The State of Equality and Justice in America: The presumption of guilt
“The State of Equality and Justice in America” is a 20-part series of columns written by an all star list of contributors to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. The contributors include: U. S. Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) LCCRUL 50th Anniversary Grand Marshal; Ms. Barbara Arnwine, President and Executive Director, Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law (LCCRUL); Mr. Charles Ogletree, Professor, Harvard University Law School/Director, Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice; the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, Sr., President/CEO, Rainbow/PUSH Coalition; the Rev. Joseph Lowery, Co-founder, Southern Christian Leadership Conference; U. S. Rep. Yvette Clarke (D-N.Y.); and 14 additional thought leaders and national advocates for equal justice.
By Congressman John Lewis and Bryan Stevenson
After serving 42 years in an Arizona prison for a crime he didn’t commit, a 58-year-old man was finally released this April. When Louis Taylor was just 16, he ventured out of his comfort zone to try a happy hour advertised by an upscale Tucson hotel, a typical foray for an adventurous teenage boy. Unfortunately, that night a fire broke out that ultimately claimed 29 lives. In that moment, Taylor stopped being typical and became extraordinary. He did not run from the danger as most people would. Instead he took responsibility. He was spotted during the crisis busily helping people escape the flames, escorting guests to safety and assisting people on stretchers.
Ordinarily, he would have been hailed a teenage hero for demonstrating a civic duty only expected of grown men. Yet eyewitness accounts of his be-yond-the-call-of-duty service were not credited as outstanding demonstrations of good character. To police and even some bystanders his very presence made him automatically suspect. More than the possibility that he could have saved someone’s life, people were consumed by their sense that he “did not belong in a fancy Tucson hotel”.
The forensic evidence suggested faulty electrical wiring or some building defect as the likely cause, not arson, but scientific facts could not derail a hardwired determination that because Taylor was Black, he had to be at fault. His youth, his innocence, and even his dramatic work to save and comfort the victims were imperceptible and irrelevant.
Outraged citizens wanted the death penalty. A profiler was brought in who swore under oath that the likely perpetrator was “a Black teenager.” Taylor was convicted by an all-white jury and sentenced to multiple life sentences, ensuring he would die in prison. Fortunately, the Arizona Justice Project recently took up the case. New research from the National Academy of Science proved there was no evidence of arson in the fire. Wrongly convicted, Taylor was finally released-42 years later.
It would be hard to call Mr. Taylor lucky, but the truth is thousands just like him, including innocent children, are being victimized by a presumption of guilt that never sees Black and brown youth as blameless, as engaged in proverbial “good, clean, fun”, as harmless. Instead it attributes to them every violent incident and vice, even if those suspicions contradict the facts.
For nearly 50 years, starting in the 1920s, America maintained a prison population of close to 200,000 people. Today we have the highest incarceration rate in the world with 2.3 million people in jails or prison. One out of three Black boys born in 2001 is likely to serve time in jail or prison during his lifetime. Half of our incarcerated are imprisoned for non-violent drug crimes. While African American and Latino teens are less likely to abuse drugs and alcohol than whites, they are three to four times more likely to be arrested, convicted or sent to jail or prison for non-violent drug offenses. The violent crime rate in America is the same as it was in 1968, yet our prison system has grown by over 500 percent.
The presumption of guilt follows too many poor and minority children to school, a place where children should be nurtured and supported, not criminalized and incarcerated. Yet the pipeline from school to jail is so insidious, many parents now fear schools as much as they fear the criminal justice system.