The Value Gap: ‘I absolutely believe that we can do better, America,’ says the attorney for the family of Breonna Taylor — months before a grand jury indicted 1 of 3 officers in her fatal shooting

A Kentucky grand jury on Wednesday indicted one of three Louisville officers involved in the botched “no-knock

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A Kentucky grand jury on Wednesday indicted one of three Louisville officers involved in the botched “no-knock” drug raid that ended with Breonna Taylor’s shooting death, yet critics say justice has not been served.

The decision not to indict the officer for murder — and the lack of any charges for the two other officers — is an “outrageous and offensive” result, Ben Crump, the lawyer for Taylor’s family, wrote on Twitter TWTR, +6.92%.

But Crump might not necessarily be surprised by the outcome. Weeks before the indictment that resulted in wanton endangerment counts, but nothing in connection to the death of Taylor, a 26-year-old emergency medical worker, Crump told MarketWatch that prosecutors and courts across the country don’t do enough to hold police accountable.

“Courts, with all these laws, never, ever seem to make sure that these killer cops are held accountable,” he previously said in a wide-ranging interview about how courts contribute to Black-white wealth gap.

The indicted ex-officer, Brett Hankison, was charged with three counts of wanton endangerment. Taylor’s family reached a $12 million settlement with the city of Louisville earlier this month; the pact includes reforms in how the city’s police use warrants. The warrant in Taylor’s case reportedly targeted someone who didn’t live there, and the raid turned up no drugs.

For America to become more just, the country needs to think hard about policing tactics, Crump told MarketWatch in August. But its decision makers must also consider bail policies and licensing-board rules even as they focus on police accountability and issues of race, he added. To him, economic justice is inseparable from the broader concept of justice.

Crump’s client list has included many other families of Black Americans who died in police encounters, including George Floyd, Botham Jean, Michael Brown and Tamir Rice. The families of Ahmaud Arbery and Trayvon Martin, both killed in civilian confrontations that spurred national discussions of racial profiling, also turned to Crump.

Money isn’t far from the surface in some of these cases. Floyd was stopped on suspicion of using a counterfeit $20 bill. Brown lived in Ferguson, Mo., a city that overpoliced its Black community as it focused on generating revenue through fees and fines, according to an investigation by the Obama-era Justice Department.

Crump spent time with MarketWatch to discuss the court system’s role in the Black-white wealth gap, the difference between perceptions of crack cocaine and opioids, and the corporate response to Floyd’s death. The conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, is the third installment of the MarketWatch inequality-themed interview series The Value Gap.

MarketWatch: In June, you testified before a Senate committee and referred to “two systems of justice, one for white Americans and another for Black Americans.” How does this two-tiered system play out in American’s civil courts, away from cops on the beat and prosecutors in grand jury rooms?

Crump: When we say Black lives matter, it’s very important in both criminal and civil court because oftentimes people of color’s lives are discounted in courtrooms. It’s almost as if you are marginalized, quite literally, based on the value of your life compared to our white brothers and sisters.

Take for instance [the water crisis in] Flint, Mich.: If that would have happened in a more affluent community, a whiter community, we would see people going to jail. ... But yet, because this is a majority minority community, we sweep it under the rug and say, “Oh, it’s not worth that much.”

Or when you look at the opioid epidemic in America now, how the pharmaceutical companies are being held accountable to the full extent of the law. But when you have stuff like the crack cocaine epidemic, we didn’t talk about giving mental and medical help to deal with the addictions. They just criminalized an entire community of people in America.

MarketWatch: How does money bail contribute to the wealth gap?

Crump: In a pronounced way. When you think about the fact that little white boys and girls can have very similar [cases] as little Black and brown boys and girls, but the court would give the little white children or white young people the benefit of the doubt, the benefit of consideration, the benefit of possibility over and over again.

But yet, when it comes to those minority children, they arrest them and they force the families to come up with a bail amount oftentimes that they cannot afford. And therefore they have to stay in jail until the trial commences, which could be sometimes several months, even several years.

