Sunday, May 6, 2018

Stereotypes killed Robert Butts

The State of Georgia executed Robert Butts, Friday night, May 4, 2018 at 9:58 EDT. But the real killer was a lethal injection of stereotypes by prosecutors, callously upheld by the courts.  I have a long history with Robert and his co-defendant,  Marion Wilson.  Since 2005 I've testified in various hearings about the pernicious use of gang stereotypes which frightened their juries into returning a death sentence.  For Robert,  my best efforts failed.

Robert Butts
No case in my twenty three years of expert witness work has been characterized by so many inflammatory and false claims about gangs as this one.

   I've previously written about this case.  Prosecutors went to extreme lengths to label 
a robbery gone wrong as a gang-related crime.  Baldwin County Sheriff Howard Sils had testified the absurd claim that since the bullet type was "F shot" surely the"F" must have stood for Folks? Read that again. "F for Folks."  But that was not the worst gang "evidence" at the trial.
 District Attorney Fred Bright put Milledgeville Deputy Ricky Horn on the stand. Horn was qualified as an "expert" on gangs despite his sworn testimony that most of what he knows about gangs he learned from "TV and the movies."
Horn testified to an all white jury in a town that he admitted was "very religious" that "FOLKS" stood for...wait for it....Followers of Our Lord King Satan. So Mr. Butts was a young black male gang member, convicted of murder and a devil worshipper as well.  Death qualified juries,  Fleury-Steiner finds,  can justify sentencing someone to death if they can dehumanize the defendant,  to see him as "the other," as something 
less than human.  Devil worshippers by any measure surely qualify as "them."
     I testified in earlier hearings that I had even consulted with Chicago Police Gang Squad officers and none of us had ever heard such ridiculous meaning for "Folks."  That term,  of course,  is the name of a now defunct coalition of Chicago gangs, the opposite of "People." As in, "your people, my folks." 
     But frightening the jury with the specter of devil worshipping black gang members in Baldwin County was only the fuse to set off a time bomb in DA Fred Bright's closing argument in Robert's trial.  The jury was told that Baldwin County was being held hostage by the "carnage" of a violent crime wave by vicious gangs.  Interviews with jurors uncovered that the jury was unaware of such a threat to their lives and the allegations of a gang crime wave was among the most decisive arguments in the jury arriving at a sentence of death. They were even sequestered, it was thought,  to protect them against gang retaliation.

No Crime wave in the 1990s
in Baldwin County
     Except the crime wave was wholly imaginary.  In previous testimony I had pointed out that the homicide rate in Baldwin County, where Milledgeville is located, actually declined in the 1990s after gangs had formed. While the nineties saw a surge in gang homicides in most large cities, Baldwin County had a 33% decrease in homicides over the previous decade. There was also no change in the number of assaults between the 1980s and 1990s. The formation of gangs was related to a decline in violence, not an increase.
 When we form stereotypes, or frames, unless we think about it,  we shape any new facts to fit the frame.  Thus being told of a devil-worshipping gang and a murder case,  and given unrebutted dangerous stereotypes of gangs,  the jury accepted the "fake news" that Milledgeville was in the midst of the "carnage" of a gang crime wave — despite the fact that no such crime wave existed.  Frames trump facts. Stereotypes can kill. And do. And did.
     Juries in murder cases are especially vulnerable to relying on stereotypes.  Terror Management Theory explains when we are confronted with images or evidence of our own mortality we tend to unconsciously rely on familiar folk wisdom, what Kahneman calls "thinking fast" rather than utilizing critical thought. Robert's jury was frightened to death, or rather frightened into rendering a death sentence.
   Gang allegations hover like a phantom over a jury's subconscious or in this case the Georgia Board of Pardons and Parole,  who briefly considered commuting his death sentence.  Like any demon, gang stereotypes need to be continually cast out until they are chased away.  Prosecutors are advised to always use gang allegations when available because the very mention of gangs is effective. Such evidence is "prejudicial" and "that's the point!" exclaims a prosecutors' manual.   Think about that word: "pre-judicial."  This means prosecutors rely on pre-existing stereotypes, not evidence,  to get a conviction or harsh sentence.  This is no less than a threat to basic principles of justice.  This is why I do this work. 
     I think of Donovan Parks, the innocent murdered victim in this case. I don't blame his father for saying Robert's execution was "good news."  Our criminal justice system is not about fairness, deterrence, and by no means rehabilitation. It is too often a system of revenge, of "just deserts," lashing out at those who offend the sacred standards of an imagined community.  Juries don't need to think what is right or just. They are urged by prosecutors to act on their rawest feelings. They dehumanize, or in this case, demonize the offender so they can more easily allow him to be killed. 
    I've realized the jury didn't sentence a human being, "Robert Butts," to death. They sentenced a caricature of a gang member, a dehumanized monster of the jury’s darkest nightmares. The DA could have recalled the elements of malice murder and made his case for death to the jury without recourse to any mention of gangs.  But instead he chose to visit the nether world of demonization where an offender is so unalterably evil there is literally no choice to the jury but to sentence him to death. 
    As Robert's execution date arrived May 4th I unconsciously watched the clock: 10:02am....1:47pm .....5:32pm.  Then the US Supreme Court's brief stay of execution followed immediately by a terse text that the court would not consider his case. Then 9:58pm.  I thought back over the phone conversations I had over the years with this bright, creative man,  Robert E. Butts. His deep feelings of responsibility for his family and remorse for his actions.  His playful FaceBook messages to me under a pseudonym, daring me to guess who he was. His calls to me from his "cell phone." His joy.
    Robert wrote this stanza in a book he published of his poems and drawings from Death Row. The poem is entitled "Tomorrow."

