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LegalSpeaks is a progressive blog on legal-political issues with an impact on race and gender. Whether covering politics, court trials, Supreme Court arguments or the latest laws and bills affecting minorities and women, LegalSpeaks blog articulates unique and thought provoking opinions. The blog is not meant to be construed as legal advice.

What to Watch for in the Jonathan Ferrell Case

July 20th, 2015 | Tags: , , , ,
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police-chase_mediumThe trial of Randall Kerrick, the Charlotte police officer who shot and killed Jonathan Ferrell, in September, 2013, starts today beginning with jury selections.  Randall Kerrick’s arrest and charges marks the first time in thirty years that a Charlotte police officer is charged for an on duty shooting.   Jonathan Ferrell age 24, an African American former college football player, knocked on the door of a woman at 2:30 am following a car accident. Suspecting a burglary, she called the police.  Three police officers arrived—two black and Kerrick, a white officer.  As Ferrell approached the officers, Kerrick fatally shot him 10 times.



In what the Charlotte police chief cited as excessive force,  a grand jury indicted Kerrick with the intentional killing of Ferrell.  The two black officers never fired.  Kerrick alleges he feared for his life when Ferrell allegedly didn’t stop approaching him when told to do so.




The case garnered little national attention unlike Eric Garner, Michael Brown and Freddie Gray. As the trial starts, that may change.  As much as Kerrick is on trial, police shooting cases are also on trial.  While the case may appear to some as cut and dry, nothing is ever simple in cases involving police shootings and particularly when the victim is black.


Judge Robert Ervin made several rulings which will affect the outcome of the case. He refused to remove the case to a county outside of Charlotte-Mecklenburg, despite the defense team’s  repeated requests for a change in venue.   Despite the pre-trial publicity the case garnered, including a recent civil suit settlement, fair and impartial jurors is the standard by which removal issues govern.  It does not matter that prospective jurors know about the case as long as they can swear to set aside their beliefs and decide the case based solely on evidence presented at trial.   Most recent high profile cases such as the Boston Bomber and the Aurora theatre shooting killing did not result in removal.


Judge Ervin decided that jurors may hear the evidence that went before the first grand jury that failed to indict Kerrick.   Prosecutors obtained an indictment from a grand jury consisting of 18 members.  The first grand jury of less than all 18 members indicated they would return an indictment for involuntary manslaughter—a lesser charge.  If convicted, this will likely become an issue for appeal.  What occurs before the grand jury is usually secret—a long standing complaint in police shooting cases.  Here the defense benefits from the ruling as the grand jury determines if a case facts warrant indictment.


The judge ruled the parties cannot refer to Jonathan Ferrell as the victim—even though he is the victim.   They may refer to him as the decedent or Mr. Ferrell during trial.


A defense motion for the jury to go to the scene after dark is pending.  Most judges do not allow juries to see the scene as they usually do not depict accurately what occurred in the present case.  The prejudice may outweigh any probative value.  In the recent case of former New England NFL player Aaron Hernandez charged with murder, a judge allowed the jury to visit the scene.


For the prosecution side, unlike many police shootings where the word of one officer stands above other evidence, two other senior officers were present during the shooting.  Presumably, they will testify favorably for the prosecution—since their weapons were not used. Kerrick, a rookie officer, fired the shots. And then there’s the dash cam video—not yet released to the public.


The defense indicated in other pre-trial motions and hearings its strategy. The defense team led by an African American lawyer, Michael Greene, will likely use what I refer to as the George Zimmerman playbook. They intend to shame and blame the victim.  Although the autopsy reveals no drugs and the legal limit of alcohol, the defense claims it will show Mr. Ferrell was using marijuana and acting like a “zombie” before the incident—assuming the judge allows it.  Blaming and shaming the victim, particularly with black victims is the new norm defense.  It worked with the Trayvon Martin killing but backfired in the case of Jordan Davis—the loud music playing case.


The next several days are crucial. Jury selections are expected to take three days. The selected 12 jurors will decide the outcome of the case.  The selection of the jury is critical in any case, even more so in a police shooting case.


Washington, DC based Debbie Hines is a trial lawyer, legal analyst and former prosecutor.














