Category: Racial reconciliation

Mississippi parole board takes up the Scott Sisters case

Supporters of Jamie and Gladys Scott are beginning to believe that this legal travesty will soon be rectified. 

An October 12th column by Bob Herbert of the New York Times appears to have ruffled feathers in the Magnolia State.   Herbert suggested that double life sentences for a robbery netting $11 might sound ludicrous but “This is Mississippi we’re talking about, a place that in many ways has not advanced much beyond the Middle Ages.”

Will Herbert’s comments make the Mississippi Parole Board more or less likely to do the right thing?  According to an even-handed article in the Jackson Clarion-Ledger, the attorneys and activists calling for justice in the Scott sisters case take a more hopeful view.

Is Mississippi captive to a medieval mentality? (more…)

Pimping the Culture War

Ann Coulter

Ann Coulter says that Barack Obama isn’t a Muslim; he’s an atheist. 

How does she know that?  Because Obama is a liberal, and all liberals are atheists.

Glenn Beck says Jim Wallis of Sojourners is a Marxist.  How does he know that?  Because Wallis believes in economic justice, liberation theologians talk about economic justice, and liberation theologians have been influenced by Marxist thought. 

Beck’s real target isn’t Jim Wallis, it’s Barack Obama.  Jim Wallis is Jeremiah Wright and Jeremiah Wright is Barack Obama, hence, the president is a Marxist.

Are Beck and Coulter serious?  Do they believe their own rhetoric?

Yes and no.  Yes, because their most bizarre statements “feel” right.  No, because Beck and Coulter are so concerned about getting the fans on the red side of the stadium cheering and the fans in the blue seats leaping in alarm that they don’t really care about the rightness or wrongness of their statements.  Or, to put it another way, a remark that gets the fans up and hollering is a good statement, and if the fans are sitting on their hands the message needs to be tweaked.

According to the New York Times, Ann Coulter recently shifted in a more gay-friendly direction (conservatives love gays; we just don’t like gay marriage) because she couldn’t compete with conservatives who are even more extreme than she is.  

The culture war is a marketing gimmick designed to keep the contributions rolling in.  It’s like one of those funny mirrors on the circus midway; what you see shouldn’t be mistaken for reality. (more…)

A conservative case for ending the drug war?

Jeffrey Miron’s op-ed in the Los Angeles Times argues that the drug war is just another big government boondoggle.  If you aren’t familiar with the libertarian critique of the war on drugs, Miron’s column will give you the basic outline of the argument.

Libertarians are consistent conservatives.  They aren’t fussy about wars of any kind (domestic or foreign) because they are obscenely expensive and never produce the desired results. 

American conservatives are successful because they don’t worry about consistentency.  Conservatives are a fearless lot.  They aren’t afraid of poverty or unemployment because they have secure jobs; they aren’t afraid of sickness because they have great health care; they aren’t afraid of bigotry or discrimination because they are normal (white) Americans; they aren’t afraid of civil rights violations because their civil rights are rarely infringed. (more…)

Texas Tough: The Triumph of Southern Justice

It warms the heart to read a well-researched book that confirms long-held hunches.  Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow gave me that feeling.  So did Stuart Banner’s The Death Penalty: An American History.  And now we have Robert Perkinson’s Texas Tough: The Rise of America’s Prison Empire

All three books reinforce a theme I have been developing for several years: American-style mass-incarceration is a southern export rooted in a backlash against the gains of the civil rights movement.  Banner’s The Death Penalty applies this thesis to the rebirth of the death penalty in post civil rights America.  Michelle Alexander argues that the war on drugs is a not-so-subtle extension of the cynical Southern strategy.  Texas Tough leaves no doubt that the prison boom that revolutionized America during the 1980s and 90s represented a mainstreaming of Southern-style justice.

The Austin Chronicle has published an eye-opening interview with Texas Tough author, Robert Perkinson in their August 20 edition.   Please read the entire piece, and then order the book.  I have pasted a few highlights below. (more…)

The drug war in spiritual perspective

Since Mexican President Felipe Calderon declared war on Mexico’s four major drug cartels four years ago, an estimated 28,000 people have died.  In the process, the hand of the cartels has been strengthened. 

Calderon’s drug war has killed or imprisoned an impressive list of prominent drug lords; but this superficial success has created opportunities for new players to fill the void or move up the money ladder.  Most of the violence flows from an intense internecine struggle for influence and control.

A major shift in Mexican policy took place in 2000 when Vicente Fox and his PAN party (National Action Party) ended the long political rule of the PRI (Partido Revolucionario Institucional).  Traditionally, the PRI related to Mexico’s drug cartels the way a referee relates to competing prize fighters.  Each cartel was given a protected sphere of influence, the quid pro quo being that politicians from small town mayors to the president would get their allotted cut of the ill-gotten gains. 

