Why Our Entire Criminal Justice System is a Sham
Having revisited the events surrounding her brother’s death in 1992, Leah Mueller explores the background to her painful epiphany – an awakening that has caused her to question the justice system and to realise that ‘the truth is more hideous then we imagined.’
Like many people who grew up during the 60s and 70s, I have hazy memories of the civil rights movement. After Martin Luther King was shot, my adored third grade teacher described his murder as “very sad.” She was a severe woman of Germanic descent. I don’t recall whether she elaborated further.
In 1968, I lived in Chicago with my pregnant mother, stepfather, and baby brother Danny. Folks referred to our area as “mixed”, which meant it wasn’t comprised solely of white people. The streets overflowed with boisterous Puerto Rican and black families. They stayed up late and partied on their front steps until the wee hours of the morning.
My parents, Gil and Polly, belonged to a local block club. The club intended to “clean up” the neighborhood. Everyone had white skin. Members gathered in living rooms and spoke angrily about street crime. Their unstated objective was to make the neighborhood as white as possible.
After King’s assassination, several of the members decided to arm themselves against the ensuing riots. Someone gave my mother a pistol, though she had never shot a gun in her life.
In the midst of the violent clashes, our family’s washing machine broke down. Danny’s diapers began to pile up and smell. Polly needed to do two things that fell outside her comfort zone – operate coin equipment at a laundromat, and pack heat on the streets of Chicago.
She lugged her heavy baskets of soiled laundry into the crowded facility and deposited the receptacles on the floor. As she fumbled in her purse, searching for coins, the new pistol tumbled out. Lacking anything as sophisticated as a holster, my mother had simply tossed the gun into her purse, figuring she could access it if necessary.
Instead, the metal projectile hit the linoleum floor and skittered towards one of the washing machines. Polly watched it travel across the surface, marveling at its velocity. The black and Puerto Rican patrons stared at the pistol with horror. Then the group leaped to its collective feet and ran like hell from the laundromat. My mother had managed to get the whole place to herself, without even trying.
This story became one of Polly’s favorite anecdotes. Over the years, I pondered its meaning many times. Had she really expected to use that gun? The poor woman was mired in her housewife role. During the next two years, she helped elect Richard Nixon, gave birth to two more children, and moved to the suburbs.
Strangely enough, both of my parents identified as liberals. My mother expressed sadness about King’s assassination. Though she and Gil spoke disparagingly about people of color, they both voted for McGovern in 1972 and cheered Nixon’s resignation two years later.
A militant hippie teenager, I often wore a denim hat with a “Free Angela” button to middle school. It felt good to piss off my less enlightened classmates. I never thought of myself as a bigot, and I’m certain my parents never grasped the depths of their own racism.
Danny was first diagnosed as hyperactive, then later as schizophrenic. The intervening years were not pleasant ones. Gil killed himself in 1978. Afterward, Danny did time in juvenile detention, foster care, a Mexican mental institution, and finally prison. By time he turned 26, my brother had spent nearly half his life in some sort of lockup facility.
In 1992, he was able to rent an apartment in a shabby building, thanks to the combined largesse of the federal government and Washington state. I’d spent several months trying to get him into an SSI program, so he wouldn’t need to live with me. I already had my hands full with a toddler and an alcoholic husband, and Danny’s continuous presence would have sent me over the edge.
Once Danny found his niche, I spent as little time with him as possible. He was an adult, after all, and entitled to his privacy. Besides, his long, rambling conversations with God and Satan wore me out.
One February night, shortly before Valentine’s Day, Danny fell into the companionship of two men, Samuel, and Robert. The three of them met at a party in the building next door to my brother’s dwelling. Samuel was black, the son of a well-to-do local preacher. Robert was white, the son of an impoverished ex-con. Both men had been arrested before – Samuel once, and Robert on multiple occasions.
The three men decided to continue the party at my brother’s apartment. Danny had bragged about receiving his SSI check. He wanted his two new friends to come over and look at the stereo he’d just bought at K-Mart. Samuel and Robert also had some low-grade cocaine to sell, so they needed to relocate to a more private setting.
At Danny’s apartment, everything went haywire. One of the men hit Danny in the head with a toaster oven, then stabbed him repeatedly. As my brother bled to death on the floor, the two assailants made off with his stereo, television, and several bags of food bank items.
The cops arrested Robert first. For several weeks, he remained in custody, loudly insisting that Samuel had been with him on the night of the murder. Eventually, the cops connected the dots, picked up Samuel and tossed him into the local jail.
After some prodding, Samuel admitted to accompanying Robert to Danny’s apartment. Then the finger-pointing began. Robert claimed Samuel had suddenly leaped to his feet and attacked Danny for making a racist comment. Samuel first hit Danny with the toaster oven, then began stabbing him over and over. Though Robert tried to stop him, it was too late. Afterwards, he helped Samuel steal Danny’s possessions because he was afraid for his life.