Money is not Justice for Eric Garner

July 15th, 2015 | Tags: , , , ,
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Baltimore Circuit Court House via Flickr by Kirsch

Baltimore Circuit Court House via Flickr by Kirsch

A New York City grand jury declined to indict officers on criminal charges for the chokehold death of Eric Garner while the city settled the case for millions before the family ever filed a lawsuit.  Garner’s case settled for $5.9 million on Monday. Wrongful death cases take into consideration money to award a family for their loss and criminal cases seek justice and fairness.


Some argue that the amount of Garner’s monetary settlement was too high while others say it was not enough money.  Wrongful death settlements consider the economic loss to family heirs and the pain and suffering to the deceased before death. The family demanded $75 million in their statutory letter to New York of their intent to file a lawsuit before the 1 year statute of limitations—on Friday.  The family may still seek damages against the first responders for allegedly inept first responder assistance. No amount of money equates justice for Eric Garner and his family.


Garner died in Staten Island on July 17, 2014 at the hands of officers who arrested him for allegedly selling loose cigarettes while holding him in a chokehold seen on video.  His case prompted the “I can’t breathe” movement sparking demonstrations in New York and across the country on excessive police force and killings of unarmed black men.


Garner’s settlement without criminal ramifications against the officers is not uncommon.  The 2013 police shooting case of Jonathan Ferrell settled for $2.25 million in May, 2015. A Charlotte, NC police officer shot Ferrell 10 times killing him as he allegedly sought police help following an automobile accident.  Officer Randall Kerrick goes on trial for voluntary manslaughter on July 20, 2015.  A Cleveland police shooting case settled for $1.5 million for each victim in 2014 for the wrongful deaths of Malissa Williams and Timothy Russell. The recent trial of officer Michael Brelo for their deaths ended with a not guilty verdict in 2015.  Brelo was the only officer who went to trial while over 60 officers chased the victims in police cars with 137 shots fired at the unarmed victims.



In Baltimore, since 2011, 102 victims of excessive force, mostly non-fatal by police received almost $6 million in settlements or lawsuit judgments, according to the Baltimore Sun.  However the payouts for these police settlements require confidentiality—the victims’ families are silenced to receive a settlement.  In many cities, a confidentiality clause in settlements paid with public funds is not legal.



Civil settlements for wrongful death cases make no admission of guilt or acceptance of liability.  These settlements always contain a clause that the municipality does not accept liability for an officer’s acts.   And a criminal trial against an officer—assuming there is one, cannot use the settlement agreement.  Payment of money does not mean guilt. In most police involved on duty killings, there is rarely a trial. And the monetary settlement is often all that a family receives for the death of their loved one.



In order for police excessive force to change, the system must change.  It is rare for police to be charged with on duty killings. According to the Washington Post, of the 1000’s of fatal police shootings  occurring every year, prosecutors only charge 4 or 5. More prosecutor offices must evaluate police cases fairly and bring charges, where appropriate. This means treating the cases before the grand jury as any other case without deference to the police officer or regard for the prosecutor’s political reputation. It’s up to a jury or judge to determine guilt at a trial. Where there is potential or previously shown bias, a separate legal office other than the local prosecutor should review police cases.  Every prosecutor’s office should not be relieved of police involved excessive force cases, as some proponents suggest.   Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby, an exception to the norm, charged six officers in the case of Freddie Gray who sustained fatal injuries in a police van on April 12.


The saying that money can’t buy love applies similarly with fatal police cases.  Money can’t buy justice.  Justice happens when prosecutors file charges against police for unjustified on duty police killings.  And a jury convicts police for those killings.  A system that only pays out money due to police killings but fails to charge and convict officers is a broken one.  It must be fixed.


Washington, DC based Debbie Hines is a trial lawyer and former prosecutor.



Why was Baltimore’s Police Chief Really Fired?

July 10th, 2015 | Tags: , , ,
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Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake fired police chief Anthony Batts this week. His firing comes on the heels of the unrest in Baltimore following the death of 25 year old Freddie Gray allegedly  caused by  6 police officers who were charged. While Batts was originally the darling of those elite group of officers who bring a different perspective to the force, he was hardly liked and respected by his officers and their police union. Batts   spoke out in April during a press conference and stated that his officers did not follow police protocol in failing to seat belt Freddie Gray. Gray was found 44 minutes after his arrest in an unconscious state. He died days later of spinal injuries.


