About More Than A Black Man's Guilt Or Innocence by Stacey Barney
On March 9th, 2002, an Atlanta jury consisting of nine Blacks, two Whites and one Hispanic found 58-year-old Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin, formerly H. Rap Brown, guilty of all 13 charges against him related to and including the March 2000 killing of Deputy Ricky Kinchen and wounding of Deputy Aldranon English. Five days later Al-Amin was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
It is an outcome that is, at best, bittersweet for Al-Amin's family and supporters. "The verdict was not what we wanted. But at least my brother is alive," said Ed Brown. "That gives [us] a chance to keep fighting for him. And we will fight...This is not the last they have seen of Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin."
While Ed Brown is thankful his brother will not face the death penalty, the verdict and sentencing is still problematic and difficult to accept for a number of reasons: To begin with, there is Al-Amin's stature as a hero of the Civil Rights Movement to consider - a former leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) - along with Al-Amin's longstanding role as a leader in the Muslim community.
Then there is the concern over negative publicity that may have labeled Al-Amin as guilty in jurors' minds well before the start of his trial - publicity that may have prompted the very rush to judgment over which Corretta Scott King has voiced concern. But chiefly, there is the weighty possibility that Al-Amin is, as he claims, innocent of all charges.
However, what really muddies the waters of perceived justice in this case is the fact that the police officer Al-Amin has been convicted of killing is not a White man, but a Black man. Not only that, but so is the Atlanta mayor, police chief, and district attorney, along with much of Atlanta's citizenry.
This fact - that many of the key players in this trial share Al-Amin's skin color - has not only been used as assurance that Al-Amin would receive a fair trial, but also used as evidence of how much progress African Americans have made now that Blacks in Atlanta control many of the former footholds of the White power establishment.
This trial then is certainly about more than one Black man's guilt or innocence. Believing in Al-Amin's guilt means believing the system works, believing the system cannot fail Black defendants when other Blacks are in positions of judicial authority, and believing that Blacks are equal participants in the American justice system.
But believing in Al-Amin's innocence means something else.
Believing Al-Amin is innocent means believing the system doesn't work, and doesn't work for Blacks under any circumstances. Believing in Al-Amin's innocence means believing that African Americans have perhaps made no real progress at all in the struggle against internalized racism and self-hatred.
These overarching implications of Al-Amin's possible innocence are distressing to say the least. These implications challenge African Americans to challenge their epistemological bearings.
These implications challenge Blacks to give Al-Amin the benefit of the doubt in the face of news media coverage that would call Al-Amin's claims of a conspiracy ridiculous, without asking the hearers of such claims to recall a time when the idea of a conspiracy was not so ridiculous at all. A reality that even Judge Stephanie Manis would ask Al-Amin's jury to deny.
When defense attorney Jack Martin raised the possibility that FBI agents could have planted the murder weapon at the arrest scene - a possibility reminiscent of the tactics used to fell The Black Panther Party - Judge Manis stopped him, asking what "card" he was trying to play? Apparently the race card.
And that estimation of how minute a role race plays or should play in the American justice system is troublesome. The destructiveness of race as a societal advent has not waned in the years since the end of the Civil Rights Movement. If anything the advent of race plays a much larger role in society, especially for African Americans. If this case isn't about race, then what is it about?
Notwithstanding the year and the perceived progress of African Americans, it is hard to deny that the reasons Al-Amin was convicted, despite the fact that Deputy Kinchen was a Black man as is most of the court who convicted him, seem very similar to the historical reasons Black men have always been convicted of crimes they very likely did not commit - the most disturbing being an inept legal defense.
Attorney Louis Clayton Jones, of The African Century, has called the case a travesty, pointing to Al-Amin's ineffective counsel as grounds for an immediate appeal: "In the closing argument, Rap's Negro lawyer baldly stated, without shame, that his client did not pull the trigger, but that he knew the identity of the perpetrator. There was nothing in the record to prompt so foul an admission by the lawyer for the defense in a capital case. In other words his client was either an accomplice to the murder or he was guilty of an obstruction of justice in a murder case. In the minds of the jury...the lawyer was sending a clear signal that his client was, at least, intimately involved in the murder of a Black police officer."
Moreover, also contributing to Al-Amin's conviction is the publicity the case received which served only to demonize Al-Amin as a common criminal. But fortunately, a stint in prison for assault and armed robbery, and one dropped charge of the attempted murder of a police officer does not suppose the history of shooting at cops that many news media outlets have reported.
