Race And Criminal Justice: A New Hope?


Marcus Robinson will not be executed but instead spend the rest of his life in prison after a judge ruled that his death sentence was tainted by racial discrimination.

Our justice system has a racial bias problem, both in the way it treats suspects, and the way it treats victims.

The cases of Troy Davis and Trayvon Martin underscore this.  If the races were reversed would Troy Davis’ execution have been pursued so relentlessly, would he even have received a death sentence, would police have been so quick to ignore other potential suspects?

And, had the races been reversed, wouldn’t the reaction to Trayvon Martin’s killing have been … different?

But knowing there is racial bias and doing something about it are two different things.  In North Carolina, something is being done.


Katrina, Six Years On: Criminal Justice and the NOPD

New Orleans Commemorates 5th Anniversary Of Hurricane Katrina

New Orleans Commemorates 5th Anniversary Of Hurricane Katrina, © 2010 Getty Images

The longstanding problems of New Orleans’ criminal justice system were documented by Amnesty in its 2010 report Un-Natural Disaster: Human Rights in the Gulf Coast.  Now, six years after the levees broke in New Orleans, there is an opening for deep, lasting change in New Orleans Police Department (NOPD).

In the immediate aftermath of the storm, when its community was most in need of protection, the New Orleans Police Department (NOPD) was involved in a stream of deadly incidents. Officers reported that soon after the flooding began, they were given permission to shoot looters by their second in command.

On September 2, police shot and killed a young African-American man, Henry Glover, then dumped his body in a car and set it on fire.  That night, a police officer shot Danny Brumfield, Sr., a 45 year old African-American man, in the back, killing him in front of the convention center. Matthew McDonald was killed by police the next day.  Then on September 4, seven NOPD police officers opened fire on a group of seven African Americans crossing Danziger Bridge, killing James Brissette and Ronald Madison.

Justice in these cases has taken years. SEE THE REST OF THIS POST

Troy Davis' Supporters Call for Justice for All

On Tuesday, on the eve of the hearing that is currently giving Troy Davis a chance to present evidence pointing to his innocence, about a hundred and twenty activists and supporters gathered at the New Life Apostolic Temple in Savannah for a community mass meeting. Member of Amnesty International USA from as far as Seattle and New York gathered with Troy’s family and the Savannah community to pray for justice and all those who suffer from the failures of the criminal justice system and the horror of the death penalty.

I was honored to share the podium with my colleagues Amnesty International UK and France, representatives of the NAACP, several death row exonerees, and Martina Correia, Troy’s sister and long-time Amnesty activist. Speaking to a crowd where many were wearing t-shirts printed with the words “I am Troy Davis”, Martina relayed a message from her brother who called her earlier yesterday and expressed gratitude for his supporters’ solidarity. It was moving to see her speak powerfully and optimistically of the faith and determination that is at the heart of the struggle for human rights.

What struck me most was the evening broke down the false division between those who seek to end the suffering of the Davis family and those who wish to honor the family of Marc MacPhail, the brave police officer who was murdered in 1989. Those who gathered prayed for all victims of terrible crimes as well as for a justice system that truly honors and comforts those who have lost loved ones to violence. This can never be achieved by yet another killing, especially of someone who has such compelling claims of innocence. I was reminded why this fight is so important, not only for Troy and his family, but for all of us and for “the soul of our country,” as one speaker put it.

In his remarks, the Reverend Raphael Warnock, Pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church (once led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.), summed up the struggle in Dr. King’s famous words that

“the arc of the universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”

Yesterday this fight continued in yet another critical stage at the federal district court in Savannah. But no matter what happens, it is a fight that will never end until we arrive at where the arc of the universe seeks to take us.

To all the activists around the world who took action on Tuesday, thank you for standing in solidarity with Troy and calling for justice.

Larry Cox is the Executive Director of  Amnesty International USA.

Troy Davis Hearing: Landmark Opportunity for Justice

The hearing at the Savannah federal district court tomorrow is both historic and unprecedented.  Never before has the U.S. Supreme Court ordered a hearing to determine if it is unconstitutional to execute someone who is innocent. While this hearing is of the utmost importance to Troy Davis and the entire Savannah community, it also carries great legal significance.

Following his conviction in 1991, the case against Davis has unraveled, with seven of the nine witnesses recanting or contradicting their original testimony. After spending 19 years on death row and facing three execution dates, Davis has been given an opportunity to present evidence pointing to his innocence in a court of law.

This is a momentous opportunity that Amnesty International worked for and welcomes. But the burden of proof has been turned on its head. The court has set a very high bar: rather than ‘innocent until proven guilty,’ Davis must clearly prove he is innocent.

