“…the heart has no tears to give,–it drops only blood, bleeding itself away in silence.” – Uncle Tom’s Cabin
In April 2015, a MA jury rendered a guilty verdict in the trial of former NFL player, Aaron Hernandez for the murder of Odin Lloyd, surprising some legal experts who thought the absence of the murder weapon, and a lack of incontrovertible proof that he pulled the trigger would have resulted in a not guilty verdict. However, a jury of his peers said, we have enough circumstantial evidence, and Hernandez is now serving life without parole. Our laws worked, and justice was served, said many!
Contrast this with the story of Officer Brelo, a Cleveland police officer who climbed on the hood of a car occupied by Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams, and pumped 15 additional shots at close range into their already mutilated bodies. At final count, 137 shots fired at Russell, and Williams, 49 of them by Brelo, as if Black bodies are like those of an elephant or a rhino with large frames, and thick skins requiring a hail of bullets to even maim. Officer Brelo sought a bench trial, and was acquitted this week by a judge who understood how Black bodies by their very presence continue to pose a clear and present danger to society.
It is the mere presence of Black bodies that equally produced a high level of fear, and also caused the aggression we saw from Officer Brelo, so much that he climbed on the hood of a car, and finished what he and at least 10 other officers had started – eradicating the threat. Fearing for his life, Officer Brelo did not run for cover, he faced the danger head-on, and eliminated it. Judge John P. O’Donnell said he not only found Brelo’s fear reasonable, but said the evidence in this case could not prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Officer Brelo’s 49 shots (and not some other officer) killed the occupants of the car.
In scenario one (Hernandez) case above, we know Hernandez was at the crime scene, we know there was a collusion, and we surmised that he probably pulled the trigger. This was enough to give him life without parole. In scenario two, we know Officer Brelo was there; we have his gun that fired 49 shots, but we are not sure any of his 49 killed Williams and Russell, as another 88 shots were fired, and one or more of those shots may have inflicted the final blows. In other words, because so many other bullets were fired by so many officers, we are going to let Brelo walk free. Black bodies riddled with bullets, but the examiners cannot figure out which bullet from what gun actually stopped the heart, so it is better to let all go free than lock up one clearly guilty participant in a crime. Our laws essentially said, we do not need to waste time on whether Brelo’s actions or the shots he fired contributed to the individuals’ death. If we don’t know that his shots actually killed them, then we must conclude that his 49 shots might not have done the trick as these subhumans are tricky to kill. Our laws worked!
Why weren’t the other officers charged, some ask? Does the fact that Brelo’s peers weren’t charged make him innocent? What is clear, yet astonishing is that the prosecution seemed to think the first 122 bullets fired were a reasonable use of force, and only seemed to see excess and reckless behavior when Brelo decided to go in for the kill – he wanted to make sure they died, yet he is no way responsible for their deaths. A man who feared for his life, stopped to reload his Glock, and must have ascertained at that point that no shots were coming back at him, was undeterred in his mission, and made sure he accomplished it.
Yet, Officer Brelo walks free!
I say a law that shields the aggressor, the guilty, the perpetrator over providing justice for the unarmed, the victim, the dying, and the dead is one worthy of close and critical examination, and is no law at all. If the actions of Brelo are measured, warranted, and justified against Black lives, then I shudder to think of the appropriate use of force when we are in fact armed.
Justice continues to be denied. Deferred. Delayed.
The US justice system as it currently functions is like a quote from Animal Farm. Under our laws, all animals are equal, but in the application of the law, this could not be further from the truth. As I read, dialogue, and mull so much of the reaction to the case in Cleveland, the following questions are still unsettled for me. I will limit them to Brelo’s actions since he was on trial.
1) Was Officer Brelo justified in his actions? If so, based on what?
2) What was his intent when he climbed on the hood of the car? Is this the actions of a reasonable person who feared for his life?
3) Did Officer Brelo’s actions contribute to the deaths of the occupants of the car?
4) Do we think a judge or jury would have set free a group of Black men or a Black man – who shot up a car – because the law could not determine which one of his/their deadly bullets killed the occupants?
5) When we think both historically and currently about the value we place on the life of not just whites, but a white woman, can you imagine a white woman’s bullet riddled body not receiving justice? Can we imagine the horror in this country if Brelo had shot a white woman the way he mangled Malissa’s body?
Two cases tried under American law, two high profile cases, one trial by jury, and one by a judge, and a lot more complex issues that create differences, I am sure. But big picture, they provide a close-up of our justice system, and the people it serves, and shows yet again, that who you are, and who harms you are often good predictors of the type of treatment you will receive. We have no issues rendering guilty verdicts when it involves brown on brown crimes, or with brown people killing whites, but when brown folks need justice against whites under the same system, every bow must be neatly tied, and a higher threshold must be met. We work overtime to make sure the law works for those it was designed to serve.
What is the law, but a set of rules meant to fairly govern us? Is it the law that is on trial in the case in Cleveland, or is it the application of the law? The law worked, many exclaimed, but what of its application dead bodies cry from their graves?
When we say the law worked, what do we mean? Do we mean that justice was served for Russell and Williams, or is that not necessary for the law to work? Do we mean it worked because the judge let Brelo go because as he said, he was unable to prove that any of his 49 shots were the fatal shots? Does it also mean Brelo is not culpable in the deaths? Do we mean that Brelo is innocent or like his attorney said, “he did nothing wrong.”
What is true, and astonishing at times, is how much we ensure that the law works for certain members of society, that a conviction will only occur when the case is so airtight, and irrefutable that we could find no loopholes. But for those on the margins or possessing of brown skins, we function with a much lower threshold when we need to prove their guilt.
So, if we mean the law works for those it always works for, then it worked perfectly. However, there are two dead bodies, and we know who was trying to kill them (and they succeeded in the kill), and yet this law doesn’t work for the victims. Like any other good design, we need to judge the law on its function, and our laws continue to fail poor and brown-skinned Americans at an astonishing rate. In America, “you get better treatment if you are rich, white and/or powerful, AND guilty, than if you are poor, Black and innocent.” But, the law worked.
Williams and Russell’s bodies are in a cemetery, and their friends and families are left to grieve. They must also bear the added trauma of knowing their loved ones will never receive justice, but the law worked.
“Scenes of blood and cruelty are shocking to our ear and heart. What man has nerve to do, man has not nerve to hear.” – Uncle Tom’s Cabin
137 shots fired. 49 by Officer Brelo. 15 at close range in the bodies of Williams and Russell. 2 dead bodies. 1 officer charged. 0 found guilty. But the law worked!
Williams and Russell sentenced to a death squad for having a car that backfired while Black. But the law worked!
Was justice served? But the law worked!
Williams and Russell’s crime joins the growing list of,
Walking while Black
Driving while Black
Running while Black
Making Eye Contact while Black……..
But the law worked!
“Of course innocent mistakes occur but the accumulated insults and indignations caused by racial presumptions are destructive in ways that are hard to measure. Constantly being suspected, accused, watched, doubted, distrusted, presumed guilty, and even feared is a burden born by people of color that can’t be understood or confronted without a deeper conversation about our history of racial injustice.” – Bryan Stevenson, Equal Justice Initiative