How far we’ve come

Reading an appellate opinion from 100ish years ago can really put things into perspective – we are fighting today to make the criminal justice system fair, to stop wrongful convictions, to have an even playing field between prosecution and defense.  We complain about a prosecutor who makes an off-color comment during trial, who abuses the subpoena power, who makes a judge dismiss a case that the prosecutor should have dismissed themselves.

We are still fighting for justice for all – yes, a wrongful conviction, a person who loses decades of their life or even who is executed because a prosecutor did not turn over exculpatory evidence is unconscionable, but it was not so long ago that, in addition to our 2014 problems, lawyers were fighting against the unapologetic denial of civil rights to an entire race.  Not so long before that, our United States Supreme Court held in a published opinion that African Americans, whether slave or free, could not be United States citizens and therefore had no standing to sue in federal court, an opinion which officially sanctioned slavery and which is seen as a catalyst leading to the civil war.

If you are in the trenches fighting for your clients and feel like you are beating your head against the wall, take a moment and read State v. Edwards, a “run of the mill” S.C. Supreme Court case from 1923.  Edwards, a black man and former soldier, was convicted of robbing a white woman in downtown Greenville.  At the trial, the testimony showed that the alleged victim, Mrs. Jones, had described her assailant as a “brown skin negro,” and yet the defendant was a “coal black negro.”  The prosecutor argued to the jury that he could have stained his face for the trial.  During deliberations the jury asked the court to have Edwards wash his face in front of them, which he did.  There was no change in his skin color, but they convicted him anyway:

A most peculiar incident occurred during the trial. It developed in the testimony that Mrs. Jones had described the negro as being a brown skin negro. The defendant was a coal black negro, and the question of his color was a sharp issue during the trial. After the jury had deliberated on the case for a considerable time, they returned to the courtroom and asked if there was any objection to having the defendant’s face washed; it having been contended during argument by the solicitor that his face could have been stained. Hot water and washing powder was produced, and in the presence of the court and jury, in open court, the defendant vigorously scrubbed his face for several minutes without the slightest variation in his color. The jury returned to their room, and thereafter brought out a verdict of guilty, and the defendant was sentenced to 15 years imprisonment.”

The S.C. Supreme Court granted the appeal for re-sentencing only, because the trial judge had sentenced Edwards to 15 years when the maximum sentence was 10 years.

We still have institutionalized racism at every stage of the criminal justice system.  The fight continues.  Looking back at State v. Edwards, and the Dred Scott decision, reminds us why we fight, and how far we’ve come.

2 Responses to “How far we’ve come

  • H my case got dropped after I sat in Charleston county jail for 11 and a half mouths .I am the owner of my hand gun and had it in a gun case with trigger lock and a number lock on the case the cops ripped my case open and charge me with unlawful carrying of hand gun .I wrote to have my gun return to me they ask for all kinds of paper work which I went there 3 times giving them every thing and the papers saying that I was the legal owner . now the Chief told them to hold my had gun because I got a charge from 1995 which is a misdumener CDV I did 15days and I got my gun in 2012 sled check my back ground and gave me the right to own a gun how could he go over sled.And try to keep it I have no felonies. Are signed the gun rack how can I get it back

  • Gary Hunter
    5 years ago

    Are you still looking for corruption in police officers?

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