With 138 death row prisoners having been exonerated since 1973, it is more than a possibility that innocent people will be executed in the United States. It is inevitable in a broken system. The justice system should therefore be especially concerned with cases like Davis.’

Even as truth and justice are sought, we cannot forget the tragedy of a life lost. Mark Allen MacPhail was the innocent victim of a terrible murder. It is important to remember that the Savannah community lost a brave public servant, and acknowledge Officer MacPhail’s family during this difficult time. It is our sincere hope that this hearing will shed more truth on what happened the night of his murder and that justice will finally be served.

Larry Cox is the Executive Director of  Amnesty International USA.  He is currently in Savannah, GA to attend Troy Davis’ evidentiary hearing.

A Tale of Two Taliban

(Originally posted on Daily Kos)

In the last month, a spotlight has fallen on two sharply different terrorism cases that illuminate the best and worse of America’s efforts to defeat Al Qaeda:

  • The case of Mohammed Jawad, conducted with the gloves off, is a disaster.
  • The case of Bryant Vinas, conducted within the law, appears to be triumph.

Mohammed Jawad was detained in Kabul in December 2002 after a grenade was thrown at US soldiers, injuring three members of a patrol. Jawad’s age has not been established with any degree of certainty but it is not disputed that he was a minor at the time of the attack. According to Afghan government, he may have been as young as twelve.

Although the US government has yet to produce any credible evidence that Jawad was responsible for the attack – in July 2009 US District Court Judge Ellen Huvelle described the government’s case as “an outrage” and “riddled with holes” – he was labeled as a terrorist and eventually transferred to Guantanamo Bay. Read Amnesty International’s report on Jawad’s case.

Jawad was subjected to a range of so-called enhanced interrogation techniques including forced sleep deprivation and physical abuse. Judge Huvelle, who eventually heard Jawad’s habeas corpus petition, threw out every statement he made in US custody as “a product of torture”. On July 30, she ordered that Jawad be released by August 21.

Jawad has been illegally detained for more than six and a half years. Worse still – the United States tortured a child. And for what? Jawad could offer no actionable intelligence. The government can’t even prove he committed a crime. His detention has cost the American taxpayer hundreds of thousands of dollars. It is a lose-lose scenario emblematic of the dark side approach promoted by Dick Cheney.

Bryant Neal Vinas, alias Bashir al-Ameriki, a twenty-six year old Hispanic man from Long Island, converted to Islam in 2004 and travelled to Pakistan to make contact with Al Qaeda in late 2007 or early 2008.

Vinas received weapons training from Al Qaeda with a particular concentration on explosives. In September 2008, he took part in a rocket attack on a US military base in Afghanistan.

Vinas even agreed to undertake a suicide bombing, although his handlers let him off the hook. He was, in short, a terrorist who engaged in hostile acts against the United States.

In November 2008, he was arrested in Peshwar by the Pakistani authorities. Because Vinas was an American citizen he was not shipped to Guantanamo or Bagram but instead treated like an ordinary criminal and transferred to the custody of the FBI.

Vinas’ case was handled entirely within the American criminal justice system. He was interviewed by FBI investigators within the constraints of domestic US law and with all the protections that the US constitution affords US citizens.

Operating within these constraints experienced FBI agents were able to persuade Vinas to cooperate with the US authorities and provide valuable and timely intelligence regarding potential terrorist plot.

Federal prosecutors were able to build a strong case against Vinas successfully charging him with conspiracy to murder U.S. citizens, providing information to a terrorist organization, and receiving “military-type training” from a Al-Qaeda.

Vinas eventually pled guilty to these charges. He has agreed to appear as a key witness in a number of other terrorist trials and is currently a protected witness in the federal witness protection program living inside the United States.

What a contrast exists between these two cases – one effectively and efficiently handled within the law and the other, a Kafkaesque nightmare in which a minor has been abused and incarcerated for more than six years to no purpose whatsoever.

These two cases could not make it any plainer. Our criminal justice system not only can handle complex terrorism cases, it actually does a substantially better job of it than the cack-handed shadow warriors unleashed by the Bush administration.

The real tragedy is that this lesson seems to be lost on the Obama White House. Jeh Johnson’s admission before Congress that the administration may consider detaining individuals acquitted by the Military Commissions seems to set the stage for further miscarriages of justice and for yet further damage to America’s battered international reputation.

We don’t need to keep going down this path. There is a better way. We know how to do this smarter and we know how do this right. Just ask Bryant Vinas.