We do not yet have equal justice for the poor, for the members of minority groups, for the criminally accused. Ugly inequities continue to mar the face of our nation. We are surely nearer the beginning than the end of our struggle. —the late Supreme Court justice William Brennan, 1987
Malcolm X, referring to New York and the rest of the Northern states, often used the phrase ‘up South.’ He meant, as he told me, that the injustices inflicted in Southern courts were just as common in the north, including in this city.
In the February 6 New York Times, reporter David Rohde performed a needed public service by illuminating the state of justice under the regime of Rudolph Giuliani.
The article was titled “A Brush With the Law Increasingly Ends With a Night in Jail.” One of its examples was the case of 29-year-old Robert Schenck of South Carolina, who was in Giuliani’s New York to visit his family. He has a construction job and had no criminal record.
David Rohde tells how Schenck, who is black, became enmeshed in “the assembly line justice of Manhattan night court.” Schenck and two friends from South Carolina “walked up the stairs to his cousin’s apartment . . . and were confronted by police officers who had already arrested several young men on trespassing charges.
“In court papers, the police said no one in the building knew [Schenck and his two friends]. But Mr. Schenck said the officers never checked. ‘Before I could knock on [my cousin’s] door, the police had the gun at my head,’ he said.”
Schenck was arrested for SWB—Standing While Black. Or, as a youngster in Harlem has said, “We always fit the profile.”
Schenck, after spending 24 hours in a crowded holding cell—an unforgettable experience for first-time prisoners—pleaded guilty to a lesser trespassing charge and paid a $45 fine.
As David Rohde notes, otherwise he would have faced “a yearlong wait for a trial.” The judge who took the plea, Martin P. Murphy, was appointed to the bench by Giuliani in 1996. Murphy used to be—God or somebody help us—a Legal Aid lawyer.
According to the Times, Schenck’s presumption of innocence was discounted by Judge Murphy in “less than a minute.” (Emphasis added.) Why not have an automated judge and save the city the salary and pension?
The visitor from the South was among the first of 86 people arraigned that night before Judge Murphy, who has been praised by court administrators for the swiftness with which he dispenses Giuliani justice. Schenck received New York’s version of due process as Murphy worked the assembly line of defendants from 5:30 p.m. to 1 a.m.
Giuliani glows before the television cameras as he cites the improved “quality of life” for which he is responsible in this city. The result, however, as Rohde reports, is that “an increasing number of people from all walks of life are spending nights in jail for minor offenses.” Whether proved or not.
They include, the Times notes, “ticket scofflaws, turnstile jumpers, public drinkers, marijuana smokers,” and, of course, homeless people turned out of shelters by Giuliani and arrested for sleeping in the streets.
On August 23, 1999, the Times ran a front-page article that has never been referred to by Giuliani in his alleged campaign for the Senate. It pointed out that 18,000 people out of 345,000 arrested the previous year were locked up on charges so flimsy that prosecutors tossed the charges out before those arrested even appeared before a judge.
That means, the Times charged, citywide, 50 people a day are arrested, fingerprinted and jailed, then released after prosecutors have rejected the charges against them, “often after [those arrested] have spent hours or overnight in packed holding cells.” Many of them are strip-searched. David Rohde was one of the writers of that story, along with Ford Fessenden.
When that story broke—and quickly died—Giuliani’s unfailingly obedient police commissioner, Howard Safir, declared: “We are going to continue to arrest people for crimes. Our people are well trained. They know when to make arrests.”
The assembly line has speeded up. The Times reports: “Overall, during the Giuliani years, the number of people arrested and jailed overnight in the city has increased by a third—to 366,288 last year from 272,718 in 1993.”
What is most shocking in Rohde’s story—even after all these Giuliani years—is this paragraph:
“During the dinner break, [Judge Murphy], who also worked as a criminal justice aide in both the Dinkins and Giuliani administrations, defended the city’s aggressive arrest policy. Trespassing sweeps in apartment buildings sometimes capture innocent people, he said, but they also lead to major arrests.” (Emphasis added.) As he ended his shift, Murphy said to court workers, “Good work, fellas, that’s a wrap.”
A sitting judge in the city of New York approves of arresting innocent people for the greater good of reducing the crime rate! Isn’t the judge violating the law? Where are the bar associations and the editorial writers?
I doubt Hillary Rodham Clinton will make this a campaign issue because the Clinton administration has been more contemptuous of constitutional guarantees for defendants than any administration since Nixon’s.
The New York City seal should be amended to include: “The Presumption of Innocence Stops Here.”
On February 17, David Rohde reported the Legal Aid Society had complained that because of the clogged assembly lines “scores of suspects were detained illegally for more than 24 hours” before arraignment.
Where is Judith Kaye, chief judge of this state’s highest court?