Race and Class and Criminal Justice in Rhode Island

For anyone who wants a quick read on the devastating effects of race and class on the criminal justice system, you should check out No Equal Justice by Georgetown law professor David Cole.

For a much closer home look at the effects of race and class, one need look no further than the criminal cases of Ryan Greenberg and Graeme Kapko.  Both defendants – white, men aged 17 – killed innocent victims.  Greenberg killed a young man by steering a boat over him.  Kapko killed a mother of two returning from her factory job by steering his car, going 85mph into her car after returning from a boozing party.  Both young, white men hired powerful lawyers: William Devereaux for the former and House speaker William Murphy for the latter.  And punishment for these deaths?  Greenberg gets a ten year sentence with only work release and probation.  Kapko gets only two years of home confinement and no jail time.

Compare these two death cases with that of defendant Abimbola Johnson, an 18 year old, black girl accused of killing an innocent victim.

Judge Edwin J. Gale called Johnson a “dangerous person with a dark heart,” before he sentenced her to the maximum allowed under the conditions of her plea agreement: 50 years, with 25 to serve at the Adult Correctional Institutions and 25 years suspended. Johnson will also serve 25 years of probation, pay court costs and undergo anger-management counseling.

While clearly the details of these three cases can be debated, the difference in disposition can be hardly justified without getting into issues of race and class.

Thankfully, there are justices like Superior Court Associate Justice O. Rogeriee Thompson, currently a likely nominee to the First Circuit Court of Appeals, who understand the harsh disparities in dispensing justice.  This is from a 9/25/2000 story from the Providence Journal:

Superior Court Judge O. Rogeriee Thompson said the state court system needs to study hiring and sentencing of minorities to see if they are treated unfairly.

Thompson, a member of the state judiciary’s permanent advisory committee on women and minorities in the courts, said judges and court employees also need sensitivity training to provide a “fairer and more just court system.”

Generally, surveys indicate that Rhode Islanders find lawyers too costly, litigation takes too long, and judges treat whites better than minorities.

In interviews at various courts earlier this year, residents voiced as much.

“If you are a black male like myself, even before you explain your story, they’ve already concluded what the sentence will be,” said William Parker, 21, of Providence, who was leaving District Court.

Debra Constant, an unemployed 22-year-old from Providence, complained during a break from a Family Court hearing that “I’m a lower-class woman. I don’t have money” to hire a lawyer who could help her succeed in court.

“I don’t have the power,” Constant added, “and I sometimes think the judges side with people with more power. They say innocent until proven guilty; in my case, it’s guilty until proven innocent.”

And this 4/6/99 story from the Providence Journal:

Is there a racial bias in Rhode Island’s criminal justice system?

In her 11 years on the bench, first in District Court and now in Superior Court, Judge O. Rogeriee Thompson thinks she has seen it.

Speaking at a recent forum at Brown University, Thompson recalled one day when the bias struck her as particularly clear.

She was in District Court, Wakefield, handling arraignments. One after another, she was presented with a group of white men and a group of black men.

The white men were seniors at one of Rhode Island’s top private schools, Thompson said. They were staying in a house on Block Island, and just for fun, they broke into several neighbors’ houses and took their stereos and other items.

Normally, people who do that are charged with breaking and entering, a felony, Thompson said. But this time, the police took a stance of “boys will be boys” and charged them only with trespassing.

The prosecutions officer recommended that the cases be filed for a year – to be dismissed if the young men stayed out of trouble – and that they be ordered to make full restitution and perform community service.

“We don’t want to wreck their whole future,” Thompson recalled him saying. She took his advice.

Then came the black men.

They were three students from out of state who had been driving to Boston, Thompson said. The state police stopped them on the highway. They were ordered to get out of the car, and the car was searched. A knife was found in the console, and they were all arrested.

The charge was possession of a knife, a misdemeanor punishable by up to one year in prison and a $ 1,000 fine. The young men were ready to plead guilty at their arraignment, Thompson said.

She was appalled.

First of all, she told the trooper who brought them in, having a knife in the console of one’s car is not a crime. The law prohibits carrying a concealed weapon on one’s person, she said. If it banned the possession of knives altogether, she said, “How would you take home a set of steak knives you’d just bought from Apex?”

Thompson dismissed the charges and set the students free. But years later, she still thinks about them.

“It was the starkest example of the lingering effect of racial disparity in our criminal justice system,” she said.

And here we are, nearly ten years later and we are still seeing the “lingering effects of racial disparity in our criminal justice system.”