Fraud on this massive a  scale partly explains the moral appeal of Mr. Fox and the PAN, but a simple shift in ruling party couldn’t end corruption this endemic.  Four years and 28,000 corpses later, Calderon finds himself in deep political trouble.  His critics are calling Mexico a failed state and, as many Mexicans feel a surprising nostalgia for the bad old days, the PRI is staging a comeback.

Desperate men take desperate actions and President Calderon is no exception.  He recently raised eyebrows around the world by suggesting that drug legalization is worthy of serious consideration.

As a recent article in the Guardian makes clear, Calderon isn’t placing his personal stamp of approval on the legalization idea.  He says it would lead to a spike in drug usage and place generations of Mexican children at risk.  The president’s legalization talk is best interpreted as a dig at the United States.  Were it not for America’s insatiable appetite for marijuana and cocaine, the argument goes, the cartels would never have come into existence. 

Calderon’s comments come on the heels of a call for marijuana legalization from three former presidents of Latin American countries: César Gaviria of Colombia, Fernando Cardoso of Brazil and Ernesto Zedillo of Mexico.  Since marijuana accounts for between 50 and 70% of illegal drug use (depending on whose figures you accept), cartels would take a major financial hit if the drug was legalized and regulated. 

But it wouldn’t help much if Mexico decided to unilaterally legalize marijuana or any other illegal drug, the huge American market would continue to fuel the Mexican drug trade.  Cartels wield enormous power and enjoy considerable prestige in Mexico because, in a world of poverty, they are bristling with cash.  They make sizable donations to churches; they buy off priests and politicians; they dictate news coverage; and they have little trouble recruiting new employees.  Economically, the cartels are often the only game in town.

Even if Mexico and the United States moved in the direction of full drug legalization, the cartels could survive.  They have invested a large slice of the narco-pie in legitimate business ventures for the purposes of money laundering and have developed extensive international connections.  If they lost the North American trade, they could ramp up their operations in the rest of the world. 

But there is no doubt that drug legalization would suck much of the money out of a burgeoning Mexican drug trade, shifting the fight in the government’s direction.

The legalization debate may be moot.  Barack Obama understands that drug legalization makes sense as public policy, but since Richard Nixon declared war on drugs in 1976, it has been smart politics to pour ever-greater sums  into SWAT teams, interdiction and prisons.  The Obama administration has been talking about enhanced treatment for drug addicts and has been reticent to bang the drug war drum, but increased funding for the Byrne grant program suggests that the president understand the game he has inherited.

As pubic safety policy, the war on drugs makes no sense at all.  By now, most sentient Americans understand that the best way to ensure a lively market is to make a commodity illegal and then declare war on it.  The higher the risks involved in getting the illicit item to the consumer, the higher the potential profits.  Arrest one player and two more rush forward to take his place. 

Unfortunately, the war on drugs has never been about public safety or public health.  Presidents Nixon and Reagan declared war on drugs for strictly political reasons.  In America, illicit drug use had been (falsely) associated with people of color for generations.  From the mid-1960s on, hippies and political radicals were added to the suspect list.  Therefore, by declaring war on drugs, conservative politicians were demonizing poor people of color and young white radicals for political gain.  It was a code language everyone could understand.  Better still, no one could oppose a war on drugs without appearing to side with Lucifer and the hosts of hell.

Then, late in the Jimmy Carter years, America entered the period of “malaise” and “stagflation” that conservatives associate with failed liberal policy.  Inflation had reached unprecedented levels, unions were strong, and corporate profits were dropping like the anvil in a road runner cartoon.  The bi-partisan response was neo-liberal economic policies emphasizing free trade, outsourcing and a variety of similar strategies designed to strengthen the standing of international corporations at the expense of American labor. 

At the same time, the American workplace was going high-tech.  As demand for highly trained technicians rose, the need for unskilled labor plummeted.  The impact of these economic developments in small agricultural communities and in the urban core of major American cities was utterly devastating.

After three decades of post war economic expansion, America found itself with a large pool of surplus labor, disproportionately people of color.  What to do?

The war on drugs dovetailed perfectly with the nation’s economic crisis.  No one in the political world talked about mass incarceration, but that was the new game in town.  From a suburban perspective, the prison boom was largely invisible.  But poor black communities were being gradually ripped apart.  By the time the shift to mass incarceration hit full stride in the mid-1990s, half of the adult males in many neighborhoods had done time or were doing time.  In these communities, life for the average black male was a soul-destroying rotation from prison to the streets and back to prison.  It was virtually impossible for convicted felons to break the cycle.  This was by design. 

In her stunning book, The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander puts it like this: “We need an effective system of crime prevention and control in our communities, but that is not what the current system is. This system is better designed to create crime, and a perpetual class of people labeled criminals, rather than to eliminate crime or reduce the number of criminals.”

Successful “progressive” politicians have lacked the political courage to stand up to a hulking monolith that was devouring more and more citizens every year.  Typically, Democrats have survived a harsh political climate by embracing the cruel logic of drug war and mass incarceration.  The people bearing the brunt of these policies didn’t vote and the rest of the country didn’t care.

