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U.S. Justice System Fails Blacks

Professor: Legal system fails to protect rights of blacks
By RAFAEL A. OLMEDA, Sun-Sentinel Home Page
Web-posted: 10:54 p.m. Feb. 17, 2001
   A white man accused of killing two young black men in a bizarre drunken driving accident was allowed to drink again to prove he really wasn't drunk.
   A 12-year-old black child killed his playmate, and the justice system treated him as if he were an adult.
   In each case, the black community responded with surprise and disbelief.
   They shouldn't, said Howard University Professor Michelle Jacobs, one of the speakers at a forum on "Law and Race" organized for Black History Month at the Broward County Main Library in Fort Lauderdale on Saturday.
   "You should not be surprised at any criminal justice decision that tramples on the rights of black people," she said. "The American legal system does not respect our legal existence, period."
   Jacobs was joined by U.S. Rep. Alcee Hastings (D-Miramar), Harvard Law School Professor Charles Ogletree and Fort Lauderdale lawyer W. George Allen on the panel, which was organized by the African-American Research Library and Cultural Center.
   The wide-ranging discussion touched on a number of topics, including the recent murder conviction of Lionel Tate, now 14, and the upcoming trial of former FBI Agent David Farrall, accused of killing two men after driving the wrong way down Interstate 95 in 1999. Other topics included Attorney General John Ashcroft, reparations for the descendants of slaves, affirmative action and Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.
   As a political opponent of Ashcroft, Hastings said his appointment to lead the Department of Justice will increase activism in the black community.
   "I rather enjoy the fact that he's there, because it makes us work harder," he said.
   Another speaker, local Assistant U.S. Attorney Terry Brown, agreed with Hastings, though from a different perspective.
   "I have got to be more diligent than ever to ensure that everything I'm doing is in the interest of justice," he said. Earlier, Brown quipped that as an African-American prosecutor he is now in a position to "police the police," making sure the rights of all suspects, including black suspects, are respected.
   The other topics touch on longstanding issues that seem simple but are really more complex, said Ogletree. Speakers derided the idea that the U.S. Constitution and justice system are "color-blind."
   "To be blind to race, especially in the context of the criminal justice system, is to be blind to injustice," said Ogletree, who represented Anita Hill in Thomas' confirmation hearings in 1991.
   Each topic seemed to bring an admonition from Jacobs to the audience of 120 community members.
   "You have to turn off your VCRs and talk to your kids," she said. "We have to educate ourselves on the law. You can't trust the criminal justice system because that's a machine that's on a roll and it will crush you."
   Rafael Olmeda can be reached at or 954-356-4207.

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