Batts’ comments about the Baltimore police didn’t stop there. He said the officers should have sought medical attention for Gray. After that, whatever he said caused the ire of the men and women he commanded and the Baltimore Police Union. And what transpired was a spike in crime and murders in Baltimore.   Batts blamed it on the rise in drugs following the April riots in Baltimore. He didn’t want to admit his men and women were responsible for a work slowdown. Residents of West Baltimore had a different version. Many stated that before Gray’s death, the police were a dominant force in their neighborhood. After Gray’s death and the charges brought against the 6 officers. Baltimore police were practically non-existent in the West Baltimore neighborhood where police arrested Gray. The lack of police presence in those communities led to increased violence and murders.


The Baltimore police union was irate at Batts for what they termed Batts’ failure to protect the police officers during the Baltimore riots. Many officers as well as Baltimore residents were injured. The union blamed the police officers’ injuries on Batts for his failure to have a better action plan to prevent violence. The union apparently wanted a more heavy handed approach to the unrest. That approach would likely cause even more injuries to the officers and residents. The union was notably silent on the issue of whether police protocol specifically required a seat belt.


And many criticized Mayor Rawlings-Blake for any delay in calling Governor Hogan to order in the National Guard. The police union faulted her. Mayor Rawlings faces a re-election in 2016. Her nemesis and former Mayor Sheila Dixon announced plans to run for her old job. Rawlings-Blake faces a decision to get crime under control as it was under former Mayor Dixon’s term.

With the lack of support from the Baltimore Police union and the police, increased crime and an upcoming 2016 mayoral election, Mayor Rawlings faced a political decision on Batts. She needed to look as if changes needed to be made with a new police chief.

With the police officers and Baltimore police union against Batts, a police work slowdown and a mayor facing what appears to be a hotly contested re-election, Batts had no way out.   Rawlings- Blake fired Batts to protect her job more so than the fact he had not done his job. In politics, protecting one’s own turf is far more important than staying the course.

I read an article in the Marshall Project today that spoke about Baltimore needing a police chief who will have street cred among its officers that Batts allegedly lacked, support in communities, the churches and the businesses. It failed to mention the police union. Once Batts lost the support of the police union and the police along with the police work slowdown, his fate began. And the nail closed the coffin. In other words, the new Baltimore Police Chief must be god like. He or she must be loved by all, the police, the union, the communities, the businesses and the churches. For change to occur, love by all will not be a prerequisite.

Washington, DC based Debbie Hines is a trial lawyer, former Baltimore prosecutor and native of Baltimore. She frequently appears on Al Jazeera America, BET, C-Span, CCTV- America, MSNBC, PBS, NPR among others.






Why Charleston Church Killings Are All About Race

June 19th, 2015 | Tags: , , , , , ,
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Clementa Pinckney

Clementa Pinckney

Dylann Roof goes into Emanuel African Methodist Church, a historically black church, kills  the Pastor and 8 persons during Bible study and some people raise the gun control issue.  I understand about guns and gun control legislation.  The facts of the Charleston church killings are about race hatred in America.  And any discussion of gun control in these particular killings dilutes and diminishes the real reason of racial hatred towards blacks.  No one ever said 911 was about faulty security checks in airplane flying schools from which the terrorists learned how to fly airplanes but never learned  how to land them.  No one said Columbine school killings and the Boston Marathon bombings were about making home grown bombs.  No one said the 1963 killings of 4 little girls bombed at a Birmingham church was about bombs.


To be black in America means being a target for terrorism and hatred whether blacks want to be or not. Being black in America means no place feels safe without possible harassment, petty police stops, or death lurking in unknown places.  From playing loud music (Jordan Davis), walking home in a gated community ( Trayvon Martin), riding the subway (Oscar Grant), seeking help on a porch (Renisha McBride), swimming at a pool party (McKinney, Texas teens), walking in the neighborhood ( Freddie Gray), seeking help after a car accident ( Jonathan Ferrell), standing on a city street (Eric Garner),  playing on a playground ( Tamir Rice) to being anywhere in America ( African Americans)  nowhere is off limits for race to play a major part in life or death situations for African America.

