The American justice system devalues the lives of young Black and Latino men. There is no presumption of innocence for them. By and large, they are presumed guilty whenever they are charged with the commission of a crime. I’m thinking about a specific case involving a 30 year-old East Harlem man who works for the New York City Board of Education. Because he pled to a misdemeanor crime that he didn’t commit, he is fighting to retain his job and his life has been turned completely around. Unfortunately, his predicament is as a consequence of the callous disregard the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office has for him and those like him as a people. To them he is just another number, one more statistic for their books, but more on him later.
There is no telling how many young Blacks or Latino men have been coerced into accepting plea deals that they shouldn’t have. While this article is focused on the justice system in New York City, it applies across the nation generally. The Brian Banks case is just one such example. Wrongfully imprisoned, Mr. Banks served five years for a rape he didn’t commit, before he was exonerated. To be fair, he was imprisoned based upon his own voluntary act. He confessed to the crime for which he was convicted. You might well ask how and why do innocent people plead guilty to crimes they didn’t commit? Ironically, almost 20 percent of those who have been exonerated confessed to crimes for which they were charged and convicted. In the vast majority of those cases, the people involved had actually gone to trial. This not withstanding however, there’s no way of telling how many people entered guilty pleas through bargains and consequently never appealed.
Although we hear about the more sensational trials, such as the Trevon Martin case, in actuality, only 5 percent ever come to trial. Mr. Banks was no doubt convinced by his underpaid and over-worked attorney to plead no contest or in legal parlance nolo contendere, which is a plea where the defendant neither admits nor disputes the charges against him. Most of the time a defendant will be required to make a choice between guilty or not guilty. It’s usually a combination of intimidation on the part of the prosecutor and capitulation on the part of the defense attorney. In any instant, the defendant gets screwed. In more instances than not, the defendant is a poor, undereducated, Black or Latino who’s frightened and made to believe that a trial wouldn’t be in their best interests. Despite protestations of innocence the defendant is ultimately convinced by his attorney, usually a public defender, to cop a plea. Plea bargains exist to unclog courts that are bogged down or justice would be at a virtual standstill or a long time coming. Despite plea agreements justice is still sometimes long in coming. The plea arrangements work nicely for a hungry assistant district attorney anxious to ad a conviction to their record and overworked under resourced courts.
This brings me back to the young man that I mentioned earlier. For the purpose of this article let’s call him Juan. Juan is a 30 year-old Puerto Rican male who was convinced to cop to a misdemeanor plea of criminal facilitation in a drug case, even though the circumstances of the two instances cited were dubious. Juan’s only other criminal charge, was disobeying the order of a police officer, because he attempted to clarify an issue with the police officer. The incident occurred in Miami while he was on vacation. Even though the charge was a simple misdemeanor, charges like disobeying a police officer or resisting arrest are all to commonplace. This is especially true as it relates to minority youth. When all else fails, these two charges have become reliable standbys for those who police our inner cities.
Without going into too much detail, because the case is under appeal, Juan is accused of driving a drug dealer to locations where the drug dealer is alleged to have transacted his illegal business. The drug dealer in question was a family friend who as far as Juan knew was a handy man. The drug dealer had a late-model automobile (no not a Cadillac) which he allowed Juan to drive occasionally. Unbeknownst to the alleged drug dealer or Juan, he the drug dealer, was under surveillance. On two separate occasions, Juan was observed driving the alleged drug dealer’s car to places where the dealer left the car and transacted his business, out of Juan’s sight. Juan had no prior knowledge of the nature of the alleged drug dealer’s business. He didn’t see the transactions either, yet he was convinced by his attorney to cop to a plea to criminal facilitation.
Juan is someone with a responsible job. Though he is not a teacher, he works for the New York City Board of Education. He is dedicated to his job and has been depressed and despondent over the very real possibility of losing it, because of the misdemeanor that he pled guilty to. He had an almost spotless record, yet he was convinced though the intimidation of the District Attorney’ office and the lack of fight in his paid attorney to plea to the criminal facilitation charge, which is part of his record now. The alleged drug dealer exonerated Juan in writing to the DA’s office and to the police at the time of their joint arrest. In his written statement and verbal presentations to the authorities he stated that he was guilty of the charges and there was no one else involved. He stated to anyone who would listen, that Juan was only guilty of driving his car. He explained that Juan had no idea of the nature of his business, nor did he know why he was asked to stop the vehicle. Juan was only told that the dealer had something to do and would be back shortly.
In doing my research, criminal facilitation is one of those charges that works in the favor of prosecutors but damns defendants. One needn’t have knowledge of the crime to be charged with criminal facilitation. Whether the charge gets lodged or not is purely a judgment call on the part of the District Attorney’s office. Those anxious to make their bones are only too happy to charge an accused person with such a crime, particularly if they are Black or Latino. The fact that this can impact upon a young person’s present and future is seemingly of no concern to them. They haven’t walked a mile in the defendant’s shoes. Juan must now fight for his job and the prognosis unfortunately isn’t encouraging. Given the set of circumstance presented to the District Attorney’s office, Juan shouldn’t have been charged at all, but that wouldn’t have gone down as a win in the assistant district attorney’s record book, although it would have been a win for justice.
The solution would appear to be vigilance, on the part of all parties concerned. District Attorneys need to be more concerned with administering justice than in acquiring convictions, by hook or crook. The prosecutor, defense attorney and courts should be absolutely convinced of a person’s guilt before suggesting that they cop a plea, or we will continue to do Lady Justice a disservice and be forced to ask, “Where’s the justice for young Blacks and Latinos?”
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