[News] Castro Strikes a Nerve

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Fri Jun 3 13:33:52 EDT 2005



Castro Strikes a Nerve




By Jill Soffiyah Elijah, AlterNet
Posted on June 3, 2005, Printed on June 3, 2005
http://www.alternet.org/story/22155/

In April 2005 the international community began to take a closer look at 
the United States justice system as its government attempted to explain and 
or deny the presence of admitted terrorist, Luis Posada Carriles. As news 
stories sprouted from even mainstream media calling for the extradition of 
Posada to Venezuela, a country with which the U.S. has had a longstanding 
extradition treaty, Washington went into a frenzy.

After some false starts concerning what it was going to do about Posada, 
Washington "defended" its position by hurling barbs at Cuban President 
Fidel Castro about the political asylum granted to Assata Shakur by the 
Cuban government. President Castro retorted that Ms. Shakur had not 
received justice in the United States and that she, like many other 
political prisoners, had been persecuted and denied a fair trial.

By aiming the spotlight on the criminal justice system in the United 
States, President Castro exposed a tender nerve for Washington. My more 
than 20 years as a criminal defense lawyer and professor of criminal 
defense advocacy confirm the widely known assessment that every aspect of 
the criminal justice system is ripe for criticism and laden with hypocrisy.

The United States incarcerates more people per capita than any other 
developed nation on earth. The population of the United States comprises 5% 
of the world's population but its incarcerated population is equal to more 
than 25% of the world's prisoners.

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, based on current rates of 
first incarceration, an estimated 32% of black males will enter state or 
federal prison during their lifetime, compared to 17% of Hispanic males and 
5.9% of white males. In other words, one third of black men can expect to 
be incarcerated during their life times if they live in the United States.

Incarceration in the U.S. is a growing industry. In 2001, an estimated 2.7% 
of adults in the U.S. had served time in prison, up from 1.8% in 1991 and 
1.3% in 1974.  The BJS reports that as of December 31, 2001, there were an 
estimated 5.6 million adults who had ever served time in state or federal 
prison, including 4.3 million former prisoners and 1.3 million adults in 
prison.

At every stage of the criminal justice system in the U.S., blacks, Latinos, 
Chicanos and other people of color and the poor are disproportionately 
impacted. Decisions by law enforcement personnel concerning who to stop, 
who to arrest and how to charge, are all infused with racial bias. 
Decisions regarding indictments, plea offers and requests for enhanced 
sentences and the death penalty, are similarly guided by considerations of 
race and class.

Sentencing decisions regarding probation and incarceration reflect the same 
racial overtones as the earlier stages of the system. The racist practices 
of prosecutors was so prevalent that in 1986 the United States Supreme 
Court finally outlawed the practice of routinely removing blacks from the 
jury in Batson v. Kentucky (476 U.S. 79). Prior to 1986, the courts 
routinely ignored the practice. Following Batson, prosecutors simply 
offered pre-textual reasons for their racist challenges to potential jurors 
and the courts turned a blind eye.

Prisoners in the U.S. are systematically incarcerated hundreds, and in many 
instances thousands, of miles away from their families and loved ones. 
Family contact is discouraged and thwarted. Frequently family members 
travel hundreds of miles to visit their loved one and they are denied entry 
on minor technicalities.

U.S. prison officials regularly create obstacles when attorneys seek to 
visit their clients. Memos authorizing the visit mysteriously disappear on 
the day the attorney arrives for the visit. Use of private attorney-client 
conference rooms is denied. Visits are inexplicably cut short and routinely 
monitored by video camera and roaming guards.

Similar tactics are often employed against political defendants during 
pretrial proceedings. The cases of both Assata Shakur and the Cuban 5 are 
reflective of the unconstitutional obstacles created to interfere in trial 
preparation. Shakur's lawyer, Evelyn Williams, had to obtain a court order 
to get access to her client. Lawyers for the Cuban 5 were limited to brief 
designated time periods when they were allowed to meet with their clients 
prior to trial.

Such interferences compromise the ability of the defendants and their 
counsel to develop trial strategy, prepare testimony and make crucial 
decisions about witnesses and evidence. In the case of the Cuban 5, 
independent polls showed that it would be impossible for them to get a fair 
trial in Miami. Despite this objective evidence, the judge denied the 
defendants' motion for a change of venue, even to Fort Lauderdale, just 30 
miles away.

Assata Shakur's requests for a change of venue were initially denied and 
then finally granted with a move to Morris County, one of the richest and 
most conservative overwhelmingly white counties in the state of New Jersey. 
Further, the hysterical pretrial publicity assisted in creating an 
atmosphere that guaranteed the defendants would not get a fair trial.

Last month President Fidel Castro delivered a calculated series of public 
addresses that have been heard around the world, including in the United 
States. The arduous campaign to obtain justice for the Cuban 5 and to 
expose the hypocrisy of the criminal justice system has been the backdrop 
to these presentations.

President Castro's expose of the system rings so very true to the millions 
of Americans who have been incarcerated in the United States and the more 
than 100 political prisoners who are currently held in its prisons. The 
millions who have had their lives interrupted by the criminal "justice" 
system know that fairness is usually an illusion discussed widely in 
classrooms but not mentioned in courtrooms. They know it's unjust. Castro's 
pronouncements bear witness to the fact that "justice" in the United 
States, isn't justice at all.

Jill Soffiyah Elijah, Esq. is deputy director of the Criminal Justice 
Institute at Harvard Law School.

This editorial does not reflect the viewpoints of Harvard University, 
Harvard Law School, its programs or departments. Institutional affiliation 
is listed for identification purposes only.


© 2005 Independent Media Institute. All rights reserved.
View this story online at: http://www.alternet.org/story/22155/



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