The prospect of spending possibly 85 years in prison is a frightening thing! Just ask Mobile County License Commissioner Kim Hastie. Well known by now is the 16-count grand jury indictment handed down to her last week. A federal grand jury found Hastie and her deputy, Ramona Yeager, complicit in engaging in wire fraud, extortion and conspiracy. Almost immediately, supporters of Hastie came out en masse via TV and social media on her behalf, vociferously defending her integrity and sincerity. But her guilt or innocence will be determined at a later time by a jury of her peers.
Throughout 2014, Alabama has seen several notable and sensational grand jury indictments. In October, Mike Hubbard, the speaker of the house and arguably one of the most politically powerful people in Alabama today, was indicted by a Lee County grand jury on 23 counts of public corruption. As in Kim Hastie’s case, many have spoken out in support of the embattled legislator, and accusations of political malfeasance and machinations have been tossed about as the driving force in securing the indictment against Hubbard. The veracity of these conjectures remain to be seen.
Earlier in the year, two other legislators, State Reps. Greg Wren and Barry Moore — allies of Hubbard — were indicted on charges stemming from the same investigation. Rep. Wren pled guilty to his charge, and Rep. Moore was found not guilty Oct. 30 of all four counts levied against him.
Even the great state of Texas made headlines with the indictment of Republican Gov. Rick Perry. Perry was indicted by a Travis County grand jury for abuse of power in regards to his role in attempting to force Travis County District Attorney, Rosemary Lehmberg, to resign after her DUI arrest, which led to a guilty plea.
However, the indictment of Perry has been seen as so blatantly politically motivated and such a naked misuse of the legal system, even many Democrats are crying foul. The oft-repeated phrase, “a prosecutor can indict a ham sandwich if he or she wants to” can often seem to many as a truism.
I point out these high-profile indictments to stress the fact that grand jury indictments are handed down all the time. Both deservedly and in the most frivolous of circumstances. It is the latter which makes the situation in Ferguson, Missouri so egregious.
St. Louis County prosecuting attorney, Bob McCulloch, in delivering the grand jury verdict, gave a verbose and rambling justification of the decision not to indict police officer Darren Wilson for the shooting death of unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown. Concomitantly, he disparaged and castigated witnesses and testimony that implied Wilson’s actions were somehow questionable or led to Brown’s death being unjustifiable. Cursorily, he also proclaimed that any further investigative action against the officer should not be attempted.
Later, as I watched parts of Ferguson burn and rioters inflict massive destruction on live TV, I could not help but think how much of politics, and effective leadership in general, involves the use of good old common sense.
In a town as racially divided as Ferguson, with a police department that has often been seen, with good measure, of being exploitative and heavy-handed with the black population, and a prosecuting attorney who has had a history of skewing investigations of police brutality in favor of local law enforcement, someone should have had the wherewithal to say: let’s at least allow this situation to go to trial, if for no other purpose than to give the appearance of a fair process.
As we know, grand jury indictments are handed down in circumstances far less consequential, and we are content with allowing the legal process to play itself out in cases, be they trivial or not, through a jury trial. It stands to reason that someone in the state of Missouri, in St. Louis County, or in the city of Ferguson should have understood how the absence of an indictment would have been viewed by the majority of black residents in Ferguson.
This is not to condone the violence. It was counterproductive, misguided, and just plain wrong. But, such a reaction can be understood when placed in the context of the racially polarized situation and the fact that you had a faction of residents who already believed the justice system would not work in their favor, or would not act justly on their behalf. In their eyes, the lack of an indictment was proof or vindication of their faithlessness in the system.
To many protestors, the “Hands Up Don’t Shoot” chant is less a statement about the elevation or esteeming of Michael Brown, but more about the condemnation of a legal system they feel runs roughshod over the voiceless in Ferguson, and in minority communities across the country. Like the “I Can’t Breathe” protests over the chokehold death of black New York City resident Eric Garner by a NYPD police officer, these movements are not about making heroes or martyrs of the victims, but about speaking to systemic injustices that permeate certain communities.
When people feel voiceless, sometimes it’s good to let them know they are being heard. Political leaders in Missouri, in St. Louis County, and in the city of Ferguson had the opportunity to do that by allowing the shooting of Michael Brown to at least be examined by a jury trial. As with the George Zimmerman case, even if the residents had not gotten the verdict they hoped for, it could have been received without incident, as was the case upon Zimmerman’s acquittal.
Well did Albert Einstein say, “Peace cannot be kept by force, it can only be achieved by understanding.” We have got to learn to listen to and understand each other better.