I watched and read President Obama’s words on Roof’s  killings of 9 innocent blacks as he acknowledged the issue of gun violence while secondarily commenting on  the issue of race and “the dark part of our history”.  I had to pause to reflect on why a stronger statement about race as the culprit was not made.  We need to stop sweeping race under the rug as the culprit when race is the real reason for some killings. We need to value the humanity of African Americans and recognize that a pattern of racial hatred appears in many settings these days.  Sometimes the events like killings in a Charleston church remind blacks of a return to what was believed to be a bygone era.  Yet, sometimes in 2015, it appears like 1950’s. On Twitter, many African Americans expressed their views about race and the Emanuel AME church killings.  Several particular tweets struck me as summing up the present situation in America for African Americans:





And after Roof was captured, we find that by his own words, his acts of terrorism were out of racial hatred.  Roof, by his friends’ accounts, said blacks were taking over the world and something needed to be done to save the white race. And a survivor of the church massacre stated Roof spoke these words, ““I have to do it. You’re raping our women and taking over the country. You have to go.” And so let’s not water down the real reason for the killings with talks of gun control, mental illness or any other lame excuse.   Let’s speak the truth on this one.  The Charleston shootings of 9 innocent people in Emanuel AME church was all about race by a home grown American terrorist.



Washington, DC based Debbie Hines is a trial lawyer, legal analyst and former prosecutor.  She appears on Al Jazeera America, MSNBC,   BET, C-Span, NPR, PBS, CCTV- America, Fox 5 (WTTG) and TV One among others, speaking on legal news and crime issues.


Why Charleston Church Shooting Should Matter to Everyone

June 18th, 2015 | Tags: , , , ,
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Clementa Pinckney

Clementa Pinckney

As I watched the news late Wednesday night unfold mostly online about Emanuel AME Church in Charleston and killing of 9 people during a Bible study meeting including –Pastor and State Senator Clementa Pinckney, I had a multitude of thoughts and emotions. My initial thoughts were how history repeats itself.  As a history major, I immediately thought of the tragic 1963 bombing of the historic Birmingham, Alabama 16th Street Baptist church where four little black girls lost their lives due to a bomb and hatred.  As many may recall, that was among the first scenes in the movie, Selma.  Then my thoughts immediately questioned as to why there were so few national media outlets initially covering the breaking news.


Some responses I received on Twitter about the initial lack of media coverage  were maybe the media was waiting to see how the news developed since few facts were known.  In the 24/7 news cycle, this was the most breaking news of the day and perhaps the entire year.  Even though it was not initially known how many people had lost their lives, a church shooting should generate immediate non-stop breaking coverage.  The juxtaposition of a church as a place of peace and calm and a shooting occurring there should have resulted in most media outlets to cover it immediately.  And the fact that the Emanuel AME church has a rich history since  its start in 1816  as a church that helped  freed slaves, with one of its leaders, Denmark Vesey, made it all the more important.  Vesey started a known failed slave revolt in 1822.  Emanuel AME church is the oldest black church south of Baltimore.   It was frequented during the Civil Rights era by Martin Luther King, Jr. And Pastor and State Senator Pinckney was a key legislator who recently helped pass the South Carolina bill requiring that police wear body cameras.


And so due to the lack of initial media coverage, I tweeted:

“Dear Media Outlets, #BlackLivesMatter and so should coverage of #Charleston church shootings.”

One would think the media would not need to be reminded. And while there were some well -meaning folks who tweeted back that blacks should not “make” this about being black. That’s the very point. This church killing is a hate crime, as announced by Charleston officials, and therefore is everything about being black.   No black person is trying to “make” it about blackness, it is about black people.  And I will go one farther—if the suspect were black who committed the same crime in a white church, every media outlet in America would have likely covered it non-stop from the very beginning.


Many persons were reminded of the 6 killings at the Sikh mosque in 2012 and how so few media outlets ever covered the killings in detail.   It is as if minorities in America do not deserve the same coverage by the media’s account as white Americans.  It is only when blacks are seen in a bad light that the media runs non-stop breaking news —as in the recent unrest in  Baltimore due to the death of Freddie Gray.  Then the media could not get enough coverage of what was occurring in Baltimore—ditto for Ferguson unrest too.  But when blacks are the victims of crime and not the perpetrators, the main stream media seems slow to cover live breaking news as it unfolds.   The shooting incident in Charleston occurred roughly at 9:00 pm.  Yet, it was several hours later that many networks covered it. And this leads to the point that Black lives do matter.  And Blacks deserve to have news covered just as if it were a black man killing 9 white persons.  I can’t help but say that the media would have been running non-stop coverage if the reverse were true.  So when people online say, let’s not make this be about being black.  I say it’s all about being black. And therein lays the media’s problem.


