A Black Prosecutor’s Struggle for Equity
By Laura Coates
THE RAGE OF INNOCENCE
How America Criminalizes Black Youth
By Kristin Henning
Trial legal professionals are storytellers — they usually particularly love telling tales about themselves and their courtroom exploits. The everyday (or no less than stereotypical) teller of such a narrative is a grizzled white man in a rumpled, ill-fitting go well with, and the everyday story entails his triumph at trial earlier than a rapt jury. The purpose of those tales, in addition to entertaining the listener, is to exhibit what a tremendous lawyer the storyteller is: a superb strategist, expert interrogator or eloquent advocate.
Laura Coates, an legal professional turned CNN senior authorized analyst, is a proficient storyteller. Her new guide, “Simply Pursuit,” is a compelling assortment of participating, well-written, keenly noticed vignettes from her years as a lawyer with the U.S. Division of Justice. However Coates’s tales, as an alternative of attempting to aggrandize her as an legal professional, have a distinct and extra profound function: They illustrate the injustices of our felony justice system, exploring the ambivalence and even guilt that Coates felt as a Black feminine federal prosecutor working inside — and for — that system.
After acquiring levels from Princeton and the College of Minnesota Legislation College and dealing in personal observe, Coates joined the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Division. She took pleasure within the division’s mission however grew annoyed with the paperwork and political interference she encountered in lots of voting-rights instances. Looking for to attempt instances as an alternative of push paperwork, she moved throughout the division to grow to be a federal prosecutor in Washington, D.C. — and rapidly confronted a bunch of ethical quandaries.
“The pursuit of justice creates injustice,” Coates writes in her opening sentence. “Earlier than I turned a prosecutor, I by no means imagined that may very well be true. I believed that the job can be an uncomplicated act of patriotism and that justice was what occurred when an individual was pretty tried and convicted for his or her crime.” Because the tales of “Simply Pursuit” clarify, this perception turned out to be woefully naïve.
The opening episode powerfully illustrates how the pursuit of justice can create injustice. Whereas prosecuting a automobile theft, Coates ran an ordinary background test on the sufferer and found that Manuel, the middle-aged Latino man whose automobile was stolen, was an undocumented immigrant. He had come to the USA some twenty years earlier, when he was 16 — and there was a warrant out for his fast deportation.
Can she merely ignore this reality, pretending she by no means noticed it? Or should she report Manuel to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, as her job requires, understanding it should certainly result in his deportation? Can she report him to ICE however give him a heads-up about it? She struggles along with her choice — and to today wonders whether or not she did the fitting factor.
One other gripping story additionally entails the theft of a automobile, this one stolen from an older Black lady. Though the case came about a number of years in the past, the ever-observant Coates describes the sufferer vividly: “She laughed like a girl accustomed to holding courtroom. She resembled an aged jazz singer, nonetheless bodily in her prime. Her hair was completely coifed in a silver bob. Refined freckles adorned her face, and she or he spoke via plum lips accentuated by a peaked Cupid’s bow.”
When the girl learns that the defendant is a 20-year-old Black man, she tells Coates she plans to attend his sentencing in individual. However as an alternative of taking the stand and describing how the crime harmed her, she surprises Coates — and the courtroom — by urging the choose to point out lenience, imploring him to not ship the defendant to jail.
“Your Honor, don’t make an instance out of him for my sake,” she testifies. “He’s a toddler. He made a mistake. White youngsters get to joy-ride. However this Black boy’s chained on the opposite aspect of a desk and also you’re asking me to assist hold him that manner.” She goes on, “I do know what this so-called justice system does when it will get its claws into Black boys,” including, “I would like no a part of that.”
What the justice system does to Black girls and boys is the topic of “The Rage of Innocence,” by Kristin Henning. Like Coates, Henning is a Black lawyer with a glittering résumé, together with levels from Duke College and Yale Legislation College and an endowed chair at Georgetown, the place she each teaches and oversees the juvenile justice clinic. Earlier than changing into a professor at Georgetown, she helped manage and led the juvenile unit for the Public Defender Service of the District of Columbia — a principal antagonist of the U.S. legal professional’s workplace the place Coates as soon as labored.
For the previous 25 years, Henning has defended minors accused of crimes in Washington, nearly all of them Black. This expertise as a protection lawyer and youngsters’s advocate informs her guide, a wealthy mixture of tales about her purchasers, copious information about juvenile justice and painstaking analysis into high-profile instances like these of Emmett Until, the Central Park 5, Trayvon Martin and Tamir Rice.
“The Rage of Innocence” is paying homage to Michelle Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow” (2010) and James Forman Jr.’s “Locking Up Our Own” (2017), to which Henning acknowledges mental money owed. However as a result of “our nation’s obsession with policing and incarcerating Black America begins with Black youngsters,” she explains, “the policing of Black adolescence requires a particular telling.”
“We stay in a society that’s uniquely afraid of Black youngsters,” Henning writes. “People grow to be anxious — if not outright terrified — on the sight of a Black youngster ringing the doorbell, using in a automobile with white girls or strolling too shut in a comfort retailer. People consider Black youngsters as predatory, sexually deviant and immoral. … There’s something notably environment friendly about treating Black youngsters like criminals in adolescence. Black youth are dehumanized, exploited and even killed to determine the boundaries of Whiteness earlier than they attain maturity and assert their rights and independence.”
Henning makes her case by taking a look at every part from rap music to metropolis ordinances banning “saggy pants” to sexual stereotypes about Black youngsters. The result’s a guide that’s complete and convincing, exhaustive and exhausting — sometimes repetitive, and generally slowed down in a flurry of details. However these quibbles apart, “The Rage of Innocence” is a critical and considerate guide a couple of topic of nice significance, and it deserves to be extensively learn.
In her final chapter, Henning presents suggestions for easy methods to tackle the issues she has recognized. These embrace lowering the variety of cops and growing the variety of mental-health staff in colleges; requiring lawmakers to research whether or not a invoice will disproportionately have an effect on Black youth by offering a “racial affect assertion” for proposed laws; and eliminating or cabining the judicial doctrine of certified immunity, which traditionally has shielded many cops from legal responsibility for the results of their misconduct.
And like Laura Coates, Kristin Henning believes within the redemptive energy of storytelling. It’s storytelling that may make individuals perceive the racial inequities of the authorized system, and it’s storytelling that may restore the humanity this method has cruelly stripped from its victims. Henning’s ultimate piece of recommendation for easy methods to shield and honor the Black youngsters who’re so usually harmed by our justice system, of a chunk with “Say their names,” is straightforward: “Inform their tales.” She ends her guide with a promise: “I’ll hold telling them till there are not any extra tales like this to inform.”