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April 2, 2007 - Florida Times-Union (FL)

News Media Shine Its Light On Racial Injustice In Texas

By Tonyaa Weathersbee, The Times-Union

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

The story of how a Jacksonville lawyer helped free a Dallas man who had been condemned to life in prison for what essentially amounted to smoking a joint isn't just a tale of justice.

Strains of redemption run through it, as well.

Charlie Douglas, a personal injury attorney with Harrell & Harrell in Jacksonville, gave more weight to his conscience than his wallet when he took on the case of Tyrone Brown, who spent 17 years in prison after a judge used a positive marijuana test to turn an armed robbery conviction that netted $2 and no injuries into an excuse to confine him for life.

When Douglas took up Brown's cause, he helped redeem his profession from a reputation that unjustly tars all lawyers as being motivated by greed more than fairness; of spending more time pursuing million-dollar settlements from corporations than justice for people like Brown, many of whom spend much of their lives fighting mean streets rather than mean bosses.

What's more is that Douglas -- who last month persuaded Texas Gov. Rick Perry to grant Brown a conditional pardon -- was pumped up about Brown's case after seeing it on ABC's 20/20. A news story on a penniless black man, who lived five states away, provoked Douglas to get involved. Now that ought to redeem the purpose of journalism's traditional role.

That role, one that continues to be distorted by the drive for profits and the juggernaut of Internet influence, is to shine light in dark places -- in hopes that decent people like Douglas will see it.

And, when it comes to unjust sentences and punishments that reek of racial bias, there is no shortage of dark places in Texas.

Nearly a decade ago, Tulia, Texas, became notorious when 46 people - 40 of whom were black - were arrested during a drug sting operation conducted by a private informant who used no surveillance and virtually none of the stuff that is the hallmark of competent police work. That informant was later convicted of perjury.

Yet, when the black men who were sentenced solely on his word went off to prison, so did 10 percent of the town's black population.

National outrage led to the release of most of the Tulia 46. Perry even pardoned 35 of them.

Today in Paris, Texas, outrage is building around the incarceration of Shaquanda Cotton, a 14-year-old black freshman who may languish in prison until she's 21 for shoving a hall monitor.

Never mind that Shaquanda had no prior arrests, or that the 58-year-old woman she shoved (Shaquanda told The Chicago Tribune that the woman shoved her first) wasn't seriously injured.

Never mind that until the time she shoved the monitor Shaquanda's disciplinary record consisted mainly of small infractions. She once wore a skirt that was an inch too short, for instance, and she poured too much paint into a cup in art class.

The judge -- the same judge who sentenced a 14-year-old white girl to probation three months earlier after she was convicted of arson for burning down her family's house -- insisted only hard time would do for Shaquanda.

She and her mother disagreed. So they talked to the Tribune about it -- and support has been pouring in. As it should.

Only the most hardened racist or someone who naively believes that all judges are fair, all the time, would accept that seven years in prison is just punishment for a teenage girl with no criminal history.

Or that a life sentence is a fair sentence for a man who smoked a joint.

What's happening in Texas, it seems, amounts to some manner of mass racial profiling abetted by the drug war and fears of crime. Such fears contribute to the demonizing of people like Shaquanda and Brown, and create an atmosphere in which punishments that don't fit the crime face few challenges.

Which is why when the usual avenues of justice close for people like Shaquanda, Brown and the Tulia 46, it's important that others open. One of those avenues is through journalism that sticks to its mission of revealing how the system doesn't always work, or how, for some people, things can go horribly wrong.

The other avenue is through the passion and outrage of people like Douglas; people who can't casually absorb tales of blatant injustice without figuring out how to fix it.

And who won't give up until they do.

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