If America legalized drugs, the drug war balloon would pop.  For decades now, law enforcement has been richly rewarded for rounding up as many low-status people of color as the prisons could hold.  When we ran out of prison beds we built more.   Texas had 40,000 prisoners in 1980.  Now we have 173,000. 

If drugs were legalized in America, the profit motive driving the street level drug trade would disappear overnight.

But think about it, how would we control poor communities of color with unemployment rates at Great Depression levels if we didn’t have the drug war? 

As more and more attention is paid to the fraudulent mechanics of mass incarceration, conservative politicians have gradually turned their attention to the immigration issue.  If we lose one pretext for demonization, another must be invented. 

But how can you fill 2.4 million prison beds apart from the drug war?  You can’t. 

The jobs of  2.4 million Americans are directly dependent on the criminal justice system?  That’s right: the system requires one criminal justice employee for every prisoner.  If we legalize drugs, at least one million of these folks will be out of work.  Some of them will be prison guards; others will be courthouse bureaucrats, defense attorneys and prosecutors.

Of course, we could divert the money we are currently using to fund the machinery of mass incarceration into job creation programs and elaborate public works projects.  But would an electorate raised on drug war hysteria and racial stereotyping support such a common sense venture?  Not a single American politician is betting on it.

Drug legalization is a policy fraught with moral ambiguity, but the same, in triplicate, can be said of the drug war.  When the problem is a voracious human appetite for mind-altering substances, all the solutions come in dismal shades of gray.

So what do we do?  First, we start telling the truth about the drug war and mass incarceration.  If the politicians can’t summon the courage to address the elephant in the room, let’s address it for them.  Looky there, an elephant!  It’s that simple.

Secondly, we must learn to live without demons.  Or, to put it a bit differently, we should become more concerned about the demons inhabiting the nether regions of our own hearts.  That’s where the problem lies.

Finally, we must realize that neo-liberal economic theory and full employment are antithetical.  America can put everybody to work if we want to badly enough.   Where the private sector falls short, the public sector must find its role.

You can’t do criminal justice reform without dreaming of what Martin Luther King called “The Beloved Community”, a place where love supplants hate and what’s good for us trumps what’s good for me, a place where Mexicans, Americans and Canadians work for mutual prosperity.

At the core, our biggest problems are always spiritual.

Federal judge places hold on Arizona’s immigration law

Federal judge Susan Bolton has blocked core elements of Arizona’s new immigration law. 

According to the New York Times, “Judge Bolton took aim at the parts of the law that have generated the most controversy, issuing a preliminary injunction against sections that called for police officers to check a person’s immigration status while enforcing other laws and that required immigrants to carry their papers at all times.”

The Arizona law draws a clear line between legal immigrants and full citizens of the United States.  Legal immigrants are forced to carry papers with them at all times; citizens do not.

The legal system frequently turns on fairness tests rooted in the principle of equality.  Is it fair, the judge asks, for legal immigrants to be held to a requirement that doesn’t extend to the native-born? 

Ultimately, the Arizona law will go before the Supreme Court.  Judge Bolton feels that the most controversial features of the new statute should be placed on hold while the legal process wrestles with the issue.

I was vacationing in Arizona a couple of weeks ago with my wife, Nancy and daughter, Lydia.  One night, the owners of the little resort where we were staying had a barbecue and invited all their guests.   Apart from my family, everyone in attendance lived in the Phoenix area.  To a person, they believed the new immigration law was long overdue and entirely reasonable. 

I could understand their position.  The law, state and federal, is very clear about who can and cannot reside in the United States.  It’s hard to argue with the “what part of ‘illegal’ do you not understand?” argument. 

If this is bigotry, most of America is bigoted–the Arizona law enjoys solid support across the nation.

This debate is personal for me.  I have spent the majority of my adult life as a resident alien living in the United States.  A couple of years ago they handed me a copy of the US Constitution and a little flag.  I was now an American citizen with all the rights and privileges thereunto appertaining.

Not once during the decades I lived in this country on a green card (with the exception of going through customs) was I asked to produce papers proving my legal right to be in the country.

If I was living as a legal alien in Arizona the law wouldn’t concern me in the least.  I’m a white guy from Canada. 

If I was a brown guy from Mexico or El Salvador, the new law would concern me deeply.

Governor Jan Brewer’s brainchild doesn’t draw a line between resident aliens and full citizens; it draws a line between Anglos and Latinos.  As a practical matter, Anglos will be assumed to be citizens even if they are in the country illegally.  Latinos, on the other hand, will be forced to prove that they belong in the country even if they are legal aliens or, one assumes, full-fledged citizens.

Suppose a white resident alien is pulled over in a Phoenix suburb driving 4o mph in a 30 mph zone.  Are the police likely to ask him to prove he is in the country legally.  Not likely, In fact, they can’t pop the question unless they have solid grounds for suspicion.

