By Helen Gerhardt
A row of headshots marches away down the long hall leading to Federal Courtroom 3A, smiling, well-lit, flattering photos of the men and women who are required by law to sit in judgment of what may be true for the sake of We the People. Just before we citizen journalists turn the corner into the large waiting room, Nigel Parry points out the photo of the Honorable Gary L. Lancaster, who presides in Miles vs. Saldutte, et al.
Lancaster was the first ever African American chief judge appointed for the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania. As such, he bears an extra burden of proof – he must convince the court of public opinion that his own judgment will not be slanted in favor of Mr. Miles, in a case where race colors all interpretation of the evidence presented, where color prejudice itself must stand trial as crucial filter predisposing the regular use of abusive force against our fellow Pittsburghers.
Such accusations of color bias against a judge have been flung in this case before, and are being exhumed yet again just in time for the start of this civil suit. Earlier this month, Sgt. Michael LaPorte, president of the Fraternal Order of Police Fort Pitt Lodge No. 1. announced the creation of a complaint form to document “unprofessional” behavior by district judges. As an example, he highlighted the dismissal of Pittsburgh police charges of assault and trespassing by District Judge Oscar Petite. [Read More]
LaPorte asserts that Judge Petite went “beyond the scope of his authority” in March 2010 when he dismissed assault and other charges Pittsburgh police filed against Jordan Miles – despite the fact that key witness Monica Wooding directly contradicted the accusing officers account of her role and words in the case. No, she asserted, she had made no complaint of trespassing to the officers and yes, she knew Mr. Miles very well, he played basketball with her own son. In dismissing the case, Judge Petite had asserted: “When I look at everything in this case, I’m left with no other alternative but to dismiss all charges against Jordan Miles…Officers are witnesses just like everybody else. No witness is any more important than another.” [Read More]
I sat in the packed courtroom that day back in March of 2010 and watched Judge Petite’s grave, very dark brown face suddenly gleam with sweat as he looked down at the documents and considered the spoken words that seemed to demand no other possible conclusion – the officers who were accusing Jordan Miles of assault had perjured themselves as to Monica Wooding’s testimony on the night they had used their fists and feet on the young man she claimed as well-known neighbor. I felt the collective thrill when the judge declared that due process must rule the day, not the weighted word of the men who should bear arms in service of the law, not of their own will. Why should it be so hard for the judge to state what seemed to be such an obvious conclusion?
After the court let out that day, I went to look for my car in the parking garage and overheard Saldutte, Sisak and Ewing standing at the base of a stairwell, bitterly complaining that Monica Wood had been believed rather than them, the three men who had regularly, undeniably risked their lives out in the most dangerous streets of Pittsburgh, who had been directly threatened with injury and death so many times by violent, callous thugs and drug dealers that undeniably made Homewood such a dangerous place to live and raise children and carry on the daily business of living in security.
As a veteran of the Iraq War, I recognized the same bitter resentment in their voices that I’d heard in my fellow soldiers when accused of mistreating or killing supposedly innocent Iraqi civilians – no one knew who was the enemy in foreign territory where no uniforms declared allegiance and relative threat. Civilians could not sit in judgment when they did not know how that daily stress of such deadly threat wore on the men and women who had sworn to give their lives for their fellow citizens.
Civilians had not demonstrated the repeated courage to give all and therefore could not perceive the truth of the pressure to make quick decisions without the chance to review and weigh evidence as to whether that “civilian” might be a murderous wolf in sheep’s clothes. Civilians could not judge vital, instantaneous decisions to strike out, to quell the hesitations that might mean the grievous injury or death, not just of yourself, but of the man or woman beside you, who risked so much with you every day, to whom you might owe your own life many times over, whose flesh you felt as related to as that of your own blood sisters, brothers, mothers, fathers, children.
I stood in the stairwell and felt the hairs raise on my own head, goosebumps raise on my own skin at the mixed waves of past affection and loyalty for such men and women I’d come to love through having shared and endured deadly danger together, through having taken care of each other day after day through a year of dust and heat and thirst and fear of losing everything – no matter what our political and personal differences. I stood and listened and felt the waves of still bitter guilt at having stood by while my fellow soldiers mistreated the civilians we had supposedly come to free from a tyrant whose abusive example we ended up following.