Never will I stop seeking you,
From this I'll never sway...
I know that we'll meet eventually,
That tomorrow will come one day...

Until it won't. Good bye Robert. Your death by stereotype made me cry... made me angry... made me shiver to my very soul.  But it also motivates me to use my experience and abilities to confront the unjust and unjustifiable uses of gang stereotypes.  I won't forget you.

Berreby, David. 2005. Us and Them: The Science of identity. Chicago: University of Chicago.
Butts, Robert E. 2013. A Portrait of My Journey: Memoirs from Death Row. Lexington, KY.
Devine, Dennis J. 2012. Jury Decision Making; The State of the Science. New York and London: New York University Press.
Fleury-Steiner, Benjamin. 2004. Jurors' stories of death : how America's death penalty invests in inequality. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
Greenberg, Jeff, Sheldon Solomon, Mitchell Veeder, Tom Pyszczynski, Abram Rosenblatt, Shari Kirkland, Deborah Lyon. 1990. "Evidence for Terror Management Theory II: The Effects of Mortality Salience on Reactions to Those Who Threaten or Bolster the Cultural Worldview." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 58(2):308-18.
Jackson, Alan. 2004. "Prosecuting gang cases: What local prosecutors need to know." Alexandria, VA: American Prosecutors Research Institute.
Kahneman, Daniel. 2011. Think Fast and Slow. New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux.

Monday, November 27, 2017

Chicago: gangs, homicide, and housing

The high homicide rate in Chicago today is no mystery.  But understanding it requires courage to look bravely at Chicago’s past and confront the Windy City’s historic structures of racism.

I’ve been studying gangs and violence in Chicago for more than 20 years. I’ve concluded three factors underlay Chicago’s high homicide rate.

First, 2016 did not represent a spike, but more of a return to Chicago’s historic level of homicide.  Homicide rates jumped from 17/100,000 in 2015 to about 29/100,000 in 2016. This "spike" brought us to rates that were considerably higher than rates over the past decade.   But this near-sighted focus omits this city’s persistently high rates of homicide before 2004.  Chicago’s average homicide rate from 1970 to 2016 is 24.3.  Our 600 plus homicides so far in 2017 put us squarely at the average homicide rate of the past half century.  

Second, Chicago’s homicide rate is very similar to other rustbelt cities, e.g. Cleveland, Milwaukee, and Memphis.  In the early 1990s, homicide rates of all US cities soared with the crack wars. Like other rustbelt cities, as well as big cities like Philadelphia, Chicago’s rate fell moderately. Cities like New York and Los Angeles saw their homicide rate plummet while high homicide cities like Baltimore, New Orleans St. Louis and Detroit stayed high.  We should realize that Chicago's murder rate today is 5-6 times higher than New York City’s and shows no sign of breaking away from other rustbelt cities.

What rustbelt cities have in common are severely distressed areas with many unemployed and desperate young black men — and high homicide rates.  While New York City has only 15% of its population in what Richard Florida calls “distressed” zip codes, Chicago has almost 40% of its citizens living in such areas, about the same as Philadelphia, whose homicide rate is identical with ours. Detroit, with its even higher homicide rates, has an astounding 99% of its citizens living in such distressed areas.

The high homicide areas in Chicago on the west and south sides are the areas of the greatest distress and extreme poverty, with youth unemployment rates exceeding 90% according to a UIC Great Cities study. These are not coincidentally areas of concentrated black poverty. The key to understanding homicide in Chicago is race, not gangs.  There are likely as many Latino as black gang members, but African Americans account for 78% of all homicide victims and Latinos 16%. 

Finally, why didn’t Chicago’s rate fall to single digits like New York and LA?  Observers point to out of control violence due to the "fracturing" of Chicago's gangs. But why did gangs fracture?  The crucial factor appears to be the impact of the demolition of the Chicago Housing Authority projects which were originally built to keep Chicago segregated.  CHA projects had become fortresses for the gangs and treasure chests for their drug businesses. Gang wars waged in the 1990s between CHA towers.   Faced with similar problems at that time New York invested more than $5 billion dollars in repairing their low income housing projects and stabilizing neighborhoods.  In contrast Chicago diverted renovation money to law enforcement, then tore down the projects, scattering tens of thousands of residents.