Change the race of the resident alien and things shift radically.  There mere fact of having black hair and dark skin, plus nothing, creates reasonable suspicion.  How do you tell a Latino whose American roots go back six generations from a Mexican that crossed the border illegally?  You ask to see his papers.

Or can we trust law enforcement to be more discerning?

As a practicing Christian, I naturally ask what the Bible says about the treatment of aliens. 

I would ask the cultured despisers of religion not to get too flustered.  I’m not suggesting that the law of the land should takes it’s lead from Holy Writ.  This is a pluralistic nation where we have the right to practice any religion or no religion.  We even have the right to be anti-religious if that’s our preference.  I get all of that.

But I’m talking about me and people like me who use the Bible as life-guide; and I ask: what does the Bible teach about the aliens among us?

The subject comes up a lot, particularly in the Old Testament.  The people of Israel were entreated to love and honor the sojourner (some modern translations use the word “alien”) who lived among them.  Given the Bible’s generally dim view of foreign religions in general, and idolatry in particular, this blessing on the sojourner comes as a surprise.  The explanation is given in Leviticus 19:33,34:

When an alien (sojourner) resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien.  The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt; I am the LORD you God. (NRSV)

At the feast of first fruits (described in Deuteronomy 26), residents of the land of Israel were to hand a basket of fruit to the priest and intone these ancient words:

A wandering Aramean was my father; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous . . .

The Exodus story (the heart of the Hebrew Scriptures) charts the fortunes of a slave people freed from captivity by the grace of God.  Even though we were despised slaves and aliens living without the rights of citizenship, the Hebrew Scriptures say, God looked on us with favor.  So we must be gracious toward the illegal aliens in our midst. 

I don’t dispute the right of nations to withhold the privileges of citizenship from all but the favored few.  But how should we regard the mothers and fathers among us who entered this country in search of a better life for their children?

During a series of hearings, Jan Brewer cut to the heart of the issue to Deputy Solicitor General Edwin S. Kneedler:  “Why can’t Arizona be as inhospitable as they wish to people who have entered or remained in the United States?”

Kneedler was ready with an answer: “It is not for one of our states to be inhospitable in the way this statute does.”

That kind of inhospitality, the Solicitor General seemed to suggest, was the province of the federal government.

But why should any of us want to be inhospitable to the aliens in our midst? 

Like the people of Israel, we were all aliens back in the day.  Our ancestors may not have been received warmly; some made the trip to the Promised Land in the hold of a slave ship.  But we were allowed (or compelled) to stay in the country.  No one tried to deport us.

Why should it be any different for the folks who enter the country searching for an alternative to a dead-end life of poverty?

By some lucky quirk of fate we ended up in this country.  Some of us were born here.  Others, like me, are allowed to live here legally (and apply for full citizenship) because we married an American citizen.  Virtue and merit had no bearing whatsoever.  The lucky few were born with tickets guaranteeing us a space in the lifeboat. 

There is no moral or spiritual justification for the hardness of heart on display across the country.  A nation of immigrants slamming the door on immigration. 

We’ve been down this road before.  The Immigration Act of 1917 barred citizenship to residents of “any country not owned by the U.S. adjacent to the continent of Asia”.

Nothing subtle there.

We look back on the restrictions placed on Chinese, Japanese or Eastern European immigration and wonder what we were thinking.

We weren’t thinking.  We were caught up in an unseemly fit of Xenophobia, just as we are now.

The history books will not be kind to Jan Brewer and the rest of the “what part of illegal do you not understand” crowd.  For the moment, however, Arizona’s controversial law is endorsed by between 55 and 70% of the American nation (depending on whose poll you read). 

Are we making moral progress in this nation, or have we spent the last forty years wandering in the moral wilderness?

Sherrod missteps reveal harsh political realities

When the NAACP challenged the Tea Party movement to confront the overt racism within its ranks I was impressed.    A normally timid organization took a strong stand on a controversial issue.  The vote was unanimous.  Good for the NAACP. 

Then a conservative blogger named Andrew Breitbart posted a heavily-doctored video of a Shirley Sherrod, a high-level employee with the Department of Agriculture, telling an NAACP audience that she once gave less-than-stellar service to a white farmer because he copped a superior attitude.

Breitbart misrepresented Sherrod’s remarks so he could make the classic “you’re-racist-for-calling-me-a-racist” argument. 

As we all now know, Ms. Sherrod was actually telling her audience how she came to see that the real divide in America is more economic than racial. 

Fox News and the Tea Party gang jumped all over Mr.  Breit.rt’s video scam.  What could be more predictable?  The same shoddy tactics, aided and abetted by Fox News and the usual suspects on the right, were used to bring down ACORN and Van Jones.  The scenario is wearily familiar

But why did the NAACP and the Obama administration feel compelled to fire off hair-trigger denunciations of Ms. Sherrod’s alleged indiscretion?

Mr. Obama and the NAACP have both admitted that they rushed to judgment without taking a careful look at the facts.  True, Agriculture Secretary Tom Villsack took the blame.  But Sherrod insists that the USDA official who badgered her into a hasty resignation insisted that he was acting on White House authority.

