Author: ljd

We’re Still Talking about Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman, and That’s a Good Thing

By Lisa D’Souza

News reports and discussions about the shooting death of Trayvon Martin continue.   The Sanford police have provided information about George Zimmerman’s statement to themZimmerman’s friend has spoken out on his behalf.  This week, both The Diane Rehm Show and Talk of the Nation aired shows discussing the tragedy with experts and callers.  With a federal investigation underway and the autopsy results still sealed, we will learn more as the days and weeks unfold.

Why was George Zimmerman suspicious of Trayvon Martin?  What happened in the 20 minutes that elapsed between Zimmerman’s first seeing Martin and the shooting?  How do Florida’s self defense and gun laws affect police decisions?

And the big question: what about race?  Some have remembered the similarities between Emmett Till and Trayvon Martin’s deaths.  President Obama encouraged us all to do some “soul searching” about not just this incident but the history and context in which it happened.  In response, Newt Gingrich decried the insertion of race into the discussion of this case.  When we can admit that black males are just over 6% of our nation’s population, and yet they are more than 40% of our murder victims (and this data likely doesn’t include the deaths of black men that are not prosecuted due to self-defense claims made by the killer), then we must acknowledge that a discussion of race, violence and criminal justice is long overdue.

It is good that one month after his death, we are still talking about Trayvon Martin.  Let us hope that we remember him for a long time, and that his memory moves us to act so that his tragic and untimely death is the last one of its kind.

Requiem for Trayvon

ImageBy Lisa D’Souza

Last month, a 28-year-old man shot a 17-year-old high school student in Florida.  The teen, Trayvon Martin, was unarmed.  He  was walking back to his dad’s home where he’d been watching basketball with his family.  He’d run out to buy some candy for his brother.

George Zimmerman, the 28-year-old who considered himself a neighborhood watchman, was driving along when he spotted  Trayvon.  Some 20 minutes later, Trayvon was dead. Zimmerman admitted to police that he had shot and killed Trayvon.  The police readily accepted Zimmerman’s claim that he acted in self-defense saying they had no evidence to dispute Zimmerman’s statement.

The 911 calls have now been released.  So has a statement from the witness who spoke to Trayvon by phone as Zimmerman followed him.  They tell a different story.  Zimmerman got out of his car to confront Trayvon, pulled his gun, and shot him.  Witnesses heard crying and calls for help that stopped after the sound of a gunshot.  Police found only a bag of candy and a can of iced tea in Trayvon’s pockets.

Still, no arrest.  It will not surprise you to know that Trayvon is black.  Zimmerman is not.  And their town, like so many in America, has a history of racial tension and wounds.

So, what can people of conscience do?  We can mourn for Trayvon, pray that his soul rests in peace, and pray for his family in their time of grief.  And we must do more.

We must also press for justice in this case.  We can sign the petition calling for an investigation and prosecution in this case.  And we must do more.

We should echo the words of Trayvon’s father, Tracy Martin, “[W]e don’t want there to be another Trayvon.”  Trayvon is not the first person to be killed simply for being a black man.  If we want him to be the last, we need to figure out why the belief that a black male is dangerous permeates our culture.  When we ask this question and search far and deep for the complex answer, we may then begin to ensure that there are no more black men who meet Trayvon’s fate.

This would be the very best way to honor Trayvon’s memory.  This is the only way to make sure there aren’t any more deaths like Trayvon’s.

[Update:  The Department of Justice announced 3/20/12 that it will investigate Trayvon’s killing.]

Getting Organized to Fix the Justice System

by Lisa D’Souza

When I was an assistant public defender, friends and I would wonder what would happen if all the defense lawyers decided to protest the problems with the criminal justice system.  What if every criminal defense lawyer refused to represent people against whom the state sought the death penalty?  What if we agreed we would no longer represent anyone charged with “war on drugs” felonies?  The system can’t operate without defense lawyers.  Why do we let it operate with us?

Today, in the New York Times, Michelle Alexander offers another radical idea to force society to confront the problems in our criminal justice system.