In the early 2000s, gang members forced out of public housing migrated to areas already home to traditional gangs. These gangs had been weakened by their leaders isolated in maximum security cells, declining crack markets, and exhaustion after years of war. The massive influx of CHA gang members into south and west side neighborhoods caused youth to reorganize into local cliques, often named after fallen homeboys or rappers as Robert Aspholm has brilliantly described.  Cliques today contain members of many different traditional gangs and their allegiance is to one another not the old hierarchically organized gangs.  The years of 2004-2015 were years of reorganization and brand new rivalries were heating up. Violence today is more spontaneous and looks nothing like the organized wars of the 1990s.  The release of the video of LaQuan McDonald’s murder and a long history of police abuse set off a contagious plague of violence.

It is the large pool of angry, unemployed, young black men in a segregated rustbelt city along with the history of racism in Chicago that explains our high homicide levels.  Investment in neighborhoods of concentrated black poverty is an obvious remedy. Less obvious, but just as important, is for youth organizers and social movements to provide a positive outlet for the new, alienated and largely leaderless new gangs.  This is the glimmer of hope in a story of racism and despair.

Aspholm, Robert. 2015. "It Ain't the Nineties Anymore." in Social Work. Chicago University of Illinois-Chicago.

Hagedorn, John M. and Brigid Rauch. 2007. "Housing, Gangs, and Homicide: What We can Learn from Chicago." Urban Affairs Review 42(4):435-56.

Popkin, Susan J. 2000. The hidden war : crime and the tragedy of public housing in Chicago. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

On Folks and Definitions

It is February 2005 and I’m in Jackson, Georgia at a hotel room close to the state prison.  I’m prepping with Brian Kammer and pro bono private attorney David Harth to testify in the Marion Wilson case.  I’m consulting because the defendant is accused of being in the Folks gang and the "gang" label was used to get the death penalty for Marion and his co-defendant, Robert Butts. 

I had never testified in person in a death penalty case before and I’m a bit nervous. The stakes are pretty high. I am scheduled to appear the next day at a habeas hearing located in a special courtroom in the prison right next to the execution cell on death row. The lawyers are arguing Wilson had received ineffective counsel and should get a new trial.  Among other issues, Kammer and Harth reasoned the original trial attorney failed to call a gang expert to question countless stereotypes and prejudicial statements about gangs.  My job was to provide expert testimony that, had I been called to testify at the original trial, at least one juror would not have voted for the death penalty. Harth and Kammer went over the questions they would ask and the questions they expected from the state. We rehearsed several hours until I got it right. These are two top notch attorneys.

Later that night after my mock testimony I read and re-read the transcripts of the original trial.  I was dismayed by the many ludicrous and unchallenged statements by prosecution witnesses.  We had subpoenaed a manual of the Milidgeville police gang squad that, among other amazing claims,  instructed officers that gang members "all dressed alike" and "most gang members died before they were twenty one."   Ricky Horn, the Milledgeville  PD gang "expert" and Baldwin County Sheriff Howard Sils talked about gangs in language right out of the manual with little apparent understanding of the lives of poor black men.  There were pages of testimony denigrating Mr. Wilson but I suddenly stopped when I realized I had the names mixed up. I was reading statements by “Westin” believing he was the prosecutor. No! The prosecutor was Fred Bright and Westin was the “defense” attorney.  I could not tell the difference between them from the transcript.  They both talked in crude,  denigrating language about Mr.Wilson. It appeared they were working together for a conviction and death penalty.  It was worse than "ineffective counsel."

But these sensational stereotypes were activated because the defendant was a member of a gang, the legal equivalent of a terrorist. In fact the name of the statue Wilson was charged under was  The Georgia Street Gang Terrorist Prevention Act. It defines a gang in standard terms.
Criminal street gang "means any organization, association, or group of three or more persons associated in fact, whether formal or informal, which engages in criminal gang activity as defined in paragraph (1) of this Code section.

Back in the 1960s Walter Miller and Malcolm Klein were the first criminologists to give a theoretical foundation to such soon-to-be created statutes. They discarded the classical  definition of gangs that described the process of adolescent gang formation and replaced it with one that highlighted criminality.  Mainstream criminologists believe their definitions are neutral generalizations of an empirical reality of gangs. This is what gangs really “are” they say.

But another way of approaching definitions is to consult social psychology and the literature on categorization.  This approach tells us definitions are constructs of the mind, not scientific generalizations of reality. I demonstrated in A World of Gangs that gangs are of many types and behaviors, and are constantly in flux.  To define something is to freeze it as one thing with no room for change. Defining is similar to framing.  Entman states:

To frame is to select some aspects of a perceived reality and make them more salient in a communicating text, in such a way as to promote a particular problem definition, causal interpretation, moral evaluation, and/or treatment recommendation.

