Home > Op Ed: Broken justice is no justice, Rep. Jake Wheatley

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State Rep. Jake Wheatley 
D-Allegheny 
www.pahouse.com/Wheatley

 


Broken justice is no justice 
The time to rebuild is now

Last week we were again reminded of how far our country still has to go to reach collective equality. After a pizza shop employee here in Pittsburgh viciously attacked and beat a black woman inside the store, he was found not guilty of assault charges.

The verdict, sadly, is not an isolated incident but part of a much larger problem that leaves so many citizens of color questioning why the criminal justice system has failed them.

For the woman assaulted at the pizza parlor, that failure came in the form of a verdict that was manifestly against the weight of the evidence: the jury saw a video of the assault – which was not provoked by any violence on the victim’s part – but nevertheless acquitted the assailant.

The case forces us to ask: Would the verdict have been different if the assailant had been black and the victim white? Was the verdict – the product of an all-white jury – tainted by racial bias? In the face of irrefutable video evidence, it’s hard to come up with an alternative conclusion to explain the result.

This verdict is but one example; the system repeatedly fails people of color in other ways. For some – like the family of Antwon Rose – the failure comes in the form of unjustified use of deadly force. The officer who shot and killed the unarmed, 17-year-old high school honors student was at least charged in his death. In some cases, law enforcement are never even held accountable.

And then there is the ever-present threat of wrongful prosecution. Studies show that although African-American citizens represent about 13 percent of the U.S. population, they represent the majority of innocent defendants wrongfully convicted of crimes.

Based on the data from exonerations, innocent African-American people are about seven times more likely to be convicted of murder than innocent white people. Moreover, the convictions that led to murder exonerations with African-American defendants were 22 percent more likely to include misconduct by police officers than those with white defendants.

Sadly, those exonerated are the exception; most wrongful convictions are never even discovered. The study concluded that many convictions of African-American murder exonerees were affected by a wide range of types of racial discrimination, from unconscious bias and institutional discrimination to explicit racism. (Citation:www.law.umich.edu/special/exoneration/Documents/Race_and_Wrongful_Convictions.pdf)

The sad truth is that racial bias continues to infect our system, and until it is rebuilt, there will be no justice.

That may be difficult for some to hear and accept, but I believe it to be true, and I feel it is my responsibility to use this forum to make sure it is said. Even now, in 2018, many refuse to face the reality that our country and its criminal justice system were built upon racist tenets, stemming from our history of enslavement.

I’m a lawmaker, a veteran, a father and a man. Yet I still live in a culture where I am constantly left to fend for myself because the same system that claims to safeguard me is inherently biased against me. The system leaves far too many men and women who look like me with very limited options. The flaws – if left unchecked – will only erode our collective strength as a community and a nation.  

Do we not all value equality, justice and freedom in this country? Do we not deserve to see our city, state and country continue to grow and not fall to division and hate? Then now, in this moment, we need you to stand with us to denounce these constant attacks on minorities in our communities. Enough is enough, and it is well past the time of pleasantries or good intentions. We are fed up with systematic attacks and deaths, and fed up with wrongful prosecution. We must demand that our system rebuild itself. 

                                                                  

Rep. Wheatley is Democratic chairman

                                                                   of the House Finance Committee.

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