Sure, these folks showed lamentably bad judgment; but why?

Check out this chart released a few days ago by the University of Washington Institute for the Study of Ethnicity, Race and Sexuality.  Note that 45% of white Americans express a measure of support for the Tea Party movement while only 25% of whites are opposed.

  The time will come when white Americans will be forced to build alliances with non-whites to get what they want, but we aren’t there yet.  White voters still control the political game.

The scandalously craven behavior of the Obama administration becomes even more understandable when the researchers asked a series of questions designed to tease out feelings of racial resentment.

In case the print is too small to read, here’s the statement, “Irish, Italians, Jewish, and many other minorities overcame prejudice and worked their way up.  Blacks should do the same without special favors.” 

As one would expect, 88% of strong Tea Party supporters endorsed this statement.  Only 67% of those who expressed mild support or mild opposition to the Tea Party movement followed suit–a 21% difference. 

This shows that Tea Party enthusiasts are higher on the racial resentment scale than average Americans.

But notice, a solid majority of those who adamantly oppose the Tea Party also agree with the statement, as do 70% of all white respondents.

Now, consider the second statement: “Generations of slavery and discrimination have created conditions that make it difficult for blacks to work their way out of the lower class.”  Almost three-quarters of Tea Party enthusiasts reject this claim.  The other quarter are likely the small government, low-tax folk who aren’t motivated in any significant way by racial resentment.  The numbers suggest that these people are the true fringe element within the Tea Party movement.

But notice, 55% of those showing weak support or opposition for the Tea Party phenomenon also disagree with this statement, as do 58% of all white respondents.

If these numbers are an accurate reflection of American opinion (as I suspect they are), there is a rough-and-ready consensus within the white electorate that systematic racism is a myth, that the civil rights movement removed the last vestiges of racial unfairness from American life, and that most claims of discrimination are bogus.

When the NAACP suggests that the Tea Party movement is riddled with racial resentment it is bucking hurricane-force winds.  The majority of white Americans (somewhere between 58 and 70 per cent) display Tea Party levels of racial resentment. 

Conclusion 1: The Tea Party is riddled with racial resentment, but this doesn’t distinguish them much from the balance of the white population.

Conclusion 2: The Democratic Party enjoys the enthusiastic backing of about one-third of white Americans and can’t win elections without overwhelming support from Black and Latino voters.  To win more than 30% of the white vote, Democrats must appeal to the 70% of white voters who believe that America is a level playing field.  This explains all the post-racial rhetoric we have been hearing of late.  No one with even a cursory grasp of American history or the elementary principles of sociology believes this prattle; but political reality demands it.

In fact, savvy politicians like Barack Obama learn the importance of denouncing “reverse racism” (such as that allegedly displayed by Sally Sherrod).  It’s a wink and a nod to socially moderate white folks who can occassionally be induced to pull the blue lever.  Message: forget about all that civil rights stuff; we just want a fair deal for middle class folks like yourself.

President Obama was right to issue a quick apology to Ms. Sherrod.  The decision to sack her in response to a silly smear-video was an act of political desperation. 

Chris Kromm at Facing South points out the deep irony in the USDA’s knee-jerk decision to fire Sherrod for alleged racism. 

It’s an astonishing development given the history of race relations at the USDA, an agency whose own Commission on Small Farms admitted in 1998 that “the history of discrimination at the U.S. Department of Agriculture … is well-documented” — not against white farmers, but African-American, Native American and other minorities who were pushed off their land by decades of racially-biased laws and practices.

It’s also a black eye for President Obama and Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, who signaled a desire to atone for the USDA’s checkered past, including pushing for funding of a historic $1.15 billion settlement that would help thousands of African American farmers but now faces bitter resistance from Senate Republicans.

Notice, the USDA has not been discriminating againt Irish, Italian or Jewish farmers–just African Americans. 

Kromm shares this excerpt from a USDA funded study:

Black farmers tell stories of USDA officials — especially local loan authorities in all-white county committees in the South — spitting on them, throwing their loan applications in the trash and illegally denying them loans. This happened for decades, through at least the 1990s. When the USDA’s local offices did approve loans to Black farmers, they were often supervised (farmers couldn’t spend the borrowed money without receiving item-by-item authorization from the USDA) or late (and in farming, timing is everything). Meanwhile, white farmers were receiving unsupervised, on-time loans. Many say egregious discrimination by local loan officials persists today.

One could make the same argument in connection with the GI Bill that gave a generation of American vets their first taste of home ownership.  That program too discriminated against African Americans on a massive scale.

And then there is the issue of white flight and red-lining that restricted Black Americans to inner city neighborhoods.  When the white folks headed for the suburbs, so did the manufacturing jobs.  This fundamental unfairness didn’t impact Jews, Italians and the Irish in a major way.

I could talk about the shabby schooling available to inner city populations, or the issue of racial profiling, but I think you get the drift.

