Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Jumping in

I've been thinking through some things the last few days related to this discussion and the pursuit of justice for victims of unrepentant vigilantism during Hurricane Katrina.

After I suggested that some instances of abuse of power might be more easily prosecutable than others and wondered aloud whether or not some sort of truth commission deal might be appropriate for some of the cases, an anonymous commenter points out:

So the family of Emmett Everett, the black man killed by Doctors at Memorial hospital, only deserves an apology while the white cop who torched a black man deserves prison? The family of the black woman who died at the convention center because homeland security blocked ambulances deserves an apology while the police at Danzinger deserve jail?

This is moral relativism at its worse. If you killed someone under the color of law or in an official capacity as a medical care provider, you should pay the price.

We developed the Nurenberg acccords and International Court precisely to prevent people from using "special circumstances" as an excuse for murderous behavior.
Every human has an individual conscience and the history of human progress our of the ranks of primitive primates has been to get them to use it when mob mentality takes hold.

All true.

But earlier in the thread, the same (I think) Anonymous commenter points out:

Trust me, if these ever go to jury no white juror is going to hold the white defendants accountable. In their minds, blacks went wild and they share a collective guilt for the actions of a few, so the innocent ones deserve no sympathy.

So I guess I'm still not sure exactly what it is you do here.

If we have a moral standard for what justice should be in this case - i.e. appropriate criminal penalties for those that committed crimes during Katrina - but no practical means of enforcing the standard, how do you move forward?

Anon is right both about the plank you walk off when discussing moral relativism and about the low likelihood that a local jury would ever convict a DHS bureaucrat that blocked ambulances from the Convention Center or the Doctors at Memorial.

That's why I'm having a hard time resolving this.

Let's take the Memorial case.

I would applaud a criminal case being brought against Anna Pou. I think it is pretty damn clear that she killed Mr. Everett when he could have very easily made it through the evacuation.

But I highly doubt she'd be convicted. The trial would be highly polarizing, perhaps more so than the other cases, since I think people are naturally inclined to be sympathetic toward a medical professional and because of Ms. Pou's public exoneration tour.

So what kind of justice would be handed down from that kind of circus?

I'm curious to engage in a frank discussion about this. I'm pretty sure that the vast majority of my readers are in agreement that these cases should be pursued. But I wonder to what extent impediments to justice exist and whether those impediments limit the ability of our traditional system to actually deliver. Are there practicalities to consider?


Moving sideways...

I'm at least comforted by the knowledge the Eric Holder is the Attorney General of the United States. The administration is serious about empowering the Civil Rights Division to do what it is supposed to do. It's not a coincidence that the feds are now actively investigating some of these post Katrina horror stories to see what they might be able to successfully prosecute.

I am hoping Holder will utilize the powers established under the Clinton administration for the Civil Rights Division to take over police departments characterized by rampant civil rights violations. Forces with a "pattern or practice" of civil rights abuse can be effectively taken over using consent decrees. Cities are threatened with civil rights lawsuits unless they agree to a federal police monitor to implement sweeping reforms. Holder came to oversee the Civil Rights Division as Deputy Attorney General just as it began pursuing consent decrees against police departments in Pittsburgh and Los Angeles.

New Orleans was once a candidate for a consent decree from the Department of Justice. This outside pressure played a role in Marc Morial's decision to hire Richard Pennington, who presided over a pretty damn successful reform of the NOPD. Some background here.

This is something that people should pressure our Mayoral candidates about. Would they sign a consent decree to bring in federal oversight of the NOPD or not and why?


Duff said...

It's situations like this where prosecutorial discretion enters into the equation. With cases like Pou's (and Ewing Cook, who bears even more culpability if the NYT article is to be believed), this is where the DA offers manslaughter, a modest sentence, and the forfeiture of the medical licence. Sure, Pou *may* be acquitted in a Orleans Parish jury trial, but then, there are just as many signs that she wouldn't be. As a ADA, you put up the case that this rich white doctor was the judge, jury, and executioner of disabled black folks who were put in her care..well, it could go either way.

The Danziger case poses more problems for the local DA, because they have to still work with the NOPD tomorrow. This kind of thing is better kicked over to the Feds who have sufficient resources that they don't *need* the NOPD. Again, prosecutorial discretion in offering a modest plea arrangement that makes everybody lose just a little bit less.

The key, I think, is that there's no such thing as a win-win, and that every outcome will's just a matter of how much it sucks, and for how many people.

However, to anon's ultimate point, there's no purpose in having laws if we get to throw them out when times get tough. To get to its most basic, that's the reason you have it all written down before the shit hits the you don't have people making it up as they go when they're in crisis mode.

jeffrey said...

I think the Memorial case should be prosecuted. Like the last time legal action was threatened, the controversy brought all the society biases out into the open. I'd love to continue having a discussion about how the plutocracy rallies around its own murderers.

mominem said...

In almost all of these cases what actually happened is far from clear. Often different people have radically different versions of events, and there are lots of rumors from "reliable" sources who have only second or third hand information. Some things no one apparently knows what happened.

The only entity with the resources and credibility to thoroughly investigate these conflicting claims is the Federal Government,

Local government doesn't have the resources or the credibility to do it.

In the end I doubt much will be resolved. There's just too confusion and conflict to reach a legal conclusion. Writers on the other hand can cherry pick information to make whatever case they want.

Tha doesn't mean that the FBI shouldn't be investigating all of this as throughly as possible.

E said...

Duff says

"It's situations like this where prosecutorial discretion enters into the equation."

But hasn't this been a big part of the problem. Neither DA Leon Cannizzaro nor fmr DA Eddie Jordan had the courage, political cover, and/or competence to pursue cases in virtually any of the instances we've been talking about.

The situation begs for the Feds but how far can they go? Given the decision not to pursue Bush era violations of the constitution/intl law when it comes to torture, etc., it's kind of hard to imagine a well-funded effort to seek justice here.

Here's a question. Is it just about the major public cases? If there are prosecutions in the Memorial, Danzinger Bridge, + Algiers Point murders but no exploration of other cases, no investigations into the bureaucratic meltdowns that lead directly to the deaths of our neighbors... what then? What kind of justice would that be?

G Bitch said...

A Truth and Reconciliation Commission would be a place to start.

E said...

I floated that last week as a way of pursuing incidents that may not necessarily result in convictions and I felt like folks pushed back on that a little bit.

GB, do you think that could be administered at the municipal level or only by the justice department or congress?

Anonymous said...

We need both: truth and reconciliation and agressive enforcement of the law. The feds have no problem prosecuting black folks who bilked FEMA. There's no "disaster exemption" for them. We wont get any convictions, but the truth will come out.

In the interim, white progressive have a moral imperative to tell the truth about the racism of the rescue and recovery. It is precisely this ceaseless campaign for the truth and justice that will bring justice. It took forty years to bring the Medgar Ever's killer to justice--that was because we never forgot Medgar. We can never let local whites forget Emmett Everett and Lance Madison. Someday, a generation from now, they will have justice but only if we prepare this younger generation to accept the truth as they did in Mississippi.

E said...

"We need both: truth and reconciliation and agressive enforcement of the law. The feds have no problem prosecuting black folks who bilked FEMA. There's no "disaster exemption" for them. We wont get any convictions, but the truth will come out."

This is kind of what I've had in mind all along. In cases where there is enough to prosecute, you prosecute. But more generally, I think there ought to be a "safe place" where there is a thorough investigation of how we treated each other during the storm even if it doesn't ultimately result in criminal penalties up and down the board.