Mainstream criminologists have lent support to punitive policies by selecting out and promoting criminality as a defining characteristic of gangs.  Following Entman, they have defined the problem of gangs as criminality not youthful rebellion, implied crimes were not individual acts but caused by a criminal organization,  and this moral condemnation of criminal gang members laid the basis for harsh, enhanced sentences.  A definition, like a frame, is a choice by rule makers, and the foundation for laws like Georgia's were laid by criminologists.  Let's leave to one side that definitions of gangs like Georgia's can also describe most police districts. What characteristic of police do you consider most salient?

Frames or definitions are not scientific generalizations of a phenomena but a category that allows us to treat everyone the same.  When a "human kind” is defined,  Berreby says, we have a guide for our actions toward them.  Once crime was put into the definition and sanctified by law, the label "gang" becomes a code to a court that this kid is evil.  It’s like a jig saw puzzle  we see only a gold chain, dark skin, a gang tattoo and we can fill in the rest of the puzzle and conclude this guy is a violent criminal.  The code "gang member" is a map that cues familiar stereotypes in our brains, what Winter calls "dangerous frames."  We transform every piece of evidence in such cases and make it gang-related.

How does this work in court?  In the Wilson case, my testimony was unsettling to the state, especially as I pointed out there was no evidence the crime was gang related.   Sheriff Sils was becoming red faced and visibly angry sitting in a row a few feet from the witness stand.  We could hear his muttering and eagerness to testify to counter my arguments.  As David Harth began his re-direct examination Sils was searching for a way to demonstrate the shooting was indeed all about gangs. Harth asked him when he had first thought the shooting had something to do with gangs? 

Sills: Well, there was one thing I always thought it could have been.

Harth: You must have thought of that since your deposition.

Sills: It was the fact they used F shot.  I never heard of F shot before this crime.  It’s a very large shot, bigger than normal bird shot. The gun had been stolen out of a car, but that ammo hadn’t been stolen with it. I always thought to myself that that F stood for FOLKS.  It is not widely sold.  Other grades are numbers, except BB shot. 

There was not any outright laughter in the court since the judge would have held us in contempt. Brian Kammer and I looked at one another and pressed our lips suppressing incredulous guffaws bubbling up from within. Just sit back for a moment and consider F...olks and F shot. Of course they are related and what else could F shot be but a sign of the Folks gang? What about F...armers or F....renchmen or F...igments of the imagination?

To reiterate: categories are not scientific generalizations of reality but processes of the mind. We are picking out some characteristics as salient and others as not important. For criminologists, prosecutors, journalists, and executioners crime is the most salient characteristic of a gang. For some of us, though,  the most important aspect of a gang is alienation and rebellion, and criminal acts should be punished for the harm they do, not because they were committed by a gang member.

Gangs are a "them" category that cues to "us" — in a court to judges and juries — that this guy is bad news and likely to be guilty. If the evidence isn't there a prosecutors can always search for the equivalent of F shot.

Berreby, David. 2005. Us and Them: The Science of identity. Chicago: University of Chicago.
Entman, Robert A. 1993. "Framing: Toward Clarification of a Fractured Paradigm." Journal of Communications 43(4):51-58.
Winter, Nicolas J. G. 2008. Dangerous Frames: How Ideas about Race and Gender Shape Public Opinion. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Dehumanization Begins with the Law

I cried when I read my report to the court on the sentencing of 15 year old Diego Melendez. I  had actually advocated for a 30 year sentence for this child. Why? Because the judge determined the sentencing range was between 30-40 years.  Thirty years was the least he could hand out to this angel-faced kid waived to adult court.

Talking with Diego afterwards he clearly did not grasp what 30 or more years would mean. Thirty years is two life times for him.  He asked me if the court might reconsider his sentence in 10 years or so? It broke my heart but I told him while it was possible, the current law and climate made it unlikely. It does no good to lie to someone going to prison. They need a firm grasp on reality to survive.

I’ve been studying dehumanizing language but maybe I haven’t been thinking broad enough.   Donald Trump recently called the Central American gang MS 13 “animals” and has pledged to eradicate them.  In my courtroom cases gang members have been called “rats.” “snakes,” “beasts,” and wild animals of all sorts. Diego was called “cold blooded” like a reptile. One of the main points David Livingstone Smith makes in his Less Than Human is that dehumanization offers “a method for counteracting inhibitions against lethal violence by excluding our victims from the human community.” 

The US incarceration Rate is off the charts
Maybe dehumanization is a good way to describe our sentencing policy.  How can judges rationalize sentences of 30, 40, or even life in prison?  They say “let the punishment fit the crime” but the US is an outlier in our use of incarceration and the length of our sentences. For example. in Norway, the longest sentence someone can get is 21 years, for any crime.  In our country, one way to rationalize locking gang members up and “throwing away the key” is to consider them “animals.”  We rationalize the violence of incarceration by dehumanizing gang members and other dark skinned offenders.