The real issue in America may be economic rather than racial, as Sally Sherrod suggests, but the latter half of the 20th century was studded with examples of institutional discrimination targeting people of color.  The net result of these practices is that even the surprisingly large portion of the African American community that has moved up-and-out possesses far less net family worth than their white social peers. 

Barack Obama and Ben Jealous understand the impact of decades of systemic injustice; but they also know that speaking too freely would be politically disastrous. 

How else do we explain the cringing cowardice on display in recent days?

Killing Oscar Grant: Did the jury get it right?

The 2009 shooting death of Oscar Grant certainly looked like murder.  With Mr. Grant flat on his belly, his arms pulled in behind his back, officer Johannes Mehserle pulled his gun and fired.  Mr. Grant died in the hospital several hours later. 

At trial, Mehserle said he mistakenly drew his pistol when he meant to use his stun gun.

That could be true.  Radley Balko of Reason Magazine, argues persuasively that the jury got it right this week when they found Mehserle guilty of involuntary manslaughter.

But Balko isn’t calling this an innocent mistake.  Police officers are trained to leave their weapons holstered unless a life is on the line.  That rule applies to tasers, not just firearms.  Whenever a weapon is unholstered something tragic is likely to happen.  Sometimes there’s no alternative.  This wasn’t one of those times.

Blogger Eddie Griffin, like most African American bloggers, calls the killing of Oscar Grant cold-blooded murder.

A number of videos taken from several different angles have been circulating on the web for a year and a half now and both Balko and Griffin’s articles contain appropriate links.

The racial divide over this issue was created by yet another jury that looks a lot more like the police officer than the shooting victim.  The Los Angeles jury that convicted Mehserle this week contained not a single African American.  Would the outcome have been different if the jury didn’t contain a single white person?

Whenever possible,  at least 33% of jurors should look like the defendant.  There is much to be said for random jury selection; but the perception of fairness is lost when a racially charged case is tried by a jury with no racial balance.

I always believed that O.J. Simpson was guilty of killing his wife, Nicolle.  Nonetheless, the jury got it right.  The prosecution failed to make its case beyond a reasonable doubt.  The dream team did it’s job well.  Had Mr. Simpson been represented by an over-worked and underpaid public defender, the trial would have been profunctory, the verdict guilty and the sentence death.

I generally favor conservative verdicts.  The “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard is intentionally high.  The fact that juries are often far too easily convinced by weak cases doesn’t justify a harsh sentence in a case like this. 

I have a hard time believing that Officer Mehserle intentionally killed a young man in his custody with dozens of cameras flashing in his face. 

That in no way justies his actions, of course.  He had no business pulling a weapon of any kind and must suffer the consequences of his unwarranted actions.

If African Americans refuse to accept this verdict it is because low-status black defendants and police officers typically receive two very different kinds of justice.  Mr. Mehserle got the verdict he deserved.  If young black men received the same kind of even-handed treatment from juries, we wouldn’t be hearing such an anguished outcry over this verdict.

Flowers case highlights resource gap

District Attorney Doug Evans

It takes a lot of money to put a defendant on death row.  Most capital defendants are poor and uneducated.  Families are rarely in a position to foot the bill for a qualified defense attorney.

The issue of indigent defense has been getting some long-deferred attention since Lawrence Tribe was appointed as Senior Counsel of the Department of Justice.  Tribe refers to the “justice gap” that makes it difficult for indigent defendants to get the justice the constitution demands.  “The whole system of justice in American is broken,” he says. “The entire legal system is largely structured to be labyrinthine, inaccessible, unusable.”

In 1963, in a groundbreaking case known as Gideon v. Wainright, the Supreme Court ruled that legal defense was a fundamental right guaranteed by the constitution.  After Gideon, defendants had the right to state-appointed defense counsel.

But how much defense is enough?

The American system of criminal justice is the most adversarial in the world.  In theory, the state, after determining that a prosecution is appropriate, does its best to make a compelling case for guilt.  Defense counsel then goes to the wall for the defendant, poking holes in the state’s case and working diligently for whatever seems to be the best outcome for their client.

This theoretical scenario can be incredibly expensive.  A thorough investigation of a homicide, for instance, requires the examination of a wide range of leads, possible suspects and theories of the crime.  If a suspect confesses and accepts a plea bargain, the state saves hundreds of hours and hundreds of thousands of dollars.

But suppose the “case facts” are complicated and the prime suspect maintains his innocence?  Then you are looking at a lot of time and money.  Prosecutors have limited resources.  If you invest $100,000 and hundreds of hours investigating a single high-profile case, other cases will suffer.

Now you understand why 95% of criminal cases are settled by plea bargain.   Cash-strapped investigators easily convince themselves that they can identify the perpetrator after a cursory investigation.  In most cases, this involves breaking down the alleged perpetrator through a process of intense interrogation that can stretch over days.  Investigators have been given the freedom of lie to suspects if they have no real evidence.  They can tell suspects that friends, family members and associates have implicated them.  They can lie about the results of polygraph tests.  They can even invent fake case files purporting to contain the fruits of an elaborate investigation.

