Our Voices

The Families of Those Killed by Police Seek a Path to Justice Through International Law

By Delia Addo-Yobo

“She called and let me know that she wasn’t coming home that night. I didn’t know that she meant that she was going to be gone forever,” Martinez Sutton tearfully testified in 2015 about the killing of his sister Rekia Boyd by an off-duty police officer.

Eight years later, he and his family are still looking for accountability. On March 21, 2012, Boyd, 22, was killed by police Officer Dante Servin in Chicago while she was walking with a group of friends. But Boyd’s death marked only the beginning of the pain that her family would endure. After the Cook County state’s attorney delayed investigation and prosecution for more than a year, a judge acquitted Servin, which devastated the family and seemingly left them without recourse — a nightmare that added a thousand cuts to an already unhealed wound.

Across the United States, police are charged in fewer than 3% of police killings; those who do face charges are often acquitted or receive a slap on the wrist. Boyd’s killer was not only acquitted but also allowed to resign and collect his pension in full. In the words of Sutton: “The pain that I feel in my heart will never be healed because of the psychological trauma that plays in my head on a constant basis. There was no help offered to help soothe the pain that me and my family feel. No mental health services offered. Not even an apology.”

Their story is tragically similar to that of Michael Brown, who in 2014 was killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. The subsequent failure to hold the killer accountable galvanized the Movement for Black Lives coalition.

But Lezley McSpadden, Michael’s mother, still grapples with the loss of her son almost a decade later. “If you have not lost a child yourself, then you will never understand the gravity of the pain I have suffered since Michael’s murder,” she said. Nearly 10 years later, there are still few mental health resources to contend with the peculiar type of grief that comes from losing family to extrajudicial killings. Mothers are forced to band together on their own to support each other when the police callously take the lives of their children.

With nowhere to turn in the United States, families rocked by fatal police violence are now pleading with international human rights bodies for help. On July 5, the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights organization and the Thurgood Marshall Civil Rights Center at Howard University School of Law filed legal briefs with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) on behalf of Brown, Boyd and their families, detailing how the United States’ refusal to hold police accountable for extrajudicial killings violates international law.

The briefs call for public apologies to the families, free and subsidized mental health services for family members of victims and legislative reforms that will deter future police killings. National and grassroots human rights organizations, including the American Civil Liberties Union and the Movement for Black Lives, will also file amicus briefs in support of the cases. Lawyers filed the briefs after an IACHR ruling last year found plausible legal claims that the United States’ failure to provide accountability for police killings violated the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man. More than seven years after the families of Boyd and Brown initially filed their cases, their search for justice inches closer to the finish line.

This year’s IACHR filings carry on a long-standing tradition of Black people fighting to claim their humanity before a global audience — and the United States’ longer failure to address police brutality. In 1951, the Civil Rights Congress filed the landmark We Charge Genocide petition with the United Nations, asserting that U.S. police killings of Black people from 1945 to 1951 violated the U.N. Genocide Convention. But U.S. police brutality against Black people remains entrenched. Today, Black people are still the most likely of any racial group to be killed by police in the U.S.

August marks the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, in which the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. exclaimed: “We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality.”

Yet 50 years later, police terrorize communities across the U.S. with outright impunity. Aug. 9 marked the nine-year anniversary of Brown’s slaying. This anniversary, we once again lift our voices as a movement, urging a full and public hearing before the IACHR to seek accountability for the horrors of police violence.

McSpadden and other mothers still await justice.

Click here to view the original article in the Chicago Tribune. Delia Addo-Yobo is a staff attorney at Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights, a nonprofit that advocates for human rights.