Let me tell you about Diego Melendez and how he came to be caged for 30 years.

Diego was what we call “socialized to the streets.”  His parents had been Latin King and MS 13 members. He started hanging out with gang members at age 8 and was jumped into the Maniac Latin Disciples (MLD) at 10 or 11.  I told an incredulous judge that for Diego the gang was normal. The judge was engaged with my testimony and asked me numerous questions about why such young boys join gangs? The Assistant States Attorney tried to cut me off several times, but the judge reprimanded him and told him to not “cut off a witness again.”  This white suburban judge was struggling to understand how a young kid like Diego could be in a gang and kill. This kind of judicial questioning is what you want to see as an expert witness.

The homicide, like all murders was heart-rending. Diego’s MLD leader told him and another child soldier that the Latin Kings were invading and gave them guns. Diego saw two guys running 30 or 40 yards away.  He told me he thought he fired into the ground.  Most likely he and his comrade fired in the general direction and as fate had it one of their unlucky shots hit home and killed Jonathon Quebrado.  

The States Attorney made a big deal about how after the shooting, Diego laughed. That proved to him Diego was cold blooded and a long prison term was needed to protect society from such a heartless killer. I’ve seen this response many times after a shooting. It is part of the process of dehumanization. The prohibition of killing is so strong that when you actually kill someone, you need a response that counteracts the searing emotional pain of having violated the internalized moral code: “thou shalt not kill.”  Laughing, scoffing, flashing your gang sign, or even shouting in triumph are not indications of inhumanity, but psychologically are the opposite.  Professional hit men do not celebrate a shooting, they go about their business. Diego was not a hit man, he was a child with a gun.

When Diego learned the young man who been killed was not a Latin King, but an innocent bystander, he was disconsolate. He cooperated with the prosecution which will not be helpful for him in the Illinois prison system. He talked to me about his interests and life in a suburban jail. My written statement to the court tried to bring the boy in Diego to life.

But did you know Diego Melendez loves to read? When I asked him if I could send him a book, he lighted up and said “Eclipse,” by Stephanie Meyer. Looking over my shoulder he said Meyer, with an "e" not  "a"  This isn’t my idea of a great read but Meyer’s books are intensely popular among teenagers of every race and class. As he described the plots of various books he liked, I thought sadly, “he’s just a kid.” That “kid” is there alongside of the gangster, competing for his life. 

I stayed on for the sentencing which immediately followed my testimony.  I think the judge was moved by Diego’s youth but felt constrained by the law. After he handed down a 33 1/2 year sentence I was taken aback by the Public Defender’s congratulation. “The betting pool among PDs” he said, “was 38 or 39 years. Your testimony saved him five or six years.”

These small victories may be all we can get in today’s cruel world of lengthy sentences. But they speak to the limits of the kind of work I do or the often futile efforts of Public Defenders and defense attorneys. If I do my job well, I can humanize a gang member, like Diego Melendez. But I can’t humanize a system of mass incarceration that throws away lives since they aren’t really considered to be human anyway. 

Diego’s mother had a tear drop tattoo and had been told by attorneys to get rid of it or not show up in court since it would cue “gang involvement” to the judge.  As I left, I told her to make sure to keep that tattoo and look at it everyday in the mirror and think of Diego. How can we not cry over a system that is drenched in the pain of dehumanization?

Berreby, David. 2005. Us and Them: The Science of Identity. Chicago: University of Chicago.
Fine, Gary Alan. 1987. With the boys : Little League baseball and preadolescent culture. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Smith, David Livingstone. 2011. Less Than Human: Why We Demean, Enslave, and Exterminate Others: Amazon Kindle.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

On Murderers and Babysitters (Part Three)

There is a postscript to this story that explains why I added the word "babysitter" to the title of these blogs.

I had maintained contact with Ike along with his dedicated lawyer,  Aviva Futorian. I remember one visit at Pontiac when Ike was led out in chains to talk with us through glass. He was intensely aware of his “slave-like” status and told me he was deeply embarrassed. He didn’t want to be seen in chains and we found discussions labored and the visit didn’t last long. We did talk about my six year old son Jess.  Ike’s art gave meaning to his life and my little Jess had artistic talent.  Ike had sent Jess a picture and Jess drew one for him along with a few words that a six year old could muster to someone in such an incomprehensible situation.

Ike's letter to my son, Jess
It was at this Pontiac visit that Ike told me that he would not be able to send any more pictures to Jess since his pencils had been taken away from him as possible “weapons” and he was unable to draw with the crude colorless implements they allowed him to have.  

As someone who had killed a prison official Ike had to be constantly aware of threats to his life by correctional officers. His treatment by guards was hostile and at times cruel.  Taking away his colored pencils seemed to me mainly about breaking his spirit.

