Chances are you already know that the U.S. Court system is no place for poor people or minorities. If you’re rich and white, however, and you land in front of a judge for chasing toddlers with a weed-whacker, you stand a much better chance of being back out in a few days with a new weed-whacker.
For those who think the system is still sort of fair, the Lighthouse would like to provide this 101 course on how the courtroom is really one big ‘ole industrial-strength mangle. Let’s start with how …
Elected Judges Already Hate You
In a state with a long history of racism, you don’t have to search hard to find a judge with baggage.
Hinds County, Mississippi made national news in 2015 when Judge Jeff Weill tried to reassign 55 defendants represented by Hinds County Assistant Public Defender Alison Kelly to private attorneys. Weill, a white Republican, had clashed with Kelly over her zealous defense of clients, according to Trey Baker, legislative counsel for U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson—who had lodged a complaint with then-U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder over Weill’s decision to “systematically undercut the local public defender services.”
According to sources within the court system, Kelly was enthusiastic about defending what she saw as underprivileged, minority clients, and Weill didn’t seem to like that much.
Another county defender, Michele Purvis Harris, appealed Weill’s decision and told him where, under his robe, to stuff his opinion of Kelly and the public defender’s office—which prompted the irate judge to have the bailiff physically remove Harris from the courtroom.
Judge Weill also locked antlers with public defender Chris Routh, whom he found in contempt of court in 2016 and briefly jailed following a courtroom spat. Perhaps that had something to do with Routh campaigning for Weill’s opponent, David McCarty, in an appeals court race, which McCarty won in a runoff.
Prior to his election loss, Weill was described by critics as a harsh judge with little sympathy for minority defendants, and that’s very much a possibility in a criminal court with elected judges—because elected judges are not just judges; they are politicians. And politicians win elections by appealing to a certain kind of voter.
Lawyers running for judgeships in Mississippi also make no bones about locking away people for the rest of their lives. Former Mississippi Supreme Court Judge David Chandler was obvious about being “tough on crime” in his old commercial, but what should’ve scared people was how he bragged about being biased against overturning convictions.
In his ad, Chandler boasted about “affirming criminal cases 96 percent of the time.” This means Chandler was proud of almost unanimously siding with prosecutors in lower courts. That may not sound like a big deal unless you consider that, as a supreme court judge, his job is to make impartial decisions on appeals coming out of lower courts. These are appeals of convictions that defendants believe are unfair or flawed. But Chandler had already confessed to everyone that he has a biased desire to side with your old prosecutor over you, even if the guy buried evidence in your trial that would have cleared you.
And don’t think for a second that that’s not what prosecutors do because …
The Prosecutor Absolutely Cheats
Earlier this year, Jackson residents mourned the death of 44-year-old Cedric Willis. Willis led a troubled life that took a solid hit in 1994 when the Hinds County DA charged him with the murder of Carl White Jr. and with a rape connected to two different robberies within days of each other. This came as a shock to Willis because DNA testing from the rape had cleared him of that crime. Since the other robbery had been committed with the same weapon, Willis was not likely the suspect in either case. That info would have been useful to the Hinds County jury, had former Hinds County District Attorney Ed Peters and Assistant District Attorney Bobby DeLaughter not asked the judge to exclude that DNA test. In a massive act of cruelty, Circuit Judge Breland Hilburn agreed to withhold that critical evidence, even though including it would have probably cleared Willis.
Both the DA and the judge were perfectly fine letting an innocent Black man age in prison for the rest of his life. The court gave Willis life plus 90 years and he remained in prison for 11 years until the Innocence Project of New Orleans stepped in and pushed for a retrial, this time presenting the maliciously-withheld evidence.
Peters and Delaughter lost their law licenses after Willis’ release, but that was over unrelated federal violations, not because they had targeted an innocent man for prosecution. Delaughter pled guilty to a federal obstruction charge in a 2009 FBI corruption probe and got 18 months in prison, while Peters got immunity for ratting Delaughter out to authorities. (It didn’t seem to matter to agents that Peters was the one who had corrupted Delaughter with a bribe in the first place.)
Regardless of the inherent oiliness, prosecutors and judges can pull strings to convict people because they are immune to legal repercussions for wrongful prosecution. State laws do not allow individuals to sue corrupt prosecutors for ruining lives.
