of this assault or the City of Arlington. If they are serious about making things right, representatives of city government might want to sit down with Rev. Haynes, Silk Littlejohn and Broderick Gamble and talk things through. One session won’t accomplish much, series of meetings is needed. One way or another, the city of Arlington must reckon with the enormity of this traumatic incident and address the questions it raises. This matter must not, and will not be swept under the rug.