The goal is to break the suspect down by making it appear that resistance is futile.  Once an admission of guilt is obtained, the goal is to get the suspect to write out a full confession so airtight, internally consistent and detailed that defense counsel will be completely disarmed.

The vast majority of homicide cases are solved through interrogation and plea bargain or become cold cases when the trail peters out.

You get the easy win or you give up.  You can only give so much time and money to a single case.

What happens when the state believes it knows the perpetrator but the case evidence is sketchy and  the guy won’t admit to the crime?  This scenario haunts a prosecutor’s dreams.  If the case is high-profile and the identity of the prime suspect is well known the state finds it virtually impossible to admit defeat.

The Curtis Flowers case only makes sense against this bureaucratic backdrop.  For some reason, DA Doug Evans and John Johnson, the lead investigator in the Flowers case, made little attempt to interrogate Curtis.  Maybe they thought it was a waste of time.  Instead, they spent nine months going door-to-door on the black end of Winona, Mississippi, looking for people willing to confirm aspects of their theory of the case.  Dozens of people were picked up at their jobs and carried down to the police station for an interview.

The goal was to pile up so many state’s witnesses that Curtis Flowers would realize his situation was hopeless.

But Curtis refused to fold.

He was offered life without parole in exchange for a guilty plea.

Curtis turned it down.

At some point prior to the first trial, Mr. Evans decided to make an example of Curtis Flowers.  A single trial wasn’t enough.  The plan was to try the defendant once for each of the four victims who died at the Tardy furniture store on July 16, 1996.

Unlike most capital defendants, Curtis Flowers was able to pay for legal counsel.   Sort of.  His first attorney was Billy Gilmore, a former police officer from Lexington, Mississippi.  Gilmore had been a sheriff’s deputy in the 1960s when African Americans were trying to register to vote in the 1960s.  Some local residents say Gilmore was present when the KKK firebombed the home of Hartman Turnbow in 1963.  Gilmore admits he was chief sheriff’s deputy of Holmes County at the time, but denies involvement with the Klan.

Gilmore, assisted by his son John, did a reasonably good job of defending Curtis Flowers at his first trial in Tupelo. But reading through the transcript, you get the uneasy feeling that the Gilmores came to the facts late in the day.  There was certainly no fresh investigation. Gilmore tried to poke holes in Doug Evans’ case, but made no attempt to introduce an alternative theory of the crime.

Curtis Flowers was convicted by eleven white jurors and one black juror and sentenced to death.

Unsatisfied with one conviction, Doug Evans took Flowers to trial in Gulfport.

Curtis Flowers and his family saw no reason to believe that using the same attorneys would produce a different outcome.  With this in mind, they hired Chokwe Lumumba, a highly respected civil rights attorney from Jackson.  But there was a problem.  The Gilmores had been hired to represent Mr. Flowers in four trials and the Flowers family didn’t have the money to hire Mr. Lumumba and an investigator.  At a pre-trial hearing, defense counsel requested state funds to pay for an investigator.

Judge Clarence Morgan told Lumumba that the record of the first trial should be a sufficient guide to the facts of the case.

Lumumba pointed out that the transcript of a trial that led to his client’s conviction was lacking by definition.

Judge Morgan said the defense had every right to an investigator if they wanted one, but the state wouldn’t be footing the bill.

Lumumba was incredulous.  “I would say this to the Court. You know we cannot penny-pinch around these death penalty cases. I mean I don’t care what people’s view is about budget and all this kind of stuff. If you are a state and you take the responsibility where you say you are going to put people to death then at that point money becomes no object.”

But money was an object.  A big object.  Judge Morgan was willing to let the state go to the incredible expense of trying Curtis Flowers in four consecutive trials, but he wouldn’t give the defense money for an investigator.

The economic issue raised its head later in the pre-trial process when Frederick Veal, one of the jailhouse snitches the state had used to convict Flowers in the first trial, told defense counsel that he had perjured himself in exchange for a get-out-of-jail-free card.  According to this new testimony, the sheriff of LeFlore County had sent Mr. Veal into a cell with Curtis Flowers by for the purpose of soliciting a confession.

Lumumba argued that the testimony of both snitches should be disallowed.

Judge Morgan was unimpressed.  There was no way of knowing, he said, if Veal perjured himself or not.

Lumumba could scarcely contain himself.  Why, he asked, would an ex-snitch contact defense counsel after being released from prison?  “There is no reason in the world that Veal had to tell us what he told us other than the fact that it’s the truth. We couldn’t put him in jail. We couldn’t let him out of jail. We can’t give him thirty thousand dollars. We can’t put him in a hotel . . .”

Even if the state had granted the defense a few thousand dollars for an investigator, there would be no way to match the state’s intimidating influence over potential witnesses.  When the state produces a dozen eye-witnesses, pointing out a few inconsistencies isn’t enough; you’ve got to put the entire investigation on trial.  And that means a thorough investigation.

