The color of justice: State-based legislation dangerous for people of color

Friday, September 23, 2011

By Shanelle Matthews, Communications Manager

Disclaimer: I believe, wholeheartedly, in the rehabilitation of formerly incarcerated people and of the welcoming them back into society to participate fully and reach their full potential. I am unreservedly anti-prison and anti-death penalty.

Bruce Reilly and Troy Davis
I frequently make the case that technology and social media have propagated, and with the possibility of anonymity, even encouraged racist behavior. We see it every day in trending topics on Twitter or read about it on websites like But something else that technology has provided is the ability to see, without looking very hard, the color of justice. The unjust execution of Troy Anthony Davis, who was convicted of killing a Savannah police officer over two decades ago but maintained his innocence until his dying moment, brings to the forefront the racial inequity that is sewn irreversibly into the moral fabric of this countries value system.  
This morning I came across the story of Bruce Reilly. Reilly is a White man from Rhode Island who in 1992 pled guilty to murdering a community college professor and served only 12 years of his 20-year sentence.  He is now a first year student at Tulane Law School, an advocate and a writer. Reilly works to help formerly incarcerated people readjust and find jobs once they’re released.  This is good. Reilly committed a crime, pled guilty, rehabilitated himself (whatever that means) and is now pursuing his dreams of becoming an attorney. Great!

What is not great about this is the precarious inequality of racial bias between the two cases that is being permitted under the pretext of state-based legislation.  Reilly’s guilty plea meant little effort for the prosecution in Rhode Island to surface evidence or determine culpability.  The evidence against Davis was suspicious and with seven of the ten witnesses recanting or changing their stories more time should have been spent reevaluating the case. All evidence aside I acknowledge that these are two different cases in two different states with two different sets of circumstances but the indication here is that state based laws that unfairly target people of color need to be harshly reexamined in an effort to form collective judicial parity. What if Reilly had been a Black man living in Georgia at the time of his crime? Would he have faced the death penalty? If Davis were White in Rhode Island, would he still be alive? States should be able to maintain their legal and judicial autonomy but delivering harsher sentences for felons based on race under the pretext of state-based legislation is unconstitutional.

Troy Davis may or may not have committed murder. Bruce Reilly definitely committed murder. Davis is dead; Reilly is studying law at Tulane University. Davis was a Black man, Reilly is White.  I am not a legal professional but as an activist, communicator and concerned citizen I see there is a severe imbalance in the American justice system, one that has been in place for far too long and that continues to devalue the lives of marginalized people like Troy Davis. 

Any person with internet access and a desire to read can see these same imbalances everyday online. We have been given access to view, almost unrestrictedly, the unjustifiable way in which Black and Brown people suffer disproportionally harsher sentences than our White counterparts.  The most severe of these are instances like Oscar Grant and Sean Bell where Black and Brown men are executed, on the spot, no trial, and no jury – just death. 

What can you do? Advocate. Share stories like this through your social networks, sign petitions, write to your state representatives asking for fair and balanced laws that determine guilt based on evidence not on race. All of the bureaucracy aside this case collectively forged a virtual stance of solidarity between people from all over the globe which is great because we are all responsible for each other as brothers and sisters of the human race. It is important to remember that no one individual is entirely exempt from injustice - we can all fall victim to an unjust system.

No comments:

Post a Comment