We must restore the promise of freedom and justice for Black people in Memphis
In Memphis, more children are prosecuted in adult court than in the rest of the state combined. Nearly all of them are Black.
On the Fourth of July, our nation celebrates the promise of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. But for too many, that promise is not only broken, it is weaponized by prosecutors who criminalize poverty and race.
More than a half century after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was killed in Memphis, the city remains a cradle of profound injustice.
Black Memphians are disproportionately targeted for harsh criminal enforcement and punishment. Prosecutors break the rules to rack up convictions, prison terms, and even death sentences.
Rosalyn 'Bird' Holmes could have spent decades in prison
I visited Memphis in April with colleagues from Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights, the organization founded to carry out my late father’s dreams of a better world. Through our partners at the Memphis Community Bail Fund, the local chapter of Black Lives Matter, and Just City, we met with residents who had been unjustly targeted by local prosecutors.
Among them: Rosalyn “Bird” Holmes, a Black woman, charged as an adult at only 16 in a robbery committed by two boys while she sat in the backseat of a car. Her bail was set impossibly high – $60,000 — and she was sent to solitary confinement for more than 40 days, prevented from attending school.
Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights paid her bail and secured her release, but even then, while no one accused Bird of the robbery or taking any money, she still potentially faced decades in prison. She eventually won her case, but it took two years. And the terror of being locked away in a cage as a child will remain with her forever.
Pamela Moses was misled by officials and DA Weirich's office knew it
We also met Pamela Moses, a Black woman sentenced to six years in prison for simply registering to vote.
Officials had told Moses – incorrectly – that she could vote despite a previous felony conviction; she followed their advice in good faith. Yet Memphis’ elected prosecutor, Shelby County District Attorney General Amy Weirich, aggressively pursued a voter fraud conviction.
A court later overturned Moses’ conviction; Weirich and her office had violated the Constitution by failing to disclose emails showing Moses had been misled by a county official. Still, Moses spent nearly three months in prison because of that official’s mistake. Several times during our conversation, we had to pause – the pain of her experience remained raw.
On the surface, Holmes and Bird have little in common except for three damning factors in the eyes of Memphis prosecutors: they are poor, Black, and call Memphis home.
But they also share remarkable courage and resilience. These women could have been broken by the system, but they bravely shared their pