Monday, May 7, 2012


Consider the case of Florida mother Marissa Alexander, who has been in jail since 2010. Alexander's abusive husband was reportedly threatening to kill her and chasing her in their home when she tried to escape through the garage. But the door jammed, and Marissa was cornered, so she grabbed a pistol and shot it in the air. Alexander was ultimately sentenced to a mandatory 20 years in prison for assault with a deadly weapon.

 Alexander’s husband had reportedly abused her physically on multiple occasions. He even admits it in a deposition from 2010, in which he says: ““I got five baby mamas and I put my hand on every last one of them except one. The way I was with women they was like they had to walk on eggshells around me. You know they never knew what I was thinking or what I might do. Hit them, push them.” The 2010 deposition followed one particularly rough incident that resulted in Alexander obtaining a restraining order against her husband. Now she faces a couple of decades in prison for the gun incident that happened just several days after she had given birth to their child. Alexander (left)
went to court to invoke her rights to defend herself under Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law. That’s the same law George Zimmerman will use to defend his actions against Trayvon Martin. The big difference? We know that Zimmerman killed Trayvon Martin, and he’s out of jail right now on $150,000 bond. Conversely, we know that Alexander didn’t kill anybody, and didn’t even point the gun at her abuser, but she’s locked up.

The justice system is as imperfect a concept as can be. TIME Magazine’s April 30, 2012 issue neatly summed up the arbitrary nature of judicially-imposed punishment in this case: “Is Marissa Alexander a threat to society? Does the public benefit from her being in prison? Are we safer? Should a shot into the ceiling that hit no one and that was intended to help protect an embattled domestic-abuse victim who possessed the gun legally be punished with 20 years in prison? Should her children grow up without a mom? Is this the America you want to live in?”

 If there is one phrase we hear over and over again from attorneys who appear on cable talk shows,
it is, "We just have to let the system do its job. The system works." But does the system really work? If it does, why are innocent people suffering at the hands of individuals charged to enforce the legal and judicial system? A number of recent incidents and legal cases are instilling doubt in those of us who would like to believe the system does indeed work. Some of these cases are not front page news. They are not Trayvon Martin or Daniel Chong (the young man who was locked in a holding cell and forgotten for five days by the DEA) types of cases.

 Scroll up to the top of this page, and right under Greenberg Rants you will see the six subject areas for which this blog exists. Of those, the most important topic to the Greenberg in Greenberg Rants is justice. And what makes my blood boil is blatant injustice. While I do not claim to be a legal scholar, I do indeed pride myself on being a keen observer of cultural inconsistencies. “Cultural inconsistencies” is a nice way of saying arbitrary judgments that do not fit in with written law or legal precedents. My guess is that Florida Circuit Court Judge James Daniel, the man who refused to allow Alexander to invoke “Stand Your Ground,” has seen any number of other domestic abuse cases and not subjected the victim to this type of indignity, and yes…injustice.

Most of us who grew up in my generation were indoctrinated to American life this way: The U.S. government will protect you. Was it true? Yes and no. Katrina and its aftermath taught me that the government cannot be relied on for protection when the biggest catastrophes happen. We were also brought up to believe that justice prevails in America. Really? Try telling that to the parents of Robert Champion (above, left), the Florida A & M marching band member who was hazed to death last November.

 Robert Champion was beaten to death by his fellow band members, who were participating in a ritual the band had evidently practiced for some years. The coroner’s autopsy revealed the cause of death was blunt force trauma. Last week it was revealed that 13 fellow band members would be charged with “felony hazing.” Not murder. Not manslaughter. Not involuntary manslaughter. “Felony hazing.” His parents are outraged at the injustice. Watch:
Here are a couple of interesting variables that could (should?) turn this case on its judicial head: First, Robert Champion was gay. That has already raised the curiosity of some observers, who wonder if his death was the result of a hate crime. And if it was a hate crime and Champion’s civil rights were violated, then this is a Federal case, rather than one that will slowly wind its way through Florida’s judicial system. Second, Champion had spoken out against hazing in an organization that is rich with hazing history. So, was he targeted because he wouldn’t go along to get along? And how will we ever know the answers to these questions, since we were not on that chartered bus in which he was beaten? The prosecutor, as you saw in the video, has decided it’s not a murder case because one decisive death blow cannot be pinpointed and assigned to one of the accused. Why then, cannot all of the accused be charged with murder, since they all participated in the beating that caused his death?

 Justice in 21st century America, it seems, is a relative, rather than absolute concept. It will be most interesting to see how the Federal government handles the case of the aforementioned Daniel Chong. Chong, a San Diego college student, was arrested on April 21 when the Feds raided a party where illegal drug use was suspected. Chong was taken to a temporary detention center where he was locked up in a holding cell. Then, inexplicably, the DEA completely forgot about him. He was left in the cell for five days, with no food or water, no toilet and no human contact. He later reported that he hallucinated in the cell and resorted to drinking his own urine. When he was finally discovered after those five days he had to be rushed to a hospital where he experienced kidney failure. Listen to Chong describe his ordeal:

First, if we’re going to arrest every college student who smokes a joint at a college party, we may as well shut down our university system. Class attendance will be mighty sparse. Second, how does a detention center not have procedures in place to check on those being held there? And finally, keep your eye on Daniel Chong, who just filed a $20 million lawsuit against the DEA. Will the suit reveal systematic weaknesses in the DEA? Is Chong’s experience, as the DEA wants us to believe, an isolated incident? Will the government compensate Chong for his near-death experience? The most likely scenario will involve a settlement and quick resolution of the debacle. If there is one thing the highly secretive DEA does not want, it is publicity.

Our justice system has gone awry. Frivolous lawsuits tie up the courts; judges make arbitrary decisions often based on their personal bias; attorneys too frequently do not inform their clients of all of their rights or options; like cases are not treated alike, resulting in uneven justice nationwide; second degree murder (meaning without premeditation) is often reduced to manslaughter.

Just as critical now is the fact that victims like Alexander, Champion and Chong are treated with a complete lack of dignity during their path through the justice system. It seems clear that Alexander would be dead by now, had she not “stood her ground.” Chong probably came within hours of dying. And Champion? He was murdered by his peers, and the worst part is that the maximum sentence any of them can receive is six years in prison. The highest bail any of them paid was $15,000. That is not justice in America. The system is not working.

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