Things changed a few years later. As Ike sat on death row, Illinois Governor George Ryan became aware of the torture of black gang members by Chicago Police Commander Jon Burge. Several of these men who had been sentenced to death were exonerated by DNA evidence. Ryan ordered hearings to be held on every inmate on death row to allow testimony, mainly from victims, on whether the Governor should grant clemency.  

Two motivations drove me to show up to testify on Ike’s behalf. The nature of his trial had convinced me that some ways had to be found to counter the reign of stereotypes and demonization of gang trials.  And second, my own interactions with him had taught me Ike was not an evil monster, despite having committed evil acts. He was more than one thing and there was a depth of humanity to a man who interacted so sensitively with my son. I had found Ike was likeable and I believed he could be redeemed and rehabilitated.

I showed up at the state office building where the hearing was to be held and entered a room packed with prison guards and officials. They were lining up to testify and filled with hate. One mid level corrections bureaucrat said “Easley must be killed before he kills again.” The testimony went on for a couple of hours before the chair introduced Ike’s new appointed attorney who was visibly intimidated by the show of force by dozens of armed correctional officials. 

His comments are a good example of what passes for a legal defense in many gang trials. He was appointed to make the case for clemency.  I’ll repeat all of his comments verbatim. He said “Here is Professor Hagedorn who will say something on Ike’s behalf.”  That was it, his whole case. 

Everyone’s eyes glared at me as I took the stand. My Oppositional Defiant Disorder kicked in and I briefly summarized the unfairness of Ike’s trial. But my main argument was that this man, who was labeled a monster who had to be killed, was a human being with much good in him. I talked about his abused childhood and feelings of abandonment. I recalled his peacemaking actions in the prison. But I mainly talked about his exchanging letters and art work with my young son. Why would you kill someone who could show such feelings of empathy? Why not treat his emotional distress and let him channel his anger into art? 

There were some jeers but mostly angry stares implying “how dare you defend this monster.”  But the room was stunned when I concluded that if Ike Easley could be paroled and given another chance at life I would welcome him as a babysitter for my son.  I remember a couple of journalists running out of the room to phone in the story and a few newspapers reported my comments. The correctional officials just looked at me in disbelief. My testimony made no sense to them whatsoever. I lived in a different world than they did. Some frames never interact.

Ike only was granted clemency since Gov. Ryan commuted sentences for everyone on death row.  If you haven’t read Ryan’s remarkable clemency statement, it can be found here. If Ryan had looked at clemency case by case I’m quite sure he would have succumbed to pressures by the correctional bureaucracy and Ike would not have been spared.

It was Ike Easley’s trial and humanity that put me on the path to confront stereotypes and demonization at criminal trials.  To me justice in gang trials means two things. First jurors should decide cases and sentences on evidence not on fear and false generalizations. Second gang members are human beings.  Doing evil doesn’t mean you are evil. My empathy for the families of victims does not stop my feeling empathy for a gang member who killed. Another word for “murderer,” after all,  is “human being.”  And I know that is hard for most people to accept.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

On Murderers and Babysitters (Part Two)

Defendant also attached to his post-conviction petition a report by John Hagedorn, who is a sociologist and an expert on street gangs. In his report, he conceded that the gang-related evidence may not have changed the outcome of the guilt phase of the trial. However, he opined that the gang-related evidence "exercised considerable influence on the jury in the penalty phase of the trial. In other words, if the gang issue had not been such a major focus of the trial, I believe the jury would have been substantially less likely to ask for the death penalty.”

We disagree…

People v. Easley.  Supreme Court of Illinois.·148 Ill.2d 281 (Ill. 1992)

My involvement with Ike Easley’s appeals led me to immerse myself in studying the power of stereotypes.   One key lesson I’ve learned from my studies in social cognition is that a jury already has an image of a gang member in mind before a trial starts, what is called a prototype. This prototype is typically of a gang member as a “savage beast” and left unchecked, juries will be receptive to evidence that confirms their stereotype and reject any evidence that contradicts it.  My expert witness work is aimed at helping jurors question their stereotypes so they are more able to accept "discrepant information" or evidence that doesn't fit with pre-existing images. 

We think in metaphors which according to Winter “are neither true nor false, but have consequences, perceptions, inferences, and actions.”  This means if a gang member is like a savage beast then a jury will believe he is likely to have killed "like an animal" as alleged.  The savage beast metaphor includes the related notion that such wild animals need to be “put down.” Stereotypes can kill.

You probably guessed Ike's jury was all-white. But this was not by accident. The prosecutor excused every black potential juror with the argument that since they lived in black communities where black gangs also resided,  jurors were likely to be intimidated by the threat of gang retaliation. Despite criticism of this tack by the Seventh Circuit Ike did not face a jury of his peers.