I’m not sure what the best path forward is.  I am sure it is time for us to get organized.  It is time to start talking.  We all know there are serious problems with our criminal justice system.  And it is up to us to fix them.  How?

Bryan Stevenson on our “Stunning Silence” about Injustice

By Lisa D’Souza

If you care about justice in America, please take 24 minutes to listen to Bryan Stevenson’s TED talk

In less than half an hour, Mr. Stevenson eloquently and compellingly discusses the problem of mass incarceration, its impact on poor communities of color, and our nation’s resistance to honestly examining our history and our present. 

He offers painful data and asks hard questions.  Why are we comfortable with a justice system in which “wealth not culpability shapes outcomes.” 

Why are we the only country in the world in which children as young as 13 can be sentenced to live their natural lives and die in prison?  How have we allowed the disenfranchisement of vast numbers of men of color?

We allow it because we don’t think this is “our problem.”  Mr. Stevenson reminds us that none of us is free until all of us are free and that our society will be judged by our treatment of the marginalized.  He asks us to start talking about these justice issues and to commit ourselves to truth and reconciliation.

There is no time like the present.  Will you commit to thinking and talking about injustice today?  I will.

Locking Children Up and Throwing Away the Key

By Lisa D’Souza

In 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court held that the death penalty may not be used against someone for a crime committed before the age of 18.  Scientific studies affirm the experience of parents and teachers the world over:  adolescent brains are not fully developed.  It makes sense that we would not mete out the ultimate punishment to a child whose decision-making capabilities are not that of an adult.

There is another punishment just one step shy of the death penalty: life without the possibility of parole.  A life without parole sentence means that a person will spend the entirety of their natural life in prison and die there.  Sadly, there are members of our society for whom this sentence is appropriate.  But can it ever be appropriate for a child?  For someone whose brain is not yet fully developed?  For someone who still has the capacity to learn and to change?

The Equal Justice Initiative has identified 73 children under the age of 15 who have been sentenced to spend their entire life in prison.  Nearly two-thirds of these are children of color.  Many were involved in crimes where older teens or adults were the primary actors.  Some were convicted for crimes in which no one was killed or injured.  Why are these children sentenced to die in prison?

Soon, the U.S. Supreme Court will consider this very issue.  On March 20, 2012 Equal Justice Initiative director Bryan Stevenson will argue two cases before the Supreme Court in which children were sentenced to live and die in prison.  Human Rights Watch has filed an amicus brief and has published a harrowing 47-page report on the prison conditions that face young offenders who have been sentenced to spend their entire natural life in prison.

Juvenile justice courts operate on the rehabilitative principal that children can be shaped and educated.  Scientific studies confirm that children’s brains are still developing well into their teens.  To sentence a child to life without parole is to say that society is willing to consider that child useless and unfit for our society.  Surely such a sentence meted out to a child is cruel and unusual.

“What have we become?”

by Lisa D’Souza

A few days ago, the New York Times reported that 2,000 of the 11,000 people housed in Chicago’s Cook County Jail  have a serious mental illness.   Sheriff Tom Dart calls himself the “largest mental health provider in the State of Illinois.”  In the next two months, Chicago plans to close half of its mental health care centers.  This will exacerbate an already tragic problem.

It’s what I think of as the sordid secret of the criminal justice system: a lot of the people we lock up in jails and prisons aren’t criminals.  Many have untreated mental illness.  A mentally ill person is about three times more likely to be jailed than they are to be hospitalized.

The 1960s were a watershed for freedom in this country.  New laws enforced the rights of  all people, regardless of skin color, to vote, go to school and find employment.  People with mental illnesses and physical disabilities gained the freedom to live in the communities instead of the  institutions where many had been warehoused.  The Kaiser Family Foundation reports that from 1955 to 1980, the number of people institutionalized in state mental hospitals fell from 559,000 to 154,000.

But how well have we stood by our brothers and sisters who struggle with mental illness?  The National Alliance on Mental Illness gives the U.S. an overall grade of D, with 6 states earning a failing grade.

Our neighbors are in crisis.  They have health care needs going unmet.  Our current answer is to put them in jail.  We, like Sheriff Dart, must ask ourselves, “What have we become?”