In a news segment yesterday, Rachel Maddow noted the importance of Lawrence O'Donnell's hard-hitting questions about the mistake St. Louis assistant prosecutor Kathi Alizadeh made in the Ferguson case, when she gave grand jurors a 1979 law declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 1985. I discussed this story a few days ago, linking to O'Donnell's commentary about this incident.
As O'Donnell notes, the assistant prosecutor's mistake gave cover to Darren Wilson by leading grand jurors to think that the law permits police to shoot a fleeing suspect merely because he/she is fleeing. O'Donnell points out that what Alizadeh did is permit the grand jurors to "travel back in time to the good old days of American law enforcement when the cops could shoot people for running away."
As I noted a few days ago (citing O'Donnell's report), after Darren Wilson had testified and just before the grand jury proceedings were about to end, on the very last day of the jury's proceedings as it prepared to deliberate, Alizadeh told jururs she had made a mistake in providing them with a law declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court, thereby leading jurors to believe the law is still valid. Alizadeh's instructions to the jury about how they were to to handle her "mistake" are baffling.
As O'Donnell and Maddow note, she told the jurors to fold the printed version of the law that she had provided them in half and set it aside, since "a portion" of the statute doesn't comply with the law. When the jurors asked for specific information about what they were to do about the incorrect statute that had been handed to them from the outset of the hearing — ignore it totally? — Alizadeh replied,
It's not entirely incorrect or inaccurate, but there is something in it that's not correct. Ignore it totally.
As Maddow notes,
So she gave them wrong instructions, then told them the instructions were wrong, and then did not tell them what exactly was wrong about these instructions.
When another juror asked whether a Supreme Court ruling overrides state statutes, Alizadeh replied,
As far as you need to know, just don't worry about that.
Maddow wonders (along with O'Donnell) how such a colossal mistake affects the entire proceedings of this grand jury: does the mistake not call those proceedings into radical question? Marjorie Cohn, a professor of Thomas Jefferson School of Law, wonders right along with Maddow and O'Donnell. In an essay that appeared at Huffington Post a few days ago, Cohn rehearses the many weighty reasons one might conclude that this grand jury hearing was seriously biased from the outset, and that more legal investigations — e.g., a federal investigation by the Department of Justice — need to take place.
As Cohn notes, no less than arch-conservative Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia noted in the case of United States v. Williams that legal precedent in both England and the United States prohibits a suspect under investigation from testifying before a grand jury — as Darren Wilson did at length in the St. Louis grand jury hearing.
As Cohn also concludes, citing a statement released by several civil and human rights organizations calling for a federal investigation of the Ferguson events, what stares us in the face now is the deeply entrenched racial bias of our justice system throughout the U.S. Without systemic change, we won't move beyond the culture-fracturing problems we see exposed in such a glaring way in the Ferguson story.
As I read this conclusion, I think of the statement that Rita Bender, widow of murdered civil rights activist Michael Schwerner, made last week as she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom on behalf of Schwerner. Noting that her husband gave his life for the right of black citizens of Mississippi to vote over 50 years ago, Bender said that she is stunned now to see that Congress cannot pass legislation to restore the Voting Rights Act. What did Michael Schwerner's death mean, when all is said and done?
In key areas including the area of race, we are going backwards instead of forwards in this country. The right of minority groups to vote, for which more than one person sacrificed her or his life over a half century ago, is under fierce new attack at this point in American history. Laws declared unconstitutional in 1985, laws permitting police to shoot fleeing suspects at will, are now effectively being treated as valid in court hearings which pretend that Supreme Court rulings do not obtain in states with laws challenging these rulings.
As Tom Ehrich notes in an Advent meditation yesterday,
Ferguson, Mo., is our bellwether. Its continuing drama shows that religious life is on the streets, crossing racial lines, speaking truth to power, fighting for justice. Whatever faith meant in the 13th century when Thomas Aquinas was writing brilliant essays, today faith means going toe-to-toe with the darkness.
He's correct. Without this determination to go toe-to-toe with darkness, the crèches and candles and Veni, veni, Emmanuel are nothing but cheap frills for an enculturated religiosity that has lost all meaningful contact with its origins in the message of the Christian gospels.