Colorblindness and Criminal Justice in District of Columbia v. Kennet Furr
|@U Street. Washington DC|
This text is a reflection on the racial segregation in the criminal justice system of the United States based on the analysis of the case District of Columbia v. Kennet Furr that was presented before Superior Court Judge Russell Canan. The criminal procedure in the United States creates an artificial neutral space where the most important factor is discovering the true of the case (evidence), and simultaneously hidding the social truth about the people involved in the case. In other words, criminal procedure works as a “don´t ask, don´t tell” about the racial and social condition of accused and victims. This mechanism in the criminal justice system reproduces the caste system in societies. This text has three sections to support my argument. First, I will describe the case and the procedures. Second, I will analyze the racial component in this case and show some national data about afro-Americans and the criminal justice in the United States. Finally, I will conclude by comparing the criminal justice system in the US and Colombia.
Reflections about different legal systems do not start in the courtroom, they usually start in everyday life. When I arrived in Washington DC and was looking for a place to live, my friends gave me lots of recommendations about which neighborhoods to choose, especially in regards to price, transportation and safety. All of the safe areas that my friends recommended to me were places where the majority of the inhabitants are white people according to the article “Apart and Parcel: What Housing Segregation in D.C. Looks Like” published in City Paper1.
|Image of the article Apart and Parcel: What Housing Segregation in D.C. http://www.washingtoncitypaper.com/blogs/citydesk/2012/08/09/apart-and-parcel-what-housing-segregation-in-d-c-looks-like/|
Weeks later I read the case Plessy v. Ferguson and in the dissenting I found a phrase that immediately made me remember the issue of house segregation in the DC. Justice Harlan wrote: “ (...) why may it not so regulate the use of the streets of its cities and towns as to compel white citizens to keep on one side of a street, and black citizens to keep on the other?” Plessy v. Ferguson, 163 U.S. 537 (1896) at 558. Naturally nowadays, the Government of the District of Columbia does not house-segregate, however, how to explain the relationship between a colorblind Constitution with a segregated society? Michelle Alexander, in the book The New Jim Crow, said: “We have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it”2.
District of Columbia v. Kennet Furr: colorblindness
|Superior Court of the District of Columbia @Judicial Square, Washington D.C.|
On October 17th I went to the 313 Courtroom in the Superior Court of the District of Columbia. It was a criminal case before the Judge Russell Canan. The courtroom was organized almost in the same style of the courtrooms in Colombia: same location for the Judge, the defendants, the prosecutors, and the public. The main difference between the US criminal justice system and the Colombian system is the jury, which was quite predictable. Another difference I expected and confirmed was the perfect organization and the equipment in the building and the courtroom. In fact, the US has provided assistance for many years to the judicial system in Colombia in order to modernize our criminal justice.
The case was about an off-duty police officer, Kennet Furr, who shot a group of people in a car occupied by three transgender women and two men at 5 a.m. on August 26th 2011 in the 5th and K street NW in Washington, DC3. Some minutes before to the shooting, the police officer tried to offer money in exchange for sex to Chloe Alexander Moore, a transgender woman, who refused it and after that they discussed in the CVS on H Street. Apparently, minutes after this discussion, the transgender women with other friends started to keep track of Furr by car and after that, Furr started the shooting.
When I arrived at the trial, the transgender woman was being interrogated in the courtroom by the defense attorneys. The defense strategy was clear: try to show that the victim had criminal record and to find inconsistencies in the testimonies. The most interesting part of the interrogatory was the style of the questions and answers, which were clear, direct, simple and tried to follow the facts in the case. Another interesting aspect was the objections presented during the trial. Also, the jury was really concentrating on the testimony and the atmosphere in the room was solemn and respectful. In Colombia, questions in the interrogations are more open and witnesses, victims and attorneys are more pompous and excessively communicative. In this case, all of the trial was oriented to prove the facts. In the Colombian criminal justice system facts are important, but in the trial the law is also discussed, mainly because the Judge decides the facts and the law.
District of Columbia v. Kennet Furr: let´s ask and tell me about race
When I entered in the building I was the only non-black in the line. In the courtroom the situation was not different. The victim was a transgender black woman. The accused was a black male, and also his attorneys were Afro-Americans. Eight to twelve of the members of the jury were Afro-Americans, as well. Only the Judge and the attorneys for D.C. were whites, in addition, I noticed they are the best paid and in a safe positions. In the recess, I walked around the third floor and I saw black people with faces of anxiety and sorrow. One black woman cried over the phone. From my experience as a lawyer, this case could raise some interesting analysis about gender and sexuality, but instead, during the trial the issue about the race became central to my reflection. At the end, black people suffered disproportionate the consequences of the criminal justice system. I went home with restlessness and with many questions, then I searched for some statistics related. According to Sentencing Project and ACLU, 60% of the people imprisoned are black (only 30% of the US population is black) and one in every fifteen African American men are imprisoned compared with one in every 106 white men4. The US criminal justice is oriented to prove the facts of the crimes, but at the same time hides the social and race circumstances of the people involved. The criminal justice system is a machine to prove facts, not to understand the social reality. For this reason criminal justice reproduces social inequalities.
In Colombia, we do not have this evident segregation between black people and white people. Our racial discussion is different, yet far from better. However, one aspect is strikingly similar: the criminal justice in the US and Colombia are systems apparently neutral designed to prove the “truth of the crimes”, but this truth is not the social true. In Colombia, the majority of imprisoned people are poor. Our social system condemns the poor to poverty and then condemn them to be criminals. Despite the differences in the criminal procedure between US and Colombia, the judicial system is obsessed with the “criminality” and no with solving the social problems. Kennet Furr was condemned for assault with a dangerous weapon. Miss Moore, the victim in this case, will face a trial for another crime. The “criminal” and the victims have difficult and unhappy lives. In the courtroom, an idea came to my mind: to live together as equals, we need a new criminal law or maybe we do not need it.
1Chris Dickersin-Prokopp. Apart and Parcel: What Housing Segregation in D.C. Looks Like. Washington City Paper, August 9, 2012, http://www.washingtoncitypaper.com/blogs/citydesk/2012/08/09/apart-and-parcel-what-housing-segregation-in-d-c-looks-like/
2MICHELLE ALEXANDER. THE NEW JIM CROW. MASS INCARCERATION IN THE AGE OF THE COLORBLIDNESS. (New Press 2012). p. 2
3More information about the case in Lou Chibbaro Jr. D.C. cop convicted of assault with dangerous weapon in trans shooting case. Washington Blade. October 27, 2012, http://www.washingtonblade.com/2012/10/27/d-c-cop-convicted-of-assault-with-dangerous-weapon-in-trans-shooting-case/#comments
4Sophia Kerby. The Top 10 Most Startling Facts About People of Color and Criminal Justice in the United States, Center for American Progress. March 13, 2012. http://www.americanprogress.org/issues/race/news/2012/03/13/11351/the-top-10-most-startling-facts-about-people-of-color-and-criminal-justice-in-the-united-states/