“Justice,” now better known as “accountability,” is an elusive consequence and, in the current social/cultural/political climate, is becoming more elusive with each passing day.
Like that well-known quote of Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart in 1964 defining pornography — “I know it when I see it” — most objective people who control or reject their own partisan leanings will confirm its elusiveness.
Two criminal trials that serve to illuminate and inform our understanding of our criminal justice system have recently ended in Kenosha, Wis., with the Kyle Rittenhouse murder trial, and in Brunswick, Ga., with the trial of the murderers of Ahmaud Arbery. Although the argument for each defense team was self-defense, the verdicts were completely different, which I am sure will be the subject of discussions for years to come.
My assessment of the arguments for the defense in both cases leads me to believe that for true justice and accountability to prevail, more clearly defined parameters of what constitutes self-defense are needed. But that is a separate discussion.
Like others, my attention was captured by what I can only define as judicial prejudice. In both cities, decisions were made with the intent or effect of influencing the outcome of the prosecution and/or verdicts. These decisions were as clear as mountain air, but only successful in one case.
When I first heard that Judge Bruce Schroeder, presiding in the Rittenhouse trial, had prohibited prosecutors from characterizing the individuals shot by Rittenhouse as “victims” while allowing defense attorneys to refer to demonstrators as “arsonists” and “looters,” I knew that judicial bias prevailed in favor of the defendant. Allegations of Judge Schroder telling a racist joke and his cellphone ringtone playing “God Bless the USA,” Lee Greenwood’s anthem for the political right, gave reason to doubt Schroder’s impartiality. The understanding of Schroder’s bias was complete when he dismissed the weapons charge against Rittenhouse, paving the way for him receiving a “clean slate” after the expected “not guilty” verdicts were realized.
While Schroder’s judicial conduct was open to debate, in Georgia, the threat to justice and accountability was more insidious. From Feb. 23, 2020, until May 7, 2020, no arrest was made nor was any legal action taken against the three who ultimately would be found guilty of Arbery’s murder.
Subsequently, police sought legal advice from the Brunswick District Attorney Jackie Johnson about charges for Travis McMichael (son and shooter) and Gregory McMichael (father). The DA advised no arrests were necessary. On the next day, Waycross Judicial Circuit District Attorney George Barnhill advised the Glynn County Police Department that no arrests should be made.
Subsequently, DA Jackie Johnson recused herself from the case because Gregory McMichael had previously worked as an investigator in her office. The case was transferred to Barnhill’s office. The Georgia attorney general’s office said neither Johnson nor Barnhill told the office that Barnhill had reviewed evidence in the case. It was only after a local radio station received a copy of the video taken on the cellphone of William Bryan, a co-defendant, Georgia AG Chris Carr asks Georgia Bureau of Investigation to take over the case.
On May 7, 2020, the GBI arrested the McMichaels and charged them with murder and aggravated assault. On May 21, 2020, Bryan was arrested and charged with murder and attempt to commit false imprisonment. The trial concluded on Nov. 24, 2021, with guilty verdicts for the three.
We have two murder trials, two cities with two different outcomes. If nothing else, these events demonstrate that, absent extrajudicial manipulation, accountability is attainable. Neither of these cases is over. Federal charges are pending, and civil litigation is possible. The principal question remains: As a rule, will our nation continue to condone vigilantism and the extra-judicial execution of our people?
Williams is president of the National Congress of Black Women.