by Valerie Morales
Years before Breonna T., and years before Sandra B., and years before Rekia B., and years before my beloved Martha M., I took a Criminal Justice class. It was an upper-division elective and unbeknownst to me the section I signed up for was taught by an extraordinarily gifted lecturer who was also a prosecutor in the criminal division. Prof Hewes prosecuted accused murderers and rapists which gave him relevance and stardom on campus; he was not an academic snob whose life work was research. Prof Hewes affected the balance of the world.
Two days a week Prof Hewes had Room A256 spellbound with his dramatic oeuvre. He was loud and enthusiastic and a storyteller. He frequently disabused us of our poorly thought out notions such as the criminal justice system is built on fairness. It is not, he argued repetitively. It is not about accountability either. The criminal justice system is about evidence and what you can prove.
One afternoon, Prof Hewes made a startling admission as he looked around the room at our inquisitive faces. Perhaps there were 20 or so students in the class. I’m sure we seemed young and naïve to him, and impressionistic, exhuming disinformation and passing it along without understanding the damage. And so he told us on this one day that we believed the wrong thing.
The wrong thing: It is not the race of the defendant that triggers the system’s implied and callous biases but rather the race of the victim; that is what matters. The least sympathetic victims in a jury trial, (he yelled this out in the sparsely populated hall for effect), were adolescents and black women; they were the hardest cases to win because juries deny their vulnerability and often hold adolescents and black women responsible for their own death. Adolescents and black women have to earn respect postmortem by meeting behavioral standards that are often unrealistic.
As if a Prof Hewes lecture has come to life, rationalizations are making the rounds about Breonna Taylor. To many, Breonna Taylor loved a dangerous man and that is why she is dead. She didn’t consider the consequences of allowing an alleged drug dealer access to her personal space. He (Jamarcus Glover) is the reason for all of this despair.
I’m not surprised or even offended by the armchair criminal sociologists. Embedded within the structure of systemic racism, empathy for a victim is always linked with the behavior of that victim. What was her role? How did she abet her own demise? Don’t black women have messy lives? Well, what did you expect shooting at the police?
The homicide rate for black women and Native American women is twice that of Asian, Hispanic, and white women. The homicide rate for Asian, Hispanic, and white women is 1 to 2 deaths per 100,000. For black women, it is 4.4 deaths per 100,000. Within that cohort, 57% die from gunshot wounds. 98% are killed by men. 29% of black women are killed by an acquaintance. 71% are not.
Martha M. was smothered in her bed by someone she knew. When the police entered her residence they saw her decomposed body in the bedroom. The suspects fled and on foot cops from the New Orleans Police went on a chase.
The next day the prosecutor called and gave us the names of the suspects. We didn’t know them. The prosecutor then said he would present evidence at a grand jury proceeding: an indictment of second-degree murder, which had the penalty of life in prison without probation, pardon, or parole.
The idea of a grand jury made me nervous. I had learned in Prof Hewes class that grand juries have two distinct functions. In front of a grand jury, a prosecutor can try his/her case without the distrustful spotlight of media, family, witnesses, onlookers. It is his personal test run and often ends up being a transactional chess piece in a zero-sum game. Because the grand jury can directly question witnesses, prosecutors can further cement their arguments at trial based on a jury’s probing.
Or, prosecutors use grand juries to create an illusion. Pretend as if they are trying a case they have no interest in prosecuting so when watered down charges are presented to the media the grand jury can be blamed and Prosecutor A- Daniel Cameron for instance- has little accountability. Because the proceedings are secretive and because no one knows the facts that are being presented, and because grand jury presentations lack a dissenting point of view, grand juries are a prosecutorial BFF, something to lean on. In the case of Martha M., we benefited. Her killers were indicted.
In Martha M.’s case, prosecutors had to prove her life was valuable. It wasn’t enough that she was a human being who was killed. The prosecutor was forced to outline her education (Northwestern), her career (English teacher), her family (son and grandson), her morality (Baptist church) so the jury could humanize her because black women are almost always dehumanized when invalidated by racist systems.
And even then, after all the effort the prosecutor made to portray Martha as intelligent, kind, moral when it was time for the verdict, a black man on the jury voted not guilty. Although he knew the defendant was guilty he didn’t want to see, in his words, “another brother in prison.” What he was saying in effect was that it was worse for a black man to go to jail than for a black woman to receive justice.
