Talk is cheap
US District Court Judge Catherine Eagles’ ruling last month denying a new trial to Kalvin Michael Smith, a black man convicted of brutally beating a white store clerk following a thoroughly botched investigation by the Winston-Salem Police Department, came like a punch in the gut to those who care about justice and equal treatment under the law.
It’s hard to second-guess the legal acumen of a federal judge. And, for good reason, there are no political remedies when they make upsetting decisions. But when judicial reasoning from 2,000 feet above clashes so dramatically with reality on the ground, it’s difficult to reach any other conclusion but that the judiciary is out of touch.
History tells us that the courts are not infallible. Our Supreme Court infamously ruled in 1857 that black people “had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.”
Judge Eagles’ well-meaning ruling was probably intended to preserve confidence in law enforcement and the courts. But the opposite is likely to occur: As long as justice is denied, a cloud will remain over Winston-Salem, underscoring the suspicion among many citizens that liberties can be snatched away on the whims of an arbitrary decision by a police officer more interested in closing a case than catching the true culprit.
It’s also hard to believe that the judge seriously reviewed the case, considering the way she brushed aside the Swecker report as “one man’s opinion doubting the adequacy of the police investigation and the reliability of several pieces of evidence presented by the state.”
She might have mentioned that the author, Chris Swecker is a retired assistant FBI director who oversaw investigations that resulted in the dismantling of a Hezbollah smuggling operation in Charlotte and the capture of bomber Eric Rudolph.
Did she consider this rÃ©sumÃ© when she ignored his conclusion “that due to the flawed nature of the original investigation only a new trial that considers the full record and evidence not available, misrepresented or omitted in the original trial will provide the full measure of justice the community of Winston-Salem and every accused defendant deserves”?
It’s hard to tell whether a strong statement from city council would have swayed Eagles.
Mayor Allen Joines and Councilman Dan Besse wrote to NC Attorney General Roy Cooper in May urging him to reconsider his opposition to Smith’s habeas corpus position, citing questions about whether the defendant received adequate counsel and the perception of flaws in police procedures. What Joines and Besse didn’t do is vote in support of an official friend-of-the-court brief filed on behalf of the city that provided full disclosure of what local officials know about the miscarriage of justice. Council members Derwin Montgomery and James Taylor Jr. dissented from that decision, while Denise D. Adams, Vivian Burke, Molly Leight, Wanda Merschel and Robert Clark, supported it or at least kept silent.
“We have to use our quote-unquote political will to always right injustice,” Adams said. “It is our responsibility to aid in the bringing forth of truth.”
If only words had been backed by action.
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