So you then have the young person of color enter a trumped-up plea agreement, even though there was no evidence at all. But you are saying, “I just want to get out of jail. I just want my liberty to be granted.” And therefore, you take whatever deal because you can’t afford it.

And for those parents who take out second mortgages, do whatever, go to the quick-cash loan stores and get usury charges applied against them, it affects the income of the family in a pronounced way.

Because now you already have a tight budget, and now that budget has been completely blown out of proportion because you have this unexpected legal matter that because your child was a person of color, a citizen of color, they were given the most extreme measures handed down by the court.

And now it has not only devastated you, your child, but it’s devastated the entire family. Because also you have probation fees and all those things that come with this bail system, as well as you have this unnecessary drug testing that they put on everything now.

‘Once you’re in the system, it just economically devastates you on top of psychologically devastating you.’

It seems like there is a phenomenon going on where it seems like every Black person is given an ankle monitor, no matter how benign the crime was, that they have to now pay fees every month to have an ankle monitor. And so once you’re in the system, it just economically devastates you on top of psychologically devastating you.

MarketWatch: But what’s the solution if someone is brought in on serious felony charges and is a flight risk? Isn’t there a public-safety issue that should be taken into account?

Crump: Absolutely. But look at the Constitution and see what bail was originally intended for. It’s gotten blown way out of proportion. It was intended to say, “We want to make sure that we can guarantee your appearance back before the court, but you are still innocent until proven guilty.”

And therefore it should be a reasonable amount. So when you’re sitting there, you should be looking at the income of the individual, looking at the income of the family, and being able to set a bail that is something reasonable that they can afford to pay. … Don’t look at our children as more dangerous just because of prejudice. Look at our children like you look at your children. If you would give that other child from a different area code, who is a lighter complexion, the benefit of the doubt, well, give that benefit of the doubt to our children too.

MarketWatch: Let’s talk about the impact of having a criminal record on future earnings. What’s the solution if the impact is too harsh?

Crump: The solution is to change the racist criminal-justice system that tries to make sure that they have Black and brown bodies populating the prison industrial complex. That’s the overarching message. ... Once you’re a convicted felon that spent time in prison, I mean, it’s almost anything you can try to do to be gainfully employed. They take it away from you.

Even trying to be a beautician or a barber, many states won’t even let you get a beautician license if you’re a convicted felon. … If you got that [felony record], you don’t get an opportunity to even work as a bank teller, or any financial services. Nurses, you can’t get a nursing degree in many states if you’re a convicted felon. You can’t get a real-estate license if you’re a convicted felon.

‘If you are a convicted felon and you serve time in prison, you can’t even get life insurance. It’s like you’re the walking dead. They just haven’t given you the death certificate.’

Everything you could possibly do, they start taking it from you. In fact, in many states, if you are a convicted felon and you serve time in prison, you can’t even get life insurance. It’s like you’re the walking dead. They just haven’t given you the death certificate.

MarketWatch: What’s the solution — to seal records? To erase them through expungement? Don’t employers have a right to know who they are hiring and what the backstory is?

Crump: One hundred percent. So let them get their license and let [employers] know what the record is, so the employer can make the decision. … It’s almost as if you don’t even have a chance. … Plumbers. It’s asinine you can’t even get a plumbing license if you’ve been a convicted felon. Now, what is all that about?

MarketWatch: A St. Louis County grand jury in 2014 declined to charge Darren Wilson, then a Ferguson police officer, for Michael Brown’s death. A year later, federal prosecutors said they would not charge Wilson. Last month, the new St. Louis County prosecuting attorney, Wesley Bell, said he would not pursue a case against Wilson. What’s your reaction to the latest news?

Crump: I wasn’t at the meeting. But I understand from attorney Jerryl Christmas and Lezley McSpadden, Michael Brown’s mother, they said that it wasn’t that he couldn’t file charges. It was that he was not willing to file charges. Because I guess when it comes to Black people, it’s, “We want to make sure we can get a conviction” as the victims. But when it seems to be Black people as the defendants, they file the charges irregardless.

MarketWatch: So you’re saying prosecutors need the will to bring cases against police officers who are potentially involved in wrongdoing. But there’s also case law they have to consider, not to mention judges and juries. What role do the courts have in perpetuating police brutality?

Crump: The fact that the courts, with all these laws, never, ever seem to make sure that these killer cops are held accountable.

I mean, when you think about this whole concept of these secret grand juries, when you look at all these cases, whether Philando Castile, Alton Sterling, Walter Scott, Eric Garner … you’ve got video evidence and yet they still are not held accountable.

It sends the clear message to these police officers that, you know, if you kill them and you follow the Supreme Court of the United States’ instructions, which is codified in Graham v. Connor and Tennessee v. Garner, all you’ve got to do to say three words: “I felt fear” or “I was in fear.”

Then you get-out-of-jail-free card. And when you get that get-out-of-jail-free card, then it tells the police that we can kill certain people and we won’t be held accountable.

MarketWatch: “Qualified immunity” is one legal doctrine that’s come under scrutiny. It shields officers from lawsuits unless the plaintiff can show the officer, in the heat of the moment, violated a “clearly established” right, like a protection against excessive force. Does this doctrine contribute to the problem?

Crump: The judges continue to grant this qualified immunity, which is supposed to be qualified, it’s supposed to be limited. But it seems like no matter what, they continue over and over again to grant blanket immunity to police officers, especially when they kill people of color.

MarketWatch: Someone could listen to this and say you sound skeptical about the courts. But you’ve devoted your career to the law. You must think the law and the courts can be a force for good, right?

Crump: Absolutely, and when you read my book [“Open Season: Legalized Genocide of Colored People”], that’s what I talk about. If we apply the Constitution, if we live by those high ideals, then this is the greatest country in the world. But we have to speak truth to power when we get a chance.

And if people are thinking I’m skeptical or pessimistic just because I’m telling the truth, then you have to be honest and say, “Hold on, don’t get discouraged because you’re just hearing about it.” What about the people who have to live it every day, and they can still be hopeful? … I absolutely believe that we can do better, America. And I believe that with everything in my heart.

So that’s why I fight so hard to try to speak truth to power, to try to explain to people no matter what the situation is, based on this racist criminal-justice system that we now have employed in America, that the poor people of color, no matter what the situation is, always get the most of injustice and the least of justice. And that’s just a reality.

You don’t have to take my word for it. Go sit in the back of any courtroom in America and watch how they administer justice.

Now on the flip side of that, what makes me hopeful is … young people, after George Floyd, people who are Black, white, people who are Hispanic, Asian all marching in the streets saying, “Until we get justice for George Floyd, none of us can breathe.”… [The late Georgia congressman and civil-rights leader] John Lewis and them kept marching, and you see we were able to overcome [segregation]. So there’s a precedent that no matter what they throw at us, we will overcome it. And the first year of law school, they teach you about precedent.

And so the precedent for Black people in America is no matter what they throw at us, we are going to overcome it. … Slavery, we overcame that. The Middle Passage, we overcame that. Dred Scott, we overcame that, [the 1857 Supreme Court ruling that] said there was no rights that a Black man had that a white man was bound to respect. Jim Crow, we overcame that. And so whatever they throw at us, I know we’re going to overcome it. … That’s what keeps me encouraged.

MarketWatch: George Floyd’s death stirred up corporate America too. Businesses in all sectors issued statements about the need for racial justice, and some even pledged millions in support. How much value do you put in the statements and money that are being pledged?

Crump: America is a capitalistic society, and economic justice is tantamount to overall justice. … It’s very important that you have all these business partners and these community partners and these education partners acknowledging that there is a problem, because until we acknowledge there’s a problem, then we cannot get to a solution. The people who deny the existence of racism in America [are] probably the greatest perpetuators of it.

This story was published on August 20 and updated on September 23, 2020.
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