Shining a Light on Ghettoside

America’s criminal justice system is most challenged – and most ineffective – in African-American communities in high-crime, high-poverty areas. Once a culture of violence begetting violence takes hold in these neighborhoods, crimes go unpunished and justice become an abstraction. The costs for those who live and die in these areas is horrific. Sadly, broader society often turns a blind eye – and often has for centuries.Ghettoside

Jill Leovy, a Los Angeles Times reporter, investigates this and more in Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America. Its focus is one murder, the shooting of Bryant Tennelle, a sweet 18 year old African-American male with a future ahead of him. From that crime, though, a window opens on another world – a world that needs our collective attention. The victim’s father is Wallace Tennelle, an African-American detective with LAPD who lived with his family in South Central LA. A well-respected cop and father, Tennelle brought up his children in a way that we can all connect with: good children, good values, and high hopes. You want these people to succeed. You root for them, even though we know that the odds are not positive.

Leovy maps the neighborhood, its history, its residents, and the police who try to bring some sense of order and justice to what is, in essence a war zone. She writes with patience, understanding and compassion. She is deeply interested in understanding why the cycle of crime is happening and what it means to those around it. The killing is senseless, like almost all murders. In a culture of honor, poverty, no real order and easy violence, however, it becomes easier to understand why it happened.

We hear the voices of the community: the people who live in city and the police who patrol it. It is an unforgiving environment. Leovy does not romanticize. However, Ghettoside has a protagonist detective, John Skaggs, who is outstanding at his job. He represents order, or the possibility of an ordered society. Skaggs is tireless and very much believes in the pursuit of justice. Brilliant at what he does – and Leovy shows us how he thinks and operates – Skaggs unearths the killers and what led to the crime. There is justice, in the sense that the murderers were convicted, but the lessons learned are neither cathartic nor transformational.

The argument Leovy makes is that areas like South Central need a criminal justice system that stops the crime and provides reliable and prompt justice. She is aware that our current system is racist and that far too many people of color are caught up in it. She references The New Jim Crow and related works. That said, Leovy believes that what the community is hungry for is real justice and stability. People have to be able to believe that a successful life untouched by violence is possible. For the residents in her study, it is not.

Leovy thinks that a robust effort aimed at preventing violence, rooting out the causes of violence, and providing economic opportunity could break the dysfunctional cycle of crime. It is not glamorous and it does not demonize. Her argument is compelling – and one that few political leaders seem willing to take up.

David Potash

Fighting For Justice

Just MercyReading Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption is no easy task. I found it so enraging and disheartening, I had to take breaks from reading. It lays bare inequity, injustice, and straightforward cruelty. Stevenson writes with passion and facts, highlighting multiple assaults on our conception of a just society.

At the same time, the book is the story of hope. It is not tragedy or jeremiad. Stevenson believes that we can and must do better. In fact, the overall message is deeply positive and humanist: there is worth in every human being.

Stevenson was raised in rural Delaware. He was touched by the horror of random crime when his grandfather was murdered by teen robbers. He did not become bitter, however. His focus was education and fighting for a better world. He earned a JD from Harvard, sought a career making a difference, and eventually created the Equal Justice Initiative. Located in Alabama, its aim is providing legal help to those who have been denied justice. In the past decades Stevenson has become a national figure, advocating against the death penalty, racism in the criminal justice system, and other issues of inequity.

Just Mercy is about some of the cases Stevenson has taken on. Anchoring the book is the story of Walter McMillian, a black man sentenced to death in 1986 for the murder of a white woman. We learn about McMillian the person, the victim, Ronda Morrison, and the structures of race and power in the community where the crime took place, Monroeville. It is also the home of Harper Lee, author of To Kill a Mockingbird. The parallels are stunning but there was no Atticus Finch in McMillian’s trial. It is also reminder that in the novel, Tom Robinson, the black man who is unjustly accused of rape, dies.

The police were under great pressure to find Morrison’s killer. They pressured an informer, Ralph Myers, who was being investigated for a different murder, into naming McMillian. Myers’ stories did not add up, but that did not stop the district attorney from charging McMillian. Myers was relocated on death row to scare him. When he finally agreed to name McMillian, the trial was moved to a nearby county that would most likely give an all-white jury. Fed information from other informants, the the jury convicted McMillian of murder and requested a life sentence. The elected judge overrode the jury and sentenced McMillian to death. Ignored were eye witnesses giving McMillian an alibi, a lack of any physical evidence connecting McMillian to the crime, and multiple conflicting accounts from Myers. It was injustice of the first order.

When Stevenson agreed to pick up the case, he was inappropriately challenged by the presiding judge and much of the local law enforcement system. Stevenson refused to be deterred and he filed challenge after challenge. He learned that information was illegally withheld from the defense team. With no relief in offing and the state pressuring to put McMillian to death, Stevenson turned to Sixty Minutes for outside attention. It worked. The prosecutor bowed to pressure and agreed to an external investigation. It concluded – as is clear from anyone looking at the case as a whole – that McMillian could not have committed the murder. An appeals court overturned the conviction and McMillian was released. He was traumatized from the ordeal, however, and never regained his health or well-being.

Had not Stevenson intervened, Alabama would have executed an innocent man.

Stevenson shares other examples in the book. He writes of teens who have been unjustly treated by the system as adults. These people, all convicted of murder and other crimes, suffer tremendously in the criminal justice system. For example, a young man named Charlie killed his mother’s boyfriend after the boyfriend beat the woman into unconsciousness. Arrested and with no protection, Charlie was repeatedly sexually abused in an adult jail. It was only after Stevenson’s intervention that Charlie’s case went back to juvenile court.

Our criminal justice system depends upon advocacy to decide both truth and justice. Situations like these make it obvious that many defendant never receive the legal support or advocacy necessary to keep the system honest. There are other structural inequities that work against mercy or tolerance. For example, judges in Alabama are elected. This is common in most states. The result, of course, is that there is an electoral arms race to “prove” to voters that the candidates are tough on crime.

Despite Stevenson’s optimism in the human spirit, what I took away from Just Mercy is that long-standing issues of racism, poverty, fear and ignorance undermine the pursuit of justice to such a degree that greater change is needed if we are to approach real justice. We cannot hope for individuals as talented and committed as Stevenson to make things work.

David Potash