African Americans, Ahmaud Arbery, Andrew Coffee, anti-semitism, Charlottesville, citizens arrest, criminal justice, Florida, fugitive slave laws, Georgia, Im-Politic, Kenosha, Kyle Rittenhouse, racism, self-defense, systemic racism, Unite the Right, vigilantism, white supremacists
It’s been a very bad week for those Americans (and others) convinced that their country’s entire society, and especially its criminal justice system, remain so thoroughly infected with racism that nothing less than multiple amputations and lobotomies are required.
As a result, it’s been a very good week for those Americans (and others) trying to grapple rigorously with the racism that has historically stained that criminal justice system and larger society, culture, and economy, and with its lingering effects in all their complexity.
For this time period has seen no fewer than three race-infused trials conclude with verdicts that thoroughly debunk claims of bigotry racism in that justice system so pervasive as to be systemic.
The first and most publicized resulted in murder convictions for three white Georgians who killed an African American man jogging through a neighborhood in the southeastern corner of the state. The trio of whites blamed their attack on Ahmaud Arbery on his resistance to their attempts to carry out a citizen’s arrest prompted by suspicions of his involvement in several local burglaries.
But the nearly all-white jury ultimately agreed with the prosecutor’s observation that the attackers’ actions were utterly illegal vigilantism even by the recklessly indulgent standards of a state law that, like many counterparts, is rooted in a history of genuinely shameful fugitive slave statutes – and that was repealed this past May. For none of the defendants saw Arbery engage even in any dodgy act, and possessed no evidence of his possible guilt.
Arbery’s family and others argued that the killing took much too long to be investigated, and their charges of attempted cover-up by some local officials seems to have been vindicated by the eventual decisions of area prosecutors and judges to recuse themselves from the trial. So there’s a strong case to be made that justice was delayed. But in this instance, it’s clear that it wasn’t denied.
The second trial attracted less attention, but appears no less important. This past Tuesday, more than a dozen white racist and anti-semitic leaders and their organizations, which organized the tumultuous 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, that claimed one life, were found guilty of breaking state law by conspiring to intimidate, harass, or harm counter-protestors and local residents. The verdict by the majority white jury awarded the plaintiffs $26 million in compensatory and punitive damages, and the defendants are almost certain to be tried on the federal charges (of conspiring to commit racially motivated violence) on which the jury failed to reach a decision.
The third trial has received almost no national attention, but is especially interesting given widespread arguments that acquitted Kenosha, Wisconsin shooter Kyle Rittenhouse would have been found guilty of some form of homicide had he been black. (See, e.g., here and here.) This third trial is especially interesting because the verdict actually did acquit on self-defense charges an African American who killed an intruder into his home and attempted to slay another. Special bonus: The two intruders were cops.
The defendant, Andrew Coffee IV, didn’t get off scot free. The Vero Beach, Florida jurors found him guilty of illegally possessing a firearm. (He was found guilty of felony battery and evading arrest in 2013.) But his position that he didn’t realize that the intruders were law enforcement officers, and didn’t hear the SWAT team in question so identify itself, carried the day on the main charge. And here’s a fun fact – Coffee’s acquittal came the same day as Rittenhouse’s.
As noted above, these results don’t mean that African Americans have never gotten horrifically raw deals from the American criminal justice system, or even that no such injustices take place today. (I’ve written about the latter issue, e.g., here.) But these three verdicts – which all came in states belonging to the old Confederacy – cannot possibly have taken place in a country still determined to suppress the rights of blacks (and other minorities). Instead, they took place in a country where, as noted by an African American lawyer quoted here, such outcomes are possible, if not yet often enough, in the first place – and always have been.