But it gets worse, much worse. Because of the intense publicity in the area around Pontiac, Ike’s trial was moved to Will County and the city of Joliet. In the week before the trial, three El Rukn gang members had murdered a Joliet prison guard and newspaper accounts of this crime circulated among Ike’s jurors. Ike remembered the judge making comments about the El Rukn murder during the trial. If Ike's case evoked a frame of gang members as savage beasts who kill prison guards, the environment in Joliet at the time strongly reinforced that frame.

Pontiac Correctional Center
The prosecutor had been prohibited by the court to allege the killing was the result of a gang conspiracy. The court found there was no evidence of such a conspiracy and this was affirmed by the Illinois Supreme Court on appeal. Despite this admonition, the prosecutor claimed in his opening statement, during trial, and at closing that the killing was ordered by the Black Gangster Disciples. The image was the gang letting the beast Ike Easley out of his cage and telling him to “kill.” The Supreme Court ruled that while the allegation of a conspiracy was “improper” Ike “suffered no prejudice therefrom.” I disagreed.

Let me tell you about killing. Randall Collins says violence is hard. While there are “hit men” who are cold and mechanical about killing, most murder is done in passion and with adrenaline flowing. The court acknowledged after Ike was detained he yelled out ““all you honkey motherfuckers want is a nigger donkey to pin this case on, and I am your donkey, I am your killer.”  Ike denied to me that any gang meeting had ordered the killing.   In one of the most emotional exchanges of my life Ike talked about the “uncontrollable” urges that streamed over him once the violence had begun and he and Taylor fought for their lives. Afterwards Ike said he blacked out and  “I threw up like a motherfucker.”  These are emotions, triggered by an extreme event — the killing of Ike's best friend and revulsion toward his own violent act.  Therapists say people like Ike can be responsive to long term treatment.  To me Ike's emotional response to his violence was an indication of his humanity and an example of how killing violates deeply held norms.

The final “nail in the coffin” in enflaming the fears and prejudices of the jury was not mentioned in any of the court decisions. I pointed out in my statement that a “moral panic” atmosphere surrounded the trial. My field notes capture the pièce de résistance that inhibited reason from deciding this case.

Finally, in my mind, the most damaging event was the manner in which the jury was protected during trial. Defense attorneys have told me that sharpshooters were deployed to protect the jurors.   When the jurors asked why there were sharpshooters, they were told something like that "the gang may want to kill jurors." It is hard to underestimate the impact this must have made on the jury. 

It is not easy to use System 2 logical reasoning when you are in a state of fear. “Terror Management Theory” finds that people, e.g. jurors, when faced with threats to their own mortality are more likely to rely on stereotypes and not think analytically.  Duh. What do you think the jury was feeling while being told Ike’s gang might kill them? 

Consider the scene: An all-white jury, in a setting that recently witnessed a similar murder of a local guard by gang members, listening to a prosecutor who improperly alleged a gang conspiracy and then had the deliberating jurors surrounded by sharpshooters protecting them from being assassinated by the gang.  I don't care what the jury decided, it was not based on a reasoned judgement of Ike Easley’s potential for rehabilitation or any dispassionate consideration of justice. Fear, not facts, drove that jury to their fatal decision and sent me on my path of studying the power of stereotypes in court.

One final chapter remains: the clemency hearings and the commutation of Ike's death sentence.

Cohen, Stanley. 1972. Moral panics and folk devils. London: MacGibbon & Kee.

Collins, Randall. 2008. Violence : a micro-sociological theory. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Greenberg, Jeff, Sheldon Solomon, Mitchell Veeder, Tom Pyszczynski, Abram Rosenblatt, Shari Kirkland, Deborah Lyon. 1990. "Evidence for Terror Management Theory II: The Effects of Mortality Salience on Reactions to Those Who Threaten or Bolster the Cultural Worldview." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 58(2):308-18.

Maruna, Shadd. 2001. Making Good:  How Ex-Convicts Reform and Rebuild their Lives. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Winter, Steven A. 2001. A Clearing in the Forest:  Law, Life, and Mind. Chicago: University of Chicago.

Monday, July 24, 2017

On Murderers and Babysitters (Part One)

As I near my 70th birthday I have been asking myself why I spend so much of my remaining time in life consulting for the defense of gang members who are charged with murder. While some may be innocent, most are guilty.  How can I justify this?

For many of the lawyers I work with defending gang members means upholding civil liberties and giving their client the best defense they can offer.  I’m not a lawyer and many cases boil down to technical disagreements and narrow applications of the law more than issues of justice. 

On the one hand, ethically, I do not believe people who kill should get away with it.  I feel empathy for offender and victim.  On the other hand I think our sentencing policy is draconian.  Incredibly, one in every five African Americans in prison today are serving life sentences and two thirds of all inmates serving life are minorities.   Human beings, even those who kill, are still human beings and I do not think they should be caged like wild animals for their natural life.  