Washington, DC based Debbie Hines is a trial lawyer, legal analyst and former prosecutor.  She appears on Al Jazeera America, MSNBC,   BET, C-Span, NPR, PBS, CCTV- America, Fox 5 (WTTG) and TV One among others, speaking on legal news and crime issues.


How the Law Affected Rachel Dolezal’s Thinking on Race

June 16th, 2015 | Tags: , , , ,
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Rachel Dolezal via Facebook

Rachel Dolezal via Facebook

When I first heard about Rachel Dolezal, now former President of the Spokane, Washington NAACP chapter, I didn’t know what to think about her perceived  appearance changes from that of  a white woman to successfully posing as a black one, until outed by her parents.  As I read further about her, I realize the law played a significant part in her changes.    Rachel Dolezal, for those who haven’t kept abreast, has been masquerading, my words, as a black woman, for the past several years after leaving Howard University where she obtained a Master’s degree.  On the other hand, she tells Matt Lauer on the Today Show that she identified as being black since as early as grade school.


Law suit records filed by Ms. Dolezal in 2002 shows she considered herself to be white. While at Howard University as a graduate student, she filed a law suit against Howard for alleged discrimination against her as a white woman.  In 2005, the D.C. Court of Appeals ruled against her case for alleged discrimination  on her  allegations in the way she was passed over for a teaching assistant position, instructor position and for failing to receive financial aid, due to being white.  The case upon its dismissal resulted in the court ordering her to pay several thousand dollars in the costs that Howard University incurred in the lawsuit.  Sometime after the lawsuit, Rachel  Dolezal began  changing her appearance to perpetrate being  a  black woman.  She had no problems with going to a historically black institution as a white person. She had no problems with wanting to teach there as a white person.  The only problem arose was when she was allegedly denied opportunities she deemed were denied to her on account of her race—being white.   Then she decided a switch was in order—posing as a black woman.


When I read her lawsuit and then her subsequent decision to perpetrate being black, I realize Rachel Dolezal  is an opportunist. When the opportunity arises, she is whatever race will advance her career.  I  believe she is sincere in working on social justice causes affecting African Americans.  I doubt her sincerity in identifying herself as black—her words not mine.  If her lawsuit against Howard had been successful, I believe Ms. Dolezal would have never made a switch.   As a lawyer, I understand that the law will make you sometimes do crazy things.  But deciding to change your appearance from white to black based on the law, I must admit is a new one to me.  Despite Ms. Dolezal’s statements, I believe that her outcome in the lawsuit against Howard University was  a turning point for her in regards to race and her changed appearance .


The most ironic part of all is that Ms. Dolezal would likely have been a much greater help to  the  cause and issues facing African Americans if she had not disguised herself as a black woman  As a white woman, she could have accomplished even greater heights in the discussion on race and race issues in addressing  white Americans.  But I don’t think she fully wanted to do that as much as she wanted to advance her own career path.   And there is nothing wrong with advancing one’s career. She unsuccessfully sued to advance her career. And she later changed her appearance to advance her career. When someone goes to the extremes that Rachel Dolezal did in furtherance of their career, the word opportunistic is what comes to my mind.



Whatever genuineness she may have had in advancing issues facing blacks was significantly tarnished  when I heard of her two timing both sides of the aisle, whenever appropriate.   When it was appropriate to be white and sue Howard University for tens of thousands of dollars, she was a white woman.  When she lost her case, she decided to accomplish her career goals by reinventing herself  disguised as a black woman along with black husband, make believe black father and son.   Now that her mother has outed her as a white woman, I only wonder what’s her next move.  Unfortunately for Ms. Dolezal, she did not realize her support of issues vastly affecting African Americans would have been just as valid  and perhaps more so in her own white skin.


 Washington, DC based Debbie Hines is a trial lawyer, legal analyst and former prosecutor.  She appears on Al Jazeera America, MSNBC,  BET, C-Span, PBS, CCTV- America,  Fox 5 (WTTG) and TV One among others, speaking on legal news and issues.



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