Fairness. Justice. Equality under the law.
As African-Americans, these are words that we believe in; desperately fought for, marched for and worked hard to have applied to us. With the turbulent times we have seen in the last year, have we gotten to the point where we believe that there is no way the criminal justice system can work for us? Are we rushing to judgment? Are we doing the same thing that we accuse the criminal justice system of doing?
In the police-involved deaths in Ferguson and Staten Island, we waited for the grand jury. We waited for the justice system to run its course. We waited for the verdicts, and as a result there was a reaction. There were discussions. There was a belief by many that justice was not served. But at least the case went through the judicial process. The grand jury looked at the evidence and decided that the police officers in those cases should not be charged.
Then we were facing another death in Baltimore. However, the critical difference here is that in Baltimore, we had a completely different playing field. The state’s attorney is African-American; the mayor is African-American; the police chief is African-American; and much of the power structure is African-American. We have the diversity that many of us in the criminal justice system have strongly advocated for.
However, no one even waited for an investigation to be completed before they took to the streets! While I can understand the frustration of a community, folks assumed that justice would not happen without waiting for judgment of any kind. There were riots and violence, which is utterly unacceptable. This saddened as well as disappointed me, because now, here was another opportunity for mainstream media to portray African-Americans as violent and thugs. One of my good friends said, quite poetically of those who are burning down Baltimore "you do not speak for me."
My people, may I remind you, justice takes time. This is not the land of television (read: every CSI franchise, Law and Order), where crimes are solved in 24 hours. Investigations do not happen overnight. It takes weeks, sometimes months to gather all the evidence, interview witnesses, and get to the bottom of what happened. If there are medical examinations or DNA/lab tests involved, it may take weeks to get the results back. The State’s Attorney must be thorough in her review, so that whatever decision she makes is the fair and just one. The State’s Attorney has to make sure that when she files the case against the officers, it is against the exact officers who were involved in the harming of Freddie Gray, and that she can prove this to a jury beyond a reasonable doubt. Should she rush to judgment and make the wrong decision? Charge someone who is not involved—a potentially innocent person—to appease public pressure? Think about it from the perspective of it is was your friend or family member. You would expect a full investigation, so why should this case be any different?
As a result of a thorough review, last week, Baltimore State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby announced that she found probable cause to file charges in the death of Freddie Gray. Freddie Gray's death was ruled a homicide, and six police officers have been charged.
And here it is. The desired result by most.
There is still a long road to go. In all prosecutions, you don't sit on the file and wait for the trial date. A prosecutor continues to investigate, look for more witnesses, and explore all angles in preparation for trial. And, at trial, the prosecutor has to prove to a jury beyond a reasonable doubt that the officers caused the death of Freddie Gray. It's never an easy burden, no matter how "open and shut" the case is portrayed to be in the media. It's hard work.
Yes, there is injustice in the world, but maybe I'm old-school. I am of the opinion that you have to make the system work for you. You protest peacefully so that your voice is heard. You vote in every single election. You become a stakeholder in the system by becoming a prosecutor, a Congressman, a mayor, a councilwoman, a chief of police, the Attorney General—not by ending up in a jail cell for looting and destroying your very own community. In the long run, it will take a large amount of money and time to rebuild—assuming the businesses want to come back to Baltimore. Who has this helped? Is this justice?
Since Ferguson, there has been a new, younger generation of activists who reject the nonviolent views of the '60s, and believe that disorder brings more attention. As an insider, let me keep it real. The system will keep moving. Disorder will not bring you the respect or the positive changes you want. Ms. Mosby didn't file charges because of looters or protesters; she filed because the evidence was there. Know that in rushing to judgment, some have created a greater injustice, and Freddie Gray is not resting in peace. I pray that the path ahead will reveal what happened to Freddie Gray, so that his family may have closure.
For the rest of us, please do not rush to judgment. We need to let the system do its work, and then assess what needs to be done, after asking the appropriate questions.
Like the old Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes song says: “Wake up everybody, no more sleeping in bed; no more backward thinking, time for thinking ahead.”
Wake up. Think about the future—we have more work to do, to ensure that the system is diverse, and that we are always at the table where decisions are made.
Melba Pearson is an attorney, writer, speaker, wife and Resident Legal Diva. Follow her on Twitter @ResLegalDiva. She is also the President of the National Black Prosecutors Association. Learn more at www.blackprosecutors.org.