During sentencing I try to explain gang involvement in such a way that a judge can have a bit more understanding, if not compassion.  A gang member’s life should not be reduced to a snapshot of a crime scene, but considered as one frame in a life long movie of change and maturation. I believe everyone deserves a chance at rehabilitation.

I’ve been immersed for two decades in the literatures on how we think in stereotypes,  but I began my court work not through books but experience. What directly pulled me into this field was getting to know gang members who killed and learning how their trials were conducted.  Let me introduce you to Ike Easley.

Ike Easley's current IDOC photo
Ike was one of the first expert witness cases I took and I’m afraid explaining his importance will take three blogs over the next three days.  The issue with Ike was not whether he killed: he committed not one, but two homicides. Let me walk you through his case from its beginning to the commuting of his death penalty sentence by then Gov. Ryan of Illinois. 

Ike was a severely abused child who was bullied at school. When his sister was being repeatedly struck by her boyfriend and threatened his mother,  Ike intervened. When the the abuser went for a gun, Ike shot him first.  Wolfgang calls this victim-precipitated homicide and this kind of murder is quite common. Ike reasonably argued it was self defense. He had no criminal record and was taken by utter surprise by a guilty verdict and a sentence of 20 years in prison.  Cook County Jail was also a shock, and Ike’s membership in the then Black Gangster Disciples was both a protective factor and an emotional response to what he saw as an unjust sentence.

Ike’s second killing got headlines and a high profile trial. Ike stabbed and killed Robert Taylor,  the Assistant Superintendent of Pontiac Correctional Center.   Taylor was a widely admired African American administrator and his murder sparked outrage among prison officials and prosecutors.   Ike’s trial resulted in a guilty verdict and the death penalty.  I got involved with the case through Ike’s appellate lawyer, Aviva Futorian, on a habeas petition of ineffective counsel in his original trial.  

I traveled to Menard where Ike was incarcerated and awaiting an execution date. I did not know what to expect in meeting this double murderer.  He had been transferred from Tamms, Illinois’ super max prison that was recently closed.  He was singled out in media accounts as among the “worst of the worst.”  This didn’t fit with the man I met.   I found Ike to be a gentle giant, soft spoken and an astute cultural critic. He was keenly aware of the culture of violence  promoted on TV and on the streets where he grew up. He admitted he experienced the effects of this culture personally and felt an obligation to warn youth of its dangers. In my statement to the court I compared him to troubled white kids I knew growing up in Clintonville, Wisconsin.

Magic to My Soul by Ike Easley
On my first visit we had an intense four hour conversation about what had happened on the day of his lethal assault on Taylor and exchanged personal experiences and outlooks.  Ike had never admitted to the murder and his vivid description of the incident to me was one of the most emotionally draining experiences of my life.  Ike is extremely emotional and his pent up rage contributed to both murder charges.  He also displayed a sensitive, artistic side and questioned me about my own children and life.  I'll explain the "babysitter" in the title in a later blog.  We connected on a human level in the first and subsequent meetings.

My conversations with Ike were the beginnings of my realization that gang members, like all of us, have multiple conflicting identities. While Ike had killed he also loved and at most times lived a life of peace. In prison he had often functioned as a peacemaker, breaking up fights.  For abused children like Ike who have faced unjust, racist treatment throughout their life extreme events can trigger inner violence.  This is what happened at Pontiac in 1987 as Ike snapped.

The events surrounding the murder were much more complex than presented at the trial as a cold blooded gang-ordered “hit.”  Conditions at Pontiac were described by many observers as “out of control.” Gangs were at war within the prison and weapons and drugs were everywhere. The year after Ike’s conviction, 16 guards were indicted for drug trafficking at the prison, This confirmed Ike’s sober explanation to me of how prison corruption was related to the murder.

According to Ike, various persons and factions within the prison administration were maneuvering to get their share of drug profits by allying with the Vice Lords and El Rukns against the Black Gangster Disciples. One of Ike’s best friends, Billy Jones or “Zodiac” was killed by guards and Ike and others believed his killing was part of a power play by guards and their new gang allies to seize control of the drug trade.  The guards claimed Zodiac swallowed a bag of cocaine and “accidentally” died but Ike told me he saw the assault on his best friend and became enraged.  Soon after Zodiac’s death Ike entered Taylor’s office with a “shank” and stabbed him to death. Tragically, there is no evidence Taylor was corrupt but only an available target for Ike’s out of control rage. 

While Ike’s history of abuse may be mitigating, his crime is surely deplorable. It is easy to see why any prosecutor or jury would be outraged. “Outrage” also isn’t a bad word to describe his trial as well.  In the next blog let me describe Ike’s trial in Joliet IL which to me is symbolically adjacent to Salem, MA.

Wolfgang, Martin E. 1957. "Victim Precipitated Criminal Homicide." The Journal of Criminal Law, Criminology, and  Police Science 48(1):1-11.