Ferguson, MO stories are dominating the news feeds and my thoughts. I’m feeling a profound sadness that the reality and dialogue around the issue of race haven’t changed much in decades. Also a sadness that the legal system that I love seems to be failing so large a segment of our people.
St. Louis County prosecuting attorney Robert McCullough convened a Grand Jury and has begun presenting evidence on the issue of whether police officer Darren Wilson committed a crime or the killing of Michael Brown was justified under the law. And although the riots have subsided, the two weeks of protests continue. Debate swirls about whether a special prosecutor should be appointed because McCullough is biased.
A jolting photograph shows armed police officers blocking access to the courthouse in Clayton, MO where the Grand Jury is seated. They are standing shoulder to shoulder behind a large yellow tape emblazoned “POLICE LINE DO NOT CROSS.” Presumably other court business is being carried on in the building including hearings, trials, the Clerk’s office handling of applications, permits, filings. What about access to these services? This photo portrays that the courthouse is not where all people can go to have their legal needs met but that the system is only for some. This photo struck me as a graphic illustration of the sentiment expressed by many protesters that the “system” is biased and not to be trusted. That justice is one-sided.
The protesters called for “Justice.” In an interview, the father of Michael Brown wore a tee shirt emblazoned with “No Justice, No Peace.” “Justice” according to Mr. Brown and many protesters, means the arrest and jailing of Officer Wilson. I get that reaction. But we are not living in a country or a time where “an eye for an eye” is the system of settling wrongs.
We should remind ourselves that the full phrase our democratic tradition is grounded upon is “liberty and justice for all.” As in our Pledge of Allegiance. As set in stone on the facade of the United States Supreme Court building: “Equal Justice Under Law.”
A similar reminder is the Latin phrase “Audi Alteram Partem” etched in the wall of the Illinois Supreme Court building. It means “Hear the other side.”
The power of listening is demonstrated by the fact that the parents of Michael Brown changed their opinion of our system after a personal meeting with Attorney General Eric Holder last week. Both of the parents said until they met with Holder they did not have faith in authorities.
Holder talked with them and stressed that the federal government is on the case and listening — both to protesters calling for Wilson’s arrest and for an end to what they describe as a heavy-handed police response, and to residents and law enforcement officers challenged with looting and violence from some in the crowd.
In an interview with Anderson Cooper, Michael’s mother Leslie McSpadden said:
“You can read a person and when you’re looking at them and they’re looking at you in your eyes, it puts some trust back there that you lost,” McSpadden said. “And he did assure that it will be a fair and thorough investigation.”
She also said,
“Up until yesterday, I didn’t [have confidence in the investigation]. But hearing the words come directly from his mouth, face to face, he made me feel like one day I will — and I’m not saying today or yesterday but one day — they’ll regain my trust.”
What is clear is that there is something lawyers can do to stem the widespread public perception that legal and judicial systems are biased and not to be trusted. We could and should do more to educate the public about the legal process we live and work in. And get personally involved. Listen, talk, and advocate for improvements. There certainly is room for improvement.