As prosecutors weighed a Black man’s life in California, the district attorney asked aloud about the man dating a Black woman. He also talked about Black people trying to “come up” by dating white people. Now, Orange County District Attorney Todd Spitzer’s comments have led to calls for his resignation, losing political support and a potential rebuke from judges.
It has ripped the proverbial scab off old wounds that suggest African Americans can rarely face judgment with fairness.
“I have been a criminal defense attorney for 25 years and was a federal law enforcement officer before then,” said Joseph Gutheinz of the Gutheinz Law Firm in Friendswood, Texas.
“I can tell you that every defense attorney has heard and seen horror stories of elected politicians, to include district attorneys and judges, derogatorily using racial slurs about, and even towards, Black defendants,” he said.
The incident occurred in the boardroom of the Orange County District Attorney’s office where Spitzer and other prosecutors discussed the fate of Jamon Buggs, a Black man facing the death penalty for allegedly murdering two people over a dispute about his ex-girlfriend, who is white.
According to a memo written by former Senior Assistant District Attorney Brahim Baytieh in Dec. 2021, the meeting occurred to hash out whether prosecutors would seek the death penalty or life in prison.
Spitzer asked about the race of the defendant’s prior female girlfriends and or victims during the meeting.
He allegedly said, “He knows many Black people who get themselves out of their bad circumstances and bad situations by only dating white women.”
Such questions remain illegal under California law.
Later, Spitzer surfaced in a video using the N-word and other disparaging, racist remarks while discussing another case involving a Black man.
Spitzer attempted to defend his statements.
“I am not perfect but an inartful comment during an hours-long debate in a double murder case is not reflective of my core beliefs or the years I have spent fighting to make our society more equitable and our communities safe for everyone,” he said in a statement.
But many believe this type of behavior and hateful attitude reflect a centuries-old problem dogging American justice: the scales of justice routinely weigh unfavorably heavy against African Americans.
“This is how white supremacy works,” said Dr. Breea C. Willingham, associate professor of Criminal Justice at the State University of New York Plattsburg.
“White supremacy will make statements like this and backtrack and say they didn’t do anything wrong when history dictates that a white women often weaponize themselves or are weaponized against Black men,” Willingham said.
She noted that Spitzer also recounted to his colleagues that he knew Black men in college who dated white women to gain advantages.
“When he says he knows somebody who used white women to their advantage or dated white women to their advantage, what does he mean? How is it important to this case? When Todd Spitzer says this, it makes no sense – only in the context that this is how white supremacy works,” Willingham asserted.
Attorney Robert Tarver of the Tarver Law Firm in New Jersey said he’d handled many death penalty cases before capital punishment would be outlawed in the Garden State. He said Spitzer’s comments, while disturbing on many levels, do not surprise him.
Still, he said knowledge of those comments certainly should affect sentencing in the case Spitzer oversaw.
“All of the actions of prosecutors are strictly scrutinized when it comes to taking someone’s life. These statements will become part of the official record and race and white women had nothing to do with the underlying case and determining whether this man should lose his life,” Tarver stated.
“What you see here are outside influences coming into making decisions that should invalidate any determination as to whether the death penalty stands. This district attorney said what he thinks in the recesses of his mind and what many of them think in the recesses of their minds.”
“This is what you hear on the record but you don’t hear the real mental process, the racist process, that goes on in the minds of people making those decisions. That’s what should trouble us,” Tarver said.