Thursday, October 24, 2019

Other Questions

The Intercept reports

A group of formerly incarcerated men and women will moderate a presidential town hall for the first time ever next week, questioning candidates about their positions on the U.S. justice system before an audience made up exclusively of people with firsthand experience of the country’s prisons and jails.

The event, to be held on October 28 at the Eastern State Penitentiary, a historic former prison in Philadelphia, aims to put questions of mass incarceration, broken courts, and racist policing at the forefront of the debate in an election season that has largely seen them eclipsed by other issues. So far, only Sens. Kamala Harris and Cory Booker have committed to be there.

Questions of mass incarceration, broken courts, and racist policing at the forefront.  Certainly sounds objective to me.

Sarcasm, aside, however, the courts are broken- although sometimes in the manner perhaps not considered by the Intercept's reporter and those former inmates. And as luck would have it, that is demonstrated by a case from that very city, Philadelphia. The Philadelphia Inquirer explains

A Philadelphia jury on Thursday found Michael White not guilty of voluntary manslaughter in the fatal stabbing of real estate developer Sean Schellenger during a scuffle near Rittenhouse Square last year, a case that attracted widespread attention for seeming to exemplify the city’s long-standing tensions over race and class.

The panel of eight women and four men deliberated for about eight hours over two days before announcing the verdict. The jurors voted to convict White, 22, of tampering with evidence but cleared him of obstruction and possessing an instrument of crime...

White and Schellenger did not know each other before their chance encounter July 12, 2018, but came face-to-face just before 11 p.m. during a traffic dispute at 17th and Chancellor Streets.

White was delivering Popeye’s chicken for Uber Eats on his bicycle; Schellenger had been with friends at the nearby restaurant Rouge when they left to drive to a different bar.

White testified that he stopped his bike at the corner after being blocked by a black Mercedes-Benz driven by Norris Jordan, Schellenger’s friend and the co-owner of the restaurants Lou Bird’s and Happy Rooster. Jordan’s vehicle was stuck behind another car on 17th Street.

White said he witnessed Jordan utter a racial slur toward the second car’s driver — an allegation that Jordan denied on the stand — then saw Schellenger get out of the Mercedes to confront the other motorist. White said he told Schellenger he didn’t need to be a “tough guy.”

More than most cases, White’s trial seemed to touch on issues that have long affected the city, such as money, race, and opportunity.

White, a black man who had performed slam poetry and was working as a food courier on the night of the confrontation, testified that Schellenger — the white owner of a real estate company — said, “I’ll beat the black off you” before charging at him and trying to tackle him, causing him to fear for his safety.

Inquirer reporter Chris Palmer noted "No one else who took the witness stand during the three days of testimony reported hearing Schellenger utter a racial comment. And one of Schellenger’s friends on the scene that night — whom White also accused of using a racial epithet before the stabbing — vehemently denied using such language." However, Chief Defender Keir

Bradford-Grey, during her closing arguments Wednesday, did not shy away from the explosive themes of the case. In addition to telling jurors that White had acted in self-defense, she said: “This case has many undertones, and race is one of them.”

That infuriated some of Schellenger’s supporters.

Mark Schellenger, the victim’s father, told reporters after the verdict that his son “wasn’t perfect, but he was no racist, and to have him smeared like that just to save the murderer, that’s despicable.”

This wasn't the first time that a defense attorney invoked race to inflame passions and gain an acquittal. Traditionally, it was on behalf of a white defendant accused of killing a black man but, hey, times have changed, sometimes going from bad to bad. After the racial slur(s) which was or was not uttered

According to White, Schellenger then walked toward him and uttered the racial insult, and White pulled out a knife to scare him away.

Medical records subsequently showed that Schellenger had a blood alcohol level twice the legal driving limit and traces of cocaine in his system during the confrontation. When he charged White and wrapped his arms around him, White plunged the knife — which had a 6-inch blade — into Schellenger’s back.

The two men collapsed to the ground, and White pulled the knife out.

Schellenger was pronounced dead that night. White ran from the scene and threw the knife onto the roof of a house in West Philadelphia — the basis for the charge of tampering with evidence. He turned himself in the next day.

Within limits, defense attorneys will do what they must to gain an acquittal and invoking racial motives is legitimate when their client- as in this case- claims there was bias, and it cannot easily be disproved. However, if the former inmates coordinating the forum at Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary truly are exorcised about a broken, or failed, criminal justice system, they will address instances in which a prosecutor's office acts against the interests of the state and a victim's family.   We learn

White initially was charged with first-degree murder, in which the offender intends to kill the victim. But last fall, Krasner withdrew that count, saying prosecutors did not have evidence to support it. The decision allowed White to be released on bail and eliminated the potential for an automatic life sentence.

This was reasonable and justified because it was not a case of premeditated murder. White then faced counts of third degree murder, carrying a maximum prison sentence of 20 to 40 years, and voluntary manslaughter, which maximum penalty is 10 to 20 years in prison. However

Earlier this month, Krasner again said he wanted to modify the charges and drop a count of third-degree murder. In a motion filed on the eve of trial, he said pursuing only voluntary manslaughter — often called a “heat of passion” killing or unjustified self-defense — would be “the most likely way to secure a just conviction.”

That hot sensation on your backside is of a career public defender and defense lawyer blowing smoke.  It doesn't take a degree from a prestigious law school to recognize that juries like to split the difference.

The best way to get a guilty verdict of some sort is to charge a defendant with both offenses (in this case, 3rd degree murder or voluntary manslaughter), then watch as the jury selects the lesser of the two. That way, jurors need not feel bad for the guy in front of them or fear their friends and relatives later will complain that they let a murderer get away with, well, murder. Call it "compassionate conservatism" if you wish.

Understandably, Krasner's "decision incensed several of Schellenger’s relatives, who pointed out that White had been facing counts of both third-degree murder and voluntary manslaughter and said a jury should have been able to decide if either count applied."

So Philadelphia will be a near-perfect venue for presidential candidates to address victim's rights while discussing criminal justice and police reform.  It also will be a propitious time to consider the proper role of a prosecutor (or her office) as the defense attorney argues aggressively for acquittal of her client.

Moreover, in a political campaign in which firearm possession has drawn attention, the White-Schellinger case should prompt someone to inquire about weapons of violence generally. Knives don't kill as easily as guns and the assailant needed to be close to the victim to have fatally injured him.

But he did kill him, which oddly did not prompt testimony as to whether other food couriers carry knives with them in Philadelphia, nor whether Mr. White had been the victim of violence in his duties, hence possessing legitimate reason to carry a knife in self-defense.

We do not know if the knife actually was carried for self-defense. We also don't know whether amidst the pandering there will be brief consideration of the rights of crime victims, nor of the public of which they are a part.

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