Samuel, on the other hand, claimed that Robert was the assailant. Robert left the apartment briefly to grab some cocaine, returned with a weak facsimile of the drug, and tried to pass the goods off on Danny. When Danny tasted the coke, he became irate and claimed that Robert was trying to cheat him. Robert, enraged, first hit Danny with the toaster oven, and then stabbed him to death. Samuel helped Robert steal Danny’s possessions because he was afraid for his life.
On the surface, both explanations sounded equally plausible. Danny had picked up some alarmingly racist ideas in prison, and he could well have said something incendiary to set Samuel off. On the other hand, Robert was already an accomplished petty criminal and small-time coke dealer. He had a reputation for both thievery and violence, and had assaulted his girlfriend several times.
The court offered Robert a plea deal – a second-degree murder charge in exchange for the opportunity to testify against Samuel. Robert appeared in the courtroom a couple of days later, disheveled and weeping. He expressed remorse for his part in the murder but pinned the stabbing on Samuel. “I was there, so I deserve to go to prison,” he insisted. “But I did not kill that man, your honor.”
His story certainly sounded convincing. The all-white jury felt similarly and gave Robert fourteen years. A mid-range sentence, due to my brother’s vulnerable mental state. Samuel was charged with first-degree murder, and the long, arduous process of conviction began.
Polly made her presence felt at every court session. Sobbing loudly, taking long sips of Rescue Remedy, my mother was impossible to ignore. Meanwhile, Samuel’s father rallied the congregation, and scores of churchgoers packed the small courtroom, offering support for the preacher’s son.
Why were they so convinced of his innocence? None of it made sense to me. I didn’t possess the emotional tools to deal with the trial, and as the mother of a toddler, I had good reason to avoid it. After Robert’s confession, I stopped attending entirely. I never pondered why Robert had been offered a plea bargain and not Samuel. The ugly, racist connotations of the court’s decision were completely lost on my traumatized brain.
Samuel’s trial dovetailed exactly with the Rodney King riots. As the defense and prosecuting attorneys duked it out in a small town courtroom, huge protests erupted in Los Angeles and other cities across the United States. The four cops responsible for King’s beating had recently been acquitted. They struck him over fifty times with batons and burned his leg with a stun gun following a high-speed chase through the streets of Los Angeles. A nearby bystander caught it all on camera.
King himself seemed shocked by the intensity of the protests. “Can’t we all just get along?” he famously lamented. Obviously, the answer was no. The demonstrations raged for five days. 63 people were killed, 2.383 sustained injuries, and 12,000 were arrested. Property damage costs soared to over 1 billion. Much of the blame fell to police chief Daryl Gates, and he resigned in disgrace.
I watched in horror as the events unfolded on television. Polly paid little attention, wrapped up as she was in the trial. My mother’s usually submerged racism had already bubbled to the surface, and I tried my best to quell her rage with palliative words. I pleaded with her not to hate all black people because of Danny’s death. It never occurred to either of us that Samuel might be innocent of murder. Folks in town corroborated our suspicions. That was all the proof we needed.
Samuel’s trial ended in a hung jury. No one wanted to convict a black man so soon after the Rodney King riots. The court set a new trial date for October 1992.
This time, the hearings progressed more swiftly, and a second jury found Samuel guilty of first-degree murder. They sentenced him to 24 years in prison, and the guards led him away in handcuffs. The congregation wept. My mother went home to Arizona, and I settled back into my normal, unhappy routine.
During the ensuing years, I never questioned the official narrative surrounding my brother’s murder and Samuel and Robert’s subsequent convictions. Justice had been served, and there was nothing left for me to do except mourn the dead. Every February 12, I revisited the horrible incident and then pushed it out of my mind. I felt guilty for being reluctant to help Danny. Shouldn’t I have allowed him to live with me, instead of casting him to the wolves?
Meanwhile, despite Rodney King’s high-profile media exposure, police beatings and murders of black people continued, unabated. If anything, the incidents increased and became more severe. People of color fell prey to violent cops on a regular basis, brutally murdered for little or no reason. Trayvon Martin. Tamir Rice. Sandra Bland. Michael Brown. Ezell Ford. Botham Jean. Only a few of many. As a result, Black Lives Matter burst upon the scene, forcing comfortable white liberals to confront their own racism.
Even as I write this, I have trouble saying, “our own racism” (or heaven forbid, “my own racism”). “Discomfort” is a mild word for what I experienced as I plunged into the depths of my hidden biases. How could I, a person whose closest friend was black, possibly hold racist attitudes? Racists were those people in the South who screamed at children for desegregating schools. Not me, the girl with the Angela Davis pin.