I stood in the memory of suffering and fear on the brown faces that had been cast in the mold of enemy by the relentless propaganda we soldiers had been daily fed and had chosen to swallow – and by our own grassroots racism, by what we’d been taught by our own parents or grandparents or trusted mentors or friends. I remembered the time I had myself caused a man fear in the hope of buying my way back into the tribe I had too vocally disapproved of. I remembered how we soldiers in the War on Terror had become terrors to man, woman and child who had invited no violence or abuse by any action of their own.
These three men complaining like teenagers, no like resentful toddlers, that Monica Wooding had been believed rather than them after they had beaten the living crap out of Jordan Miles and torn the very hair out of his scalp, they were my brothers under the skin. And despite my most ardent wishes, as I write these words I cannot disavow that kinship, I cannot unlive my firsthand knowledge of how the power of deadly force corrupts, how even affection and loyalty may corrupt even your best intentions to uphold the rule of law that you know is crucial to keep us all from becoming warring tribes harvesting eyes for eyes, teeth for teeth, lives for lives, colored skins for colored skins in an endless cycle of grief and hatred and violent revenge – the cycle of what so often feels like “self-defense,” even if it is too preemptive to be called anything but an utter corruption of the word “justice.” I cannot deny my own firsthand knowledge of racism and fear and need for tribal connection and how much easier it is to perform the ugliest of actions in “defense” of “your own kind.”
Justice Gary L. Lancaster ruled that the questioning of the jurors on the crucial matter of their own tribal prejudices based on the colors of their skins be held in private, in camera, in his chambers, alone for the following reasons:
• The proceedings in this case have received a great deal of media coverage
• This case involves a physical confrontation between three white male police officers and an African American male.
• The court seeks to question jurors regarding their racial attitudes and other sensitive matters.
• Conducting such individualized questioning in camera rather than in open court will facilitate candor on the prospective jurors.
• Conducting individual voir dire in camera is within this court’s discretion, as it is well-established that “the method of conducting the voir dire is left to the sound discretion of the district court.”…(denying media request that voir dire be conducted in open court).
I try to imagine the judge’s reasoning and feeling for this decision to keep such vital questions and answers at the heart of this matter out of the public eye. Does it serve our city to keep the voir dire, the attempt to elicit the telling of truth so vital to our public good behind closed doors. Perhaps he thinks that when he is face to face, person-to-person, as elder of this so-divided community, as practiced judge will be able to exercise a superior discretion birthed out of many years of his experience of toxic racism, out of his own long work to exercise just due process no matter his own feelings of tribal affiliation, in defiance of those who would use racism to question his discretion, one black man tasked to judge the history and experience and practice of racism by so many jurors filing through his chambers – just five minutes alone with each of those souls underneath whatever skin may contain them.
Maybe I understand the judge’s reasoning and feeling just a little, maybe not at all – but I know that, based on my own experience of the sin and shame of tribal prejudice, of the ugliest racism that allowed me to help to damage brothers and sisters under different skins, I know that the audience in the courtroom should hear these questions and answers being held in private, away from the community that they will affect so much, perhaps most by omission. I believe it it in fact crucial, a matter of life and death, that we should be asking ourselves each of these questions as we sit in judgment here in the court of public opinion.
Miles’ Voir dire motion:
Cops’ Voir dire motion:
If we sit in judgment on Jordan Miles, on all the young black men and women who suffer such abuse so often at the hands of “the law,” on the officers that have enacted the racism they were taught in our schools and media and neighborhoods and families, on the officers that have been shown the example of the everyday, cynically callous, racist abuse of power over the weak, whether by Wall Street or by other plainclothes cops – that if we are to judge the capability of the judge and jury – well, if we are to sit in judgment then we should be hearing and asking ourselves each of the questions that Jordan Miles and his mother and grandmother face, that our police force faces, that the lawyers face, that the judge faces, that the jury faces. We the People should be able to watch the show, to look in all their faces as these men and women ask and attempt to answer the questions. We should be able to see the echoes of our own bare-faced lies, denials, cover-ups, and, sometimes, our bitterly shameful admissions of the truth of our colored judgment.