Also, of all the quotes for the news media to use in efforts to characterize Al-Amin, "Violence is as American as apple pie," is the mantra that emerged. However, nowhere in the news coverage is this statement qualified with the benefit of the year in which it was said - 1967. Furthermore, what of the inherent truth of the statement? Does anyone else remember Columbine?
So given the mistakes made by Al-Amin's legal defense team, Judge Manis's denial of Al-Amin's lawyers to pursue all lines of possible defense, and the damage of unfair publicity before, during, and after the conviction, can the finding of Al-Amin as guilty be considered just? Does the fact that the principal players involved are Black say race relations have changed for the better as the balance of power has shifted? Is it a true estimation that Al-Amin could not have himself been a victim of racism simply because he was accused of killing another Black man, and nine members of the jury were Black? Hardly.
Attorney Jones asserts the findings in the Al-Amin case represent "the continued enslavement of the Atlanta Negro," wherein Blacks are working not in opposition, but in service to the very system that has not only enslaved Black peoples, but has also denied suffrage, instilled fear, and internalized hatred of self in the Black community. Is this really such a ridiculous possibility?
Well in the face of glaring questions that still need to be answered in the Al-Amin case, despite his conviction, the possibility does not seem so preposterous at all. He certainly wasn't convicted based on a provable motive; the prosecuting attorney provided none. Al-Amin certainly wasn't convicted based upon positive identification, when according to a pretrial defense motion a dying Deputy Kinchen asserted he shot his assailant. Al-Amin when captured a few days later was not injured.
Furthermore, Deputy English testified his assailant's eyes were gray. Al-Amin's eye color is dark brown.
Al-Amin certainly wasn't convicted because there was no other suspect to pursue. The night of the shooting, a trail of blood was found a block from the scene. Although police did receive reports of a wounded man trying to stop passing cars for a ride this same night, these reports were not pursued; and subsequent to Al-Amin being found with no bullet wounds, talk of a trail of blood and a mystery man seen flagging down cars subsided.
The fact that the questions of an absent motive and wound, along with a mysterious bleeding man seen fleeing the night of the shooting remain unanswered, coupled with the mistakes of Al-Amin's defense and publicity that assumed Al-Amin's guilt suggest if not the uncomfortable prospect of Al-Amin's innocence, then at the very least there is the suggestion that he did not receive a fair trial.
The questions surrounding Al-Amin's conviction then become not only why did he not receive a fair trial, but also what does a fair trial for a Black man look like?
The answer to why Al-Amin did not receive a fair trial certainly lies in the color of his skin. Whether or not Blacks are in a judicial position of authority, the system is still the system, and in the United States the criminal justice system operates in favor of White supremacy. This truth does not change when Blacks are in authority of that system, unless Blacks address this reality. Despite the progress African Americans have made, there is still a susceptibility to the paradigm of White supremacy upon which this country stands.
Given the character of experiences Black men have had with the American criminal justice system, this jury, this district attorney, and Al-Amin's own lawyers in the interest of true justice were duty-bound to ensure Al-Amin a fair trial given the role of race in American society. Defense attorneys should have been allowed the latitude to explore all lines of defense. It should have been demanded of the jury to consider the demonizing effects of unfair publicity before and during the trial. Jurors should have been directed to disregard damaging statements made by Al-Amin's own defense attorney in closing arguments. The prosecuting attorney should have been forced to prove his case: absent motive? absent wound? mysterious wounded, fleeing man?
What does a fair criminal trial look like for a Black man in this country? It looks like an honest engagement of the implications of race in American society. All men are created equal is not the experience of an overwhelming number of the population. In regards to an honest engagement of race as a factor in this case, the overarching implications of Al-Amin's innocence or guilt as a Black man needed to be discussed in open court. The race card certainly needed not only to be pulled, but also and absolutely examined in court.
And certainly, if in the court's final analysis Al-Amin is guilty, then the question of how culpable a society built on the premise of White supremacy is in this crime should have been asked and considered in regards to sentencing and how Al-Amin spends his time behind prison bars.
Ultimately, until Blacks involved in the American criminal justice system begin working against an historical legal censuring of African Americans, nothing can be considered changed. And whether or not Al-Amin is guilty or innocent, his trial certainly illuminates the fact that surely nothing has changed at all in regards to how Blacks are treated by the criminal justice system, and if this is not apparent to all those who took part in deciding this case, then perhaps Attorney Louis Clayton Jones is right -the African American is still very much an enslaved mind, if not an enslaved body.
Stacey Barney is an editorial page writer for BlackElectorate.com. Ms. Barney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Thursday, March 28, 2002