Columns » John Brummett

Race is hard, but justice should not be


1 comment

There is ripe and racially explosive criticism readily available for what I am about to write.

 It is that I wade into the extreme and embedded racial polarization in eastern Arkansas, and to the ensuing breakdown in certain areas of the Delta in dispensing criminal justice, only because the matter is related to the brutal death in a prominent Little Rock neighborhood of a young blonde white woman who worked on the air in local television.

It is true. Today's subject got on my radar only because the convicted rapist and killer of Anne Pressly did not get convicted last week in Marianna, his home, of raping another white woman. 

This other accuser of Curtis Lavelle Vance had come to depressed Marianna as part of the Teach for America program. That is a program by which some of our brightest young college graduates go into chronically underperforming classrooms to try to lift the educational opportunities of children trapped in cycles of poverty,

Vance's DNA was found in semen on the victim's robe and swabbed in her rape kit. 

Vance's lawyer did not dispute this scientific evidence, because he could not. He argued only that it had not been sufficiently explained to the jury.

Otherwise, Vance seemed to carry the day for his own defense by telling the jury directly that the only reason he ever admitted to Little Rock police that he was in the victim's house — an irrelevant element that the prosecution ignored because of the conclusiveness of DNA — was that he was frightened by the police and mobs.

He apparently made a connection. There was a hung jury, 7-to-5 for acquittal. Seven of the jurors were black and five were white. 

The victim has decided not to endure another trial.

It turns out, I am told reliably, that juries in Lee and Phillips Counties, poor and majority African-American, have a pattern of getting intractably divided along apparent racial divides when blacks are on trial, and not only when the victims are white.

Fletcher Long of Forrest City, the veteran prosecuting attorney in the region, told me that he advised this victim that, while he would try to get justice for her, probably the best they could hope for would be a hung jury.

He told me he once had a similar case, a black-on-white rape with DNA evidence that made the odds against the defendant's innocence 2 trillion-to one — unless, that is, the defendant had an identical twin brother no one knew about. The jury was immovably divided along racial lines the first time and was immovably divided along racial lines in the retrial.

Long said this kind of racial polarization in jury trials is surely not unique to these two counties or to the Delta. But he acknowledged that he had no broader direct experience. 

It probably is not unique. It probably is more pronounced. The nation is becoming multi-racial. The Delta remains starkly black-white, in addition to deeply poor.

It was a biracial jury that convicted Vance in the Pressly case in Pulaski County. But that jury did resist the death penalty, perhaps because African-American jurors knew the historical context that a defendant is far more likely to get executed if he commits a capital crime against a white person than against a black person.

To understand and empathize with that kind of racial unfairness and resentment, at least to the extent that a white person can, and to regret all that has gone before and that tragically happens still. . .these are appropriate sensibilities. 

But they can never be allowed to extend to the point that we excuse an absolute breakdown in law and order.

"It's eating our society up if we don't deal with it," Long said.

All people, but black people in the Delta in this specific context, must be able and willing to accept plain and overwhelming evidence of criminal guilt. They must be willing in the vital interest of justice to punish appropriately the perpetrator, the menace to the community, no matter the skin color and in spite of understandably deep resentment and distrust brought on by long and sordid histories of racism as manifested most vividly by unfairness against blacks in the criminal justice system.

The social, economic and political challenges of race are far more complicated than that, of course. But, especially with genetic evidence, the criminal ones should not be.


Showing 1-1 of 1


Add a comment