It is obvious from trial and hearing transcripts that Mr. Lumumba made a heroic effort to perform his own investigation prior to trial, but the situation demanded the services of a full-time investigator.

In Flowers 2, the defendant was tried by another jury comprised of eleven white jurors and one black juror.  Once again, he was convicted and sentenced to death.

Shortly thereafter, the convictions in Flowers 1 and Flowers 2 were both overturned by the Mississippi Supreme Court.  Doug Evans had over-reached.  While only trying one specific murder, Evans had presented evidence relating to all four killings.

The case didn’t go to trial again until 2004.  This time, Curtis Flowers decided he could get a better shake back in Montgomery County.

The indigent defense situation had improved significantly since Mr. Flowers first went to trial.  A new state-funded office had been created in Jackson to ensure that indigent capital defendants would be fairly and competently represented.

Unfortunately, the new Office for Capital Defense had a limited budget and a daunting case load.  The budget for investigation was strictly limited.  The record suggests that no significant new evidence was sought or discovered in the Flowers case between three 2004 and trial six in 2010.

By now it was obvious that jurors exposed to testimony from the state’s eye-witnesses were inclined to convict.  On the other hand, there had been no significant African American representation on juries one and two, so maybe there was hope.

But in trial three, the state created yet another jury with only a single black juror by using all fifteen peremptory strikes to exclude black residents from the jury.  Predictably, the trial ended with another guilty verdict and another death sentence.

The Mississippi Supreme Court ruled that DA Evans had exhibited racial bias during jury selection.  Once again, the conviction was overturned and the case was remanded for re-trial.

In Flowers 4, all five black jurors–to the surprise and horror of all right-thinking people in Winona–held out for acquittal.

Did the defense suddenly come up with new evidence or find previously undiscovered holes in state testimony?

Not really.  Black jurors understood the impact reward money and implied threats could have on poor black folks.  They also had trouble seeing the Curtis Flowers they knew perpetrating such a heinous crime.

Finally, black jurors understood the power of the state to manipulate reality.  Many things had changed since the days of Jim Crow, but racial power dynamics in Montgomery County remained the same.

Trial five ended in another hung jury; but just barely.  One of three black jurors held out for acquittal.  He was charged with perjury.  Although charges were eventually dropped by the Attorney General’s Office, potential black jurors in trial six eliminated themselves at an unprecedented rate.

Thirteen years since Flowers 1, the state was putting on essentially the same witnesses.  Primed with transcripts of former statements, these men and women repeated the now-familiar stories, virtually word-for-word.  When a jury of eleven whites and one black was selected, it was all over.

Over six trials, every single white juror who has heard the state’s witnesses has voted to convict and has sentenced Curtis Flowers to death.  Single black jurors always go along for the ride.

After six jury trials, the resource gap remains intact.  The state’s theory of the case has never been seriously challenged in the courtroom.  You can’t place the state’s investigation on trial without matching state expenditures dollar-for-dollar and hour-by-hour.

The case against Flowers features unusually weak physical evidence bolstered by a large number of eye-witnesses.

Credibility, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.  Shortly after the state rested in Flowers 6, I was approached by a dignified white gentleman who had driven to Winona to witness the trial.  He had heard a lot about the case and wanted to see for himself what it was all about.

“Is that all the state has to offer?” he asked me.  “I simply don’t find those people credible.  In fact, most of them are downright ridiculous.”

“I agree,” I said.  “But the folks in the jury won’t see it that way.”

“Are you certain?” he asked.

“You can never be certain of anything,” I replied.  “But from where I sit, Curtis Flowers doesn’t have a chance.”

The legal system is like war and football; the side that brings the most resources to the table wins.

Why have so many people spent so many years repeating the same incriminating claims?  Either Mr. Flowers is guilty as sin, or the state of Mississippi, through the ministrations of District Attorney Doug Evans, has manufactured false testimony on an extraordinary scale.

My money is on the second alternative.

Curtis Flowers, like most God-fearing residents of Winona, doesn’t fit the hardened-thug profile.

The idea that an unassisted individual could kill four people execution-style is counter-intuitive.

Why would a killer walk witness-laden streets to a murder?

Why didn’t a single witness come forward of their own volition?

I can think of a few provisional answers.

The DA from Grenada, Mississippi was under enormous pressure to find a suspect on the black side of town.

Moreover, Doug Evans is an unreconstructed product of the Jim Crow era who has repeatedly displayed a remarkable degree of racial insensitivity.  There are plenty of Jim Crow alumni who experienced a come-to-Jesus moment later in life.  The late Robert Byrd is an obvious example.  But there is no evidence that Mr. Evans has made a clean break with the rigid worldview he was raised in.  Shortly before the Tardy murders, Evans was giving speeches at events sponsored by the unapologetically racist Council of Conservative Citizens.

None of this is proof that Flowers is innocent, of course.  But this case is riddled with questions that only an extensive re-investigation can answer.