Columns

Is this America?

Held for 10 years in a jail cell without a trial

Bernard Simelton

Sunday, September 17, 2017



“In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed...” — US Constitution 1789 (rev 1992)

Unlike either the First Amendment that protects our right to free speech, or the Second Amendment, which protects the right to bear arms, the Sixth Amendment rarely if ever garners the national spotlight relative to its value to people of colour or our democracy.

While our Constitution guarantees the right to a “speedy and public trial”, Kharon Torchee Davis has been imprisoned in Dothan, Alabama, and is yet to experience neither a trial nor an opportunity for bail. Tears building in her eyes, his mother Chrycynthia Davis asks unabashedly “Is this America?”

Her tears are more normal than rare in parts of the south, where local law and customs built on centuries of racism and the clandestine yet invisible chains used by racists to undermine the equal application of law.

America, with over two million people locked up in a variety of ways, remains the world's leading prison nation. On any given day, nearly half a million are being held in limbo — in pre-trial detention where they are neither guilty or innocent, simply held without a trial due to court inefficiencies, inability to pay bail, or times as a strategy to affect their eventual trial.

Of those two million people locked up, nearly three-fourths are held in state and local jails, and 60 per cent have not been convicted of anything. How the world's greatest democracy exists as the world's greatest prison nation remains an enigma wrapped within a quandary. According to a story in the New York Times, “In each year, city and county jails across the country admit between 11 million and 13 million.”

The supporters of Kharon Davis are hopeful that after a decade of being incarcerated without a trial, he'll finally receive a fair trial sometime in mid-September. Accused of capital murder — a crime which he vehemently claims innocence — Davis, like many individuals held for years without a trial, waits for the simple opportunity to exercise the rights guaranteed him by America's constitution.

For 23 hours a day he is held in solitary confinement at the Houston County Jail in Dothan, Alabama. His own mother has been banned from visiting him. Not a day passes by where he is not mentally tortured and forced to live in conditions that are unthinkably horrific. The intimidation tactics go as far as this: Davis was reportedly forced to move to the cell where Martez Dozier was hanged on Halloween 2015 — the placement happened just one day after Dozier's death.

After the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) intervened and tried to facilitate a meeting between him and his mother, Davis was said to have been punished and told that the NAACP did not run the jail. Prosecutors want him to succumb to a plea bargain; therefore, the system has seemingly turned a blind eye to the cruelty and terrorisation he is forced to endure.

Conflicts of interest from both the arresting officer and Davis's former attorney, coupled with failed attempts to gather evidence, are cited as reasons Davis's chances at a fair trial have been stalled for so long. However, many people will know that this is not the first accusation against the Dothan Police Department and the Houston County criminal justice system for their disregard of human and civil rights. It is widely known in the area, both by victims and by the officials themselves that the constitution seemingly does not apply in Dothan.

Studies consistently find that African American and Hispanic defendants are more than twice as likely to be detained in jail pending trial. In fact, African American defendants are 66 per cent more likely to be detained before trial and Latino defendants are 91 per cent more likely to be detained before a trial, in comparison to white defendants. Research indicates that pre-trial detention significantly increases the likelihood that a defendant will be found guilty when tried and sentenced for longer periods of time.

Davis's case has stark similarities with that of Kalief Browder, whose tragic story played out on the small screen in the six-part documentary TIME: The Kalief Browder Story. Browder, who was imprisoned at the age of 16 for stealing a book bag, spent three years on Riker's Island — one of the most violent prisons in the country — before being released when his case was eventually thrown out. Riker's Island itself has 7,500 people detained at the prison, 80 per cent of whom have not been found guilty or innocent of the charges they face.

Browder spent 800 days in solitary confinement and was reportedly often urged by the prison guards to commit suicide. In June 2015, two years after his release from jail, Browder hung himself with an air-conditioning cord.

Jay Z, collaborator and co-producer of the documentary, referred to Browder as “a modern-day poet; his story a failure of the judicial process”.

This August, we witnessed yet another on-screen adaptation of our broken criminal justice system in the feature length movie, Crown Heights. The film tells the story of Trinidadian immigrant, Colin Warner, who served 21 years in jail (four of which were in solitary confinement) for the murder of a teenage boy — a person he'd never even met. Sentenced to a maximum-security prison for a minimum of 15 years, together he and his childhood friend studied the law and made several failed attempts to appeal the case until they finally succeed in exonerating Warner.

But must it take the showmanship of Hollywood to draw attention to the defunct legal system that is decimating the futures of our black and brown communities? How many more on-screen adaptations will it take for us to say enough is enough? We can no longer wait for our men of colour to turn into hashtags or movies before we start to speak up. Neither can we depend on President Donald Trump nor US Attorney General Jeff Sessions to help clean up the judicial system. Despite Dothan being in Sessions own backyard, it appears he is more concerned with eliminating consent decrees, ignoring voter suppression, or providing military weaponry to police and pulling back on civil rights protections than to address the failures of the system.

The good ole' boy system currently keeps many corrupt whites out of the system, even if they are found guilty of a crime. Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Maricopa County, Arizona, was convicted of a crime and sentenced to serve six months in jail, only to be pardoned by President Trump for his crime. Kharon Davis was never convicted and hasn't even had a trial, but already has served 10 years behind bars. Where is the justice in America?

The NAACP is not here to determine guilt or innocence, but is committed to ensuring that Kharon Davis receives a fair trial by a jury of his peers. This case is merely the tip of the iceberg of injustices that disproportionately impact people of colour in Alabama and the nation. We say stay woke, pay attention, and take action.

Benard Simelton is the president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People's Alabama State Conference.

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