He was mimicking the justice system as we have always known it to be. He was familiar with its contempt and offered his own reciprocity.
The long-running popular television show Law and Order conflates crime with justice. Crime is not justice. It is crime. And justice is justice some of the time. Each is separate from the other, alone on their own desperate island. On Law and Order, the bad guy does a crime, the police are heroic and likable under stress, the justice system then takes over, working hard to send the wretched to prison. The Law and Order system lacks racial equivalency and a lot of it is a lie.
My friend Sasha is a police sergeant. During the protests, she has had urine thrown at her. Rocks tossed. Bottles of frozen water in the face. She has been spit on. She has been called a bitch, whore, Trump’s ho, a murderer, a sellout,a thot. She has been called ugly, fat, stupid. The aggression from strangers does wear on her but it is not the same kind of anxiety as leaving your house and knowing that perhaps, that night, the police may kill you. On purpose. Not on purpose.
Breonna Taylor and her boyfriend walked to the door after they heard someone trying to enter. Kenneth Walker fired one shot. If it had been someone other than cops at the door, Breonna Taylor would be alive. But it was the cops and they returned fire. Breonna died within two minutes.
The behavior of the police in that early morning hour wasn’t considered illegal because they were there serving a warrant. But it left this gaping hole of accountability. By refusing to hold the officers responsible for the death of an innocent woman the perception will forever remain: a black woman’s life has limited value. Why was Breonna Taylor, an innocent bystander, not protected? If the argument is the police had to return fire at the shooter, then okay. But Breonna wasn’t shooting. Why was she shot at? Why was she targeted? There’s a theory going around that the police officer was shot by friendly fire and not by Kenneth Walker’s gun. If that is true, the entire police argument as advanced by AG Daniel Cameron is a flimsy house of cards.
One of the things I learned from Martha M.’s case is that a murder victim is a prop. They are used to send predators and psychopaths to prison. Or they are used to excuse predatory and criminal behavior. There is only one outcome, an A or a B. There is no gray area, no middle ground, no negotiation. Death is justified. Or death is not.
Problematically, the deaths of black people are always justified when it is the police. Kori McCoy whose brother Willie was killed when he fell asleep in a Taco Bell parking lot with a gun on his lap and the doors locked- 25 shots in just 4 seconds- said “The reality is officers rarely face consequences and families like mine are left to wonder who is policing the police.” Willie’s cousin David Harrison described the scene. “They left him out there like an animal carcass, like a dog that got run over by a car.”
States enable police with maneuvering. Some states allow for force when a suspect is fleeing. Other states allow force when making an arrest. Most states use the language “reasonable force” but don’t define what reasonable force is. Mistakes are never punished. As a country, we love to throw a law at a problem and I’m sure the Breonna Taylor law is forthcoming by the well-intentioned. But specificity is required for appropriate police behavior to take root in the soil. Such as, is it appropriate to shoot a non-threatening citizen in the back? Is it appropriate to shoot a subject in front of his/her children? Is it appropriate to shoot a subject who is in the midst of a psychotic episode? Is it appropriate to shoot someone who is in their front hall?
Although Breonna Taylor’s case will be dissected, discussed, argued about, cried over for decades, she’s not an outlier. The killing of a black woman by police is a familiar territory. But the high profile nature of Breonna’s case gives us permission to keep touching the wound.
This year a black person has been killed by the police every single week and most of those names are known by their family only, just like Martha M.’s name was known by her family only.
When people say be that change you want to see in the world I interpret that to mean change how police are held to a different standard than just about everyone else. I am grateful to the police because they solved Martha M.’s murder and they didn’t have to shoot at the suspects to bring them into custody. But I have also been on the receiving end of over-aggression, sexism, racist perceptions.
The problem begins with respect. Recently, a Louisville police major sent an e-mail to her colleagues that read in part regarding protestors “Don’t make them important, because they are not. They will be the ones washing our cars, cashing us out at the Walmart, or living in their parents' basement.”
Her contempt is why we are in this very dark place. This is the grand divide in marginalized communities, the immovable object vs the unstoppable force played out in city after city after city. Too often the police hate the very people they serve. And then, as a defense, they scream that the victims are the ones with the problem when those “victims” assert their right to exist freely and independently.