Oh, but there was no denying it. I cringed every time I unearthed my hidden, dark chunks of anger towards people of color, or remembered times when I’d inflicted emotional pain on them without provocation. Many times, I had crossed the street when I saw a couple of black men approaching. I recalled countless incidents when I expected to be treated well simply because I was white. I didn’t know any better at the time, but that was no excuse.
One night in 2018, I couldn’t sleep, so I decided to surf the internet. This behavior was nothing unusual, but that particular evening took me in an unexpected direction. I googled Samuel’s and Robert’s names and tried to ascertain what had become of the two men.
I’d already heard that Samuel had received a shortened sentence for good behavior. Twenty years in prison instead of twenty-four. Still an enormous chunk of a young man’s life. Imagine being put away for first-degree murder when you’re only 19, not even old enough to legally drink.
The local paper had archived most of their stories about the trial. I pored over them with increasing fascination, mixed with horror. Suddenly, I experienced an uncomfortable epiphany. Why had the authorities offered Robert a plea bargain, especially since his rap sheet was so much longer—and more violent—than Samuel’s? Both men’s stories were equally plausible. It didn’t make sense that the court believed Robert’s account, and not Samuel’s.
Except that it DID make sense. The courts are made up of racist judges and racist juries. Black men are sentenced to prison at a rate five times higher than white men. That’s IF they actually make it into the courtroom and aren’t murdered by law enforcement first. Why had I believed Samuel’s case was any different?
Obviously, my role as Danny’s sister made it difficult for me to be objective. At the time, the word on the street insisted that Samuel was the killer. But we live in a racist society, and the streets overflow with bigots. Maybe Samuel murdered my brother. But maybe the court convicted him because he was black, like his father’s congregation believed.
I didn’t resist this epiphany nearly as much as I would have only a couple of years earlier. Black Lives Matter had inspired a considerable amount of soul-searching in me—painful as hell, but necessary.
I continued to scour the internet for information about Samuel’s and Robert’s post-incarceration lives. Apparently, Samuel had been a model prisoner, because he was granted work-release and a reduced sentence. Despite extensive searching, I could find no further information about him, which struck me as a good omen.
Robert, on the other hand, had just been arrested for the umpteenth time, after eluding a outstanding warrant for domestic violence. Prison hadn’t changed him a bit. The article mentioned a pattern of arrests, including a murder dating back to the 90s. Why had the court assumed he hadn’t killed my brother? Why had they given him the gift of a plea bargain?
By then I’d figured out the answer. I sat with my new realization for a while and concluded that my entire worldview around Danny’s death had officially been blown to bits. I will never know for sure who killed him on that horrible night in February 1992. Still, I strongly suspect the real story might be quite different from the narrative I was fed. That narrative put a black man in prison for 20 years.
Two years later, our nation erupts in flames, both literally and figuratively. The brutal police murder of George Floyd has proven a catalyst for pent-up, collective rage that boiled for many years beneath the surface. Furious protesters swarm city streets, throughout all fifty states and around the world. Twelve days and counting. The crowds continue to expand. These folks don’t fuck around.
Despite considerable property damage, most demonstrations remain peaceful. At least, the majority of protesters are non-violent. Cops, on the other hand, have ripped off their masks to reveal the depth of their tyranny. They run amok in the streets, assaulting protesters at random. Everyone is presumed guilty. This behavior has exposed the sham of our criminal justice system. Of the entire foundation that our country is built upon, really. The truth is even more hideous than we imagined.
Donald Trump is terrible, but he’s a tiny part of a much larger problem. The whole rotten edifice will need to be dismantled, and a new one erected in its place. Everything else is a Band-Aid, a panacea. Shit keeps happening, while white folks continue to defend and uphold it. After each new televised murder, we roll over and go back to sleep.
We no longer have the luxury of slumber. During the past couple of years, we’ve racked up more dead, black bodies in our country: Pamela Turner. Dominique Clayton. Atatiana Jefferson. Christopher Whitfield. Christopher McCorvey. Eric Reason. Michael Lorenzo Dean. Breonna Taylor. And now, George Floyd.
Say their names. Then say them again. Because this time, we can’t forget.
Leah Mueller is an indie writer and spoken word performer from Bisbee, Arizona. She has published books with numerous small presses. Her most recent volumes, “Misguided Behavior, Tales of Poor Life Choices” (Czykmate Press), “Death and Heartbreak” (Weasel Press), and “Cocktails at Denny’s” (Alien Buddha Press) were released in 2019. Leah’s work appears in Blunderbuss, Citron Review, The Spectacle, Miracle Monocle, Outlook Springs, Atticus Review, Your Impossible Voice, and other publications. She won honorable mention in the 2012 Wergle Flomp Humor Poetry contest.