Of course, setting you up for a knockdown is easier for prosecutors if defendants don’t have the resources on their side to even the fight. In Mississippi, this is very much a problem because …
Your Public Defender is Broke
Putting together a good defense against a DA who knows the judge (as Peters and Delaughter certainly did) can be a problem without adequate resources. You need more than a few phone calls and an internet search to gather the kinds of facts that sway a jury. You need people to interview witnesses for opposing testimony and to video and corroborate evidence. But public defenders don’t have access to full-time investigators, as the DA does.
Chickasaw County Public Defender Edward Lancaster says he must approach the court for additional resources if needed. And the cost of those funds rack up pretty quickly.
“I had a young man up for a DUI, and they had to prove he had two priors. I found out he’d been to Whitfield and had a lengthy medical record, and it cost about $1,000 to get all the medical records going back to the 1970s,” Lancaster told the Lighthouse.
Another of Lancaster’s cases involved a charge of statutory rape, requiring a DNA test costing $1,000—which was actually on the cheap side, Lancaster said, because the tester agreed to lower the price for the sake of an indigent defendant.
Since getting the money for that kind of work involves petitioning the court for cash, an attorney must assess the funds needed, write a motion for the funds and then get the judge onboard with it. Lancaster said the system would be more efficient if money for investigators came from the general fund, as it does for prosecutors.
“That’d really be best,” he said, “It would be an improvement over what we’ve got now.”
Other public defenders simply go without. Grenada County public defender Tarik Johnson says he has never been in a position to petition the court for an investigator because he handles all the investigations himself. Critics say this gives the DA a strong financial advantage, especially since the public defense workload in Grenada County is not exactly light.
“We have a lot of work, a lot of cases,” Johnson told Lighthouse. “Do I think we have everything we’d need in a perfect world? Of course not. We always want more time and resources, but we play the hand that we’re dealt, and we try to make the best of it.”
That isn’t enough in a lot of counties, according to the Innocence Project, which brought justice to Cedric Willis. Throughout the course of its work, the Innocence Project discovered a horde of public defense attorneys who were asleep at the job—in a not-at-all figurative way.
“A review of convictions overturned by DNA testing reveals a trail of sleeping, drunk, incompetent and overburdened defense attorneys, at the trial level and on appeal. And this is only the tip of the iceberg,” the group states.
Examples include discovering lawyers sleeping in the courtroom during the trial, being disbarred shortly after finishing a death penalty case or failing to investigate alibis or call or consult experts on forensic issues. Sometimes they even failed to show up for hearings.
Public defenders are a frequently-overworked bunch, who have their own day-jobs to maintain, in addition to the caseload they adopt for their respective counties. Many have the equivalent of a full workweek before they adopted their PD load because very few Mississippi counties have the resources for full-time public defenders.
This might tie into the fact that …
The State is Charging You for Your Own Trial
In the years since the nation adopted stiff criminal penalties and permanent incarceration, we’ve learned that imprisonment costs a lot of money. We’ve spent $450 billion over the last four decades locking away people for drug-related offenses—and that’s just federal prison. And while we were stuffing our prisons with harmless stoners and addicts, anti-tax legislators were cutting critical funds from state justice systems or refusing to increase funds to match rising costs.
Money for services such as arrest warrants, DNA sample tests or court-ordered drug or alcohol-abuse rehabilitation must come from somebody, however. Lately, it’s been coming from us.
In late 2012, Antwun Sharell Jones pleaded guilty to selling pirated DVDs at a flea market near Philadelphia, MS. The judge presiding over that case sentenced Jones to spend the next two years in state prison and ordered him to pay $5,000 in fines, which included “court costs.” In 2015, Keith Danner pleaded guilty to selling knock-off clothing and accessories from out of his car. Danner got 10 years in prison, but also a $1,000 bill to cover “investigation costs.”
Defendants get charged at every step in the process, from handcuffs to jail. In the Mississippi court system, for example, they must pay for their own electronic monitoring (ankle monitors), probation or supervision, and even room and board, if they are employed inside or outside a prison facility while incarcerated. Since 2010, Mississippi is one of the many states that have been steadily increasing civil and criminal fees.
These are fees you will be stuck with if you choose to end your pain quickly and take a plea deal, because taking a plea deal—in addition to admitting guilt—means agreeing to all the fees the court decides to hit you with. Thanks to the overcrowded court docket, a backlog of cases and the $100-to $400-an-hour cost of getting your own attorney, you will be sorely pushed to take that plea deal, if you are poor. If you take that deal, though, you will be helping the court system further evolve into an ugly process of nickel and diming defendants to death. You’ll lose so much money, in fact, that you might not even notice that …
The Cops Are Totally Jacking Your Stuff
In April 2015, police in the town of Stonewall, Mississippi busted Black resident Jonathan Sanders for possession of a small amount of cocaine. When they nabbed him, they also snatched his Chevy Tahoe and $2,400 in cash. A few months later, in an unrelated incident, Stonewall cop Kevin Harrington strangled Sanders on a rural road after he fled on a horse and buggy (because nothing apparently spooks a cop like a horse and buggy). Witnesses say Sanders was unarmed and had not threatened the cop.
A coroner’s report later revealed the victim to have died of asphyxiation associated with cocaine toxicity, but his family’s lawyer claimed Harrington held him in a chokehold for 20 minutes. Despite that, a grand jury failed to indict the white cop.
A few months after Sanders’ burial, the local police department generously returned his Tahoe and his cash to his distraught mother, as if they were doing her a favor.
“In my opinion, that was an acknowledgment that they had done wrong,” said Jackson attorney CJ Lawrence, who’d represented Sanders’ family. “They knew he had been wronged, all the way from the funds, to the taking of the Tahoe, to the return of the funds; they knew they had done something wrong to him.”
Criminal forfeiture allows police to seize the home, car or cash of a convicted drug seller and use the money to finance extra patrol cars, ammo and coffee filters. Civil asset forfeiture, however, is criminal forfeiture’s greasy little brother. While criminal forfeiture lets agents snatch the property of convicted criminals, civil asset forfeiture lets police seize anything that they suspect has been used in a crime, even if there hasn’t been a conviction. In Sanders’ case, police noticed his tiny bag of powder and arbitrarily decided that both his car and his cash were involved in drug deals, and laid claim to them (even though he hadn’t even gone to trial for it).
While the burden of proof in a criminal prosecution is on the prosecutor, the burden of proof in a civil asset forfeiture is actually on you. If police grab your car under the claim that it might have been used in drug distribution, it’s up to your lawyer and you to prove that your car is innocent, even if you were never formally charged for a crime.
The system works well for fattening up police budgets. The Washington Post reported 61,998 cash seizures on highways and elsewhere since 2001 through the Justice Department’s civil asset forfeiture program, known as Equitable Sharing. And they did it without search warrants or indictments.
Only a sixth of those seizures were legally challenged, partially due to the high cost of appealing the government to give you back your stuff, but also because most suspects are too busy fighting for their lives in court to dedicate time to the reclamation of their snaggin’ wagon. If they do appeal the seizure, however, it frequently takes more than a year to fight it, according to the Post, and it often requires the rightful owners to sign an agreement not to sue the cops for even trying to gank it.
The 2010 Institute for Justice report “Policing for Profit” characterized civil forfeiture as an act of abuse and pointed out that police departments were beginning to rely too heavily upon unethically-seized assets.
“It should … not be surprising that, given the structures and incentives of civil forfeiture law, a substantial number of law enforcement agencies are now dependent on civil forfeiture proceeds and view civil forfeiture as a necessary source of income,” wrote report co-author Scott Bullock, who added that a survey of nearly 800 law enforcement executives revealed that nearly 40 percent of police agencies reported civil forfeiture proceeds being a necessary budget supplement.
Few politicians acknowledge that institutionalized cop poaching is even a thing. Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders has pledged to end it, while fellow candidate Elizabeth Warren has announced a major overhaul of the justice system entirely. Candidate Joe Biden may not be talking too much about it, however, since he actually supported the bill making civil asset forfeiture possible.
Regardless of who steps up to the plate in 2020, Lawrence said the practice needs to stop.
“It is a way to pillage mostly Black or brown folk of their assets while they’re being run through the justice system,” Lawrence told Lighthouse.