The Justice System Failed Rekia Boyd and Her Family

“It was deemed a justified shooting but they had nothing to justify it with. There was no weapon found, no weapon on any person in the group… nor was anyone in the group being confrontational. So where is the justification?” — Martinez Sutton, brother of Rekia Boyd

In the early hours of March 21, 2012, Rekia Boyd, a 22-year-old Black woman, was fatally shot by Dante Servin, a detective with the Chicago Police Department, with an unregistered gun. Rekia was unarmed, as were her companions. The killing of an unarmed and beloved young woman devastated Rekia’s family and rightly stoked anger and protests in Chicago and across the United States. Indeed, the hundreds of killings of Black Americans by the police over the last five years has consumed the American consciousness, especially since the August 2014 uprising in Ferguson, Missouri, in the wake of the death of unarmed teenager Michael Brown. Rekia’s killing is a stark reminder that it is not just Black men but also Black women in America who are directly affected by police violence.

Despite the extensive collection of evidence in the days and weeks immediately following Rekia’s death, and despite significant public outcry against her killing, the Cook County State’s Attorney, Anita Alvarez, took more than 20 months to charge Servin with one count of involuntary manslaughter and three counts of reckless discharge of a firearm. Those charges were misguided. In the weeks leading up to the indictment, Alvarez’s office had suggested that they would pursue murder charges against Servin, but they eventually charged him instead with the lesser offense of involuntary manslaughter, surprising and dismaying Rekia’s family. The trial finally began on April 9, 2015, more than 3 years after Rekia was killed.

Rekia’s family’s instincts were right: the State’s Attorney botched the case. On April 20, 2015, Judge Dennis J. Porter acquitted Servin on all counts in a directed verdict, finding that Illinois law considers the act of firing a gun into a group, as Servin did, an intentional act, necessitating a charge of first-degree murder. In other words, the judge strongly implied that Servin should have been charged with first-degree murder in the first place. He wasn’t, so the case ended there. Illinois statutory law on double jeopardy prevents Servin from being charged again. That day, Judge Porter’s decision extinguished Rekia’s family’s hope that the criminal justice system could hold her killer accountable.

Rekia’s killing was an avoidable tragedy. The failure to secure accountability in the criminal justice system was avoidable, too. These did not, however, occur in a vacuum: Rekia’s death and Servin’s subsequent impunity took place against the backdrop of a documented, pervasive pattern of excessive force by police against Black Americans across the United States and in the city of Chicago in particular. Chicago has spent more than $650 million on settlements for police misconduct since 2004. Officials in Chicago fatally shot more people between 2010 and 2014 than officials in any other major city in the United States. The rate of citizen complaints against Chicago law enforcement is disturbingly high. Voters expressed their discontent with the State’s Attorney, Anita Alvarez, by denying her a third term in the March 15 primary election. And most recently, a report released by the Chicago Police Accountability Task Force documents the systemic racism, bigotry, and misconduct undermining the fair operation of law enforcement in Chicago.

One year ago, the criminal justice system failed Rekia Boyd and her family. We must work to ensure that these failures aren’t repeated again.

Working with our partners, Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights has submitted reports to international human rights bodies investigating police killings in the United States, including United Nations experts and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. Last October, Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights also testified alongside Rekia’s brother, Martinez Sutton, at a landmark hearing before the Inter-American Commission. Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights was able to recognize Martinez’s work for defending the rights of his sister and family and community in Chicago at our Gala last December, and together we have committed to continue to seek justice for Rekia.