Affinity bar organizations in the Twin Cities say the four former Minneapolis police officers charged in George Floyd’s death deserve a fair trial.
While nothing should interfere with that right, affinity bar leaders say they are raising their voices collectively to reiterate that those charged in the case are the ones on trial and not Floyd.
In a joint declaration titled, “Statement Against Criminalization of Black and Brown Victims,” the groups condemn the actions of some defense attorneys who have focused on Floyd’s past crimes and history of drug use in court documents seeking to have charges against their clients dismissed.
“The strategy of attempting to distract from law enforcement’s conduct by inciting prejudice and dehumanizing the victims of violence is racist,” the statement says. “Lawyers know better and must be better. And we should hold them to account when they do not. … It is clear that this strategy is intended to fuel racial prejudice in a case being watched across the country.”
The statement is from the Minnesota Association of Black Lawyers, the Minnesota Hispanic Bar Association, the Executive Committee of the Minnesota American Indian Bar Association and the Minnesota Asian Pacific American Bar Association.
Victims’ rights bill sought
The statement calls for the state legislators to enact a victims’ rights bill “focused on the rights of the victims of police brutality and violence.”
The bill should limit law enforcement’s use of victims’ medical, criminal and substance abuse histories “to justify police brutality and violence,” like rape shield laws that generally block admission and introduction of the sexual history of sexual violence victims, the organizations state.
“These tactics essentially change the dynamic of these cases to where it’s the victim becoming the criminal and the accused murderers becoming the victim,” said Richard Greiffenstein, president-elect of the Minnesota Hispanic Bar Association. “That obviously flips the case on its head and that’s not the way these cases should play out.”
In court documents, defense attorney Earl Gray, representing former officer Thomas Lane, stated that Floyd was “as the officers suspected, an addict. He was worse than that.” Elsewhere in documents, Gray described Floyd as a liar and referred to Floyd’s police contacts and convictions dating back 17 years. Gray did not respond to an email request for comment.
“The smearing of Mr. Floyd’s character is nothing more than racial stereotyping masquerading as historical and objective facts,” the affinity bar groups assert in their statement. “Since the birth of the eugenics movement in 1883, junk science theories have been used to propagate negative stereotypes that people of color are less intelligent, subhuman, and that Black men in particular, are prone to savagery and deserve to die or be killed with impunity. To promote this bias and rhetoric, in cases such as Mr. Floyd’s, some historical facts such as Mr. Floyd’s criminal history are offered to incite prejudice, distract from important decision-making, and bias the ultimate decision-makers.”
‘Sadly foreseeable’ maneuvers
Such tactics against Floyd were “sadly foreseeable,” Greiffenstein said.
“That’s spread by the media to households across the country who are undoubtedly swayed by these arguments that somehow the victim’s criminal history or medical history or substance abuse history should dictate how they’re treated by law enforcement,” Greiffenstein said.
Frank Aba-Onu, president of the Minnesota Association of Black Lawyers, said Floyd’s case is a tipping point for seeking change in the way the court system prosecutes police. That some defense attorneys turned the focus on Floyd was more “here we go again,” Aba-Onu said, than a surprise.
“When you bring in the victim’s conduct that quite frankly has nothing to do with that incident, that really goes to the heart of what we see as far as the systematic racial issues that are permeating our systems,” Aba-Onu said. “We’ve just seen too much of it. And especially with this instance where there was so much of a national storm about what happened, we thought this would be a perfect instance to show what effect this has on Black and Brown folks and how it needs to stop. That was something we thought that our affinity bars would want to be involved in because it’s a path forward from where we started back in May.”
Aba-Onu disagrees with those who might say that attorneys have to do what they can for their clients and those who would say that people see through such defense tactics.
‘No one deserves what happened to Floyd’
“A lot of people don’t see through it and use that as their judgment of why this person ‘deserved’ what happened to them,” Aba-Onu said. “No one deserves to have what happened to Mr. Floyd happen to them. But [the defense] bring[s] this up to say they’re a ‘bad apple.’
“To me, that is wrong in and of itself but so is the re-victimization of the individual, the family, and the community. It perpetuates to the Black and Brown community that this is what you think of us,” he said. “There so much harm that comes from that, even if you take away the biggest part, which is the actual criminal justice system and the trial itself.”
In saying that the Minnesota American Indian Bar Association (MAIBA) stands with other affinity bars, vice president Arielle Wagner pointed to a statement the group issued days after Floyd’s death, which called for prosecution to the fullest extent of officers who uses “brutal and criminal actions in the line of duty.”
“African Americans and Native Americans suffer the highest rates of police brutality in the United States and live in fear of death and violence at the hands of law enforcement, the MAIBA statement said. “Our communities are subject to use of excessive force and homicidal measures by police officers, often without repercussions.”
Minnesota Asian Pacific American Bar Association president Vincent Pham said the organization is “standing in solidarity” with its counterparts to advance diversity, inclusion, anti-racism and equity. While affinity bar associations often collaborate on professional issues, the defense comments about Floyd spurred groups to speak out publicly.
“We’re finding that our affinity bar organizations are coming to the forefront more as far as having a voice,” Pham said. “I think we’re finding that we may need more of a voice this year more than ever.”
After the widespread calls for racial justice and social unrest following Floyd’s death, the defense comments, “didn’t sit right with how we’re all viewing the world differently in 2020,” Pham said.
“When you think about what is the reason that someone would put that in there, it seems like it’s supporting some biases, racial biases there,” Pham said. “To me it seems like it shouldn’t have a place in a court filing that should be focused on the law and what’s important. How do we advance justice here? Those types of statements don’t seem to do that. It feels like it undermines the integrity of the justice system.”
They also compound families’ woes, Greiffenstein said.
“These families that are mourning the loss of their loved ones aren’t just mourning; they’re also having to essentially reclaim and restore the reputations of their loved ones, which are now being dragged through the mud,” Greiffenstein said. “The impact of these tactics, of this strategy is wide, hitting well beyond the four walls of the courtroom.”
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