11 responses to “Race and Class and Criminal Justice in Rhode Island

  1. I one hundred percent agree, just reading the title here, even before I read the content I was sure you’d be discussing the Greenberg case. I know Greenberg but I am not from his community nor do I know his victim. He himself admitted to me and others that he would not get off so easy if it weren’t for being rich and white. He was remorseless and gloated about his wealth and luck.

  2. My friend, Rebecca Flores-Amado has lost her only daughter to an impulsive act of violence. Nothing can remedy that. All three of these crimes left family bereft. There will always be an empty place in the community when young people were taken away carelessly in a moment.

  3. Dear Ninjanurse –

    I know Rebecca as well. I am not taking ANYTHING away from the pain of her family. In fact, Graeme Kapko (mentioned above), killed a mother of two who also happened to be a close family friend of my wife.

    The point is that justice should be dispensed equally so that ALL victims win justice.

    I would hope that you don’t disagree with that.

  4. The disparity between the two white defendants and the one black defendant is certainly great. The big difference between the cases is that two involved a death by boat and car, while Johnson plunged a knife into her victim’s heart.

    It’s probably easier to believe that the boat and car killings were inadvertent than the knife to the heart. Also, Johnson was represented by John Bevilacqua, not some call ow public defender.

    BTW, in your post, you referred to two 17 year old male defendants as “men,” and an 18 year old female defendant as a “girl.” It’s easy to find signs of bias anywhere, I guess.

  5. The first line in my above comment should have read “The disparity in the sentences of the two white defendants and the one black defendant is certainly great. ”

    Sorry about that.

  6. There is no doubt that race and class play into sentencing in this state and this country. But the cases you cite do not really illustrate this. Recklessness is not the same thing as tucking a carving knife into your belt and then stabbing someone in the heart. It is not equal.

    And the murderder was represented by a Beviluaqua, a heavy weight defense attorney.

  7. I fully agree with your blog post. There are disparities everywhere in the Rhode Island courts. Just look at the demographics of the judges and the prosecutors. Have they ever lived in a poor neighborhood? Do they understand the crippling twins of poverty and racism? Certainly, it has become much to easy for the prosecutors and the judges to throw a young African-American woman away for a long time since she has a ‘dark heart’ and meanwhile, the young white man who flouted the system by drinking after he killed another young man is somehow fit to be rehabilitated. There’s a two track system in Rhode Island. And the color of your skin and the money in your pocket decide which track your on.

    Thank you for having the courage to state the obvious.

  8. Are you really surprised? This has always been the case. A white man kills and gets home confinement. A black woman kills and gets 50 years. This is why Lynch will never get my vote again.

  9. Do you really equate getting drunk and getting behind the wheel with bringing out a knife and stabbing someone in the heart? Let me be clear, the drunk driver deserved jail time, but let’s not lessen the act of stabbing someone.

  10. I certainly equate the 2 incidents. You are ignornant for thinking that Greenberg’s only crime is getting drunk behind the wheel. I guess getting drunk is a get out of jail free card in your world. According to the press reports, both people had the “intent” to kill. On top of that, Greenberg tried to cover it up and then went out drinking again?! The system is a joke. So is the prosecutors office.

  11. Relying on press reports for accurate information is your first mistake – Mistake number two is not understanding the difference between Murder and Manslaughter. Murder 1 is the only charge that involves the type of “intent to kill” that I believe you are referring to, the kind that is calculated. . . premeditated. Ryan Greenburg was never indicted on Murder 1. He was; however, indicted on Murder 2, which involves a “reckless disregard for human life” which rises to the level Murder. An indictment is returned by a grande jury after hearing one-sided evidence presented only by the prosecution; the defense is not involved in any way. Also remember that an indictment is returned when the g.j. believes there is enough to charge, not convict. Obtaining an indictment on any charge & any person is just a little bit more difficult than it would be for Mike Tyson to fight a toddler. Now, what Ryan Greenberg ultimately pled to was a charge of Manslaughter, which does not involve reckless disregard for human life, but negligence so gross that it rises to the level of criminality. The Murder 2 charge was dismissed. So while the press may have reported that both had “intent to kill…” I would respectfully beg to differ. Now, you might argue that the manslaughter charge was part of a plea agreement, and it was only because he agreed to plead to the charge that the state dismissed the Murder 2 charge. Many say this about various plea agreements all the time. However, what people really dont think of is ……… maybe the the REASON that the state made the OFFER to dismiss the Murder 2 charge in exchange for a plea in the first place was that they could not PROVE Murder 2 because they could not PROVE “intent to kill.” Just something to think about. Don’t get me wrong, the justice system is racist, and biased, and unfair, and just plain skewed, I know that first hand because I see it every single day in my work. I just think it is important to get your facts right before you judge anyone, and it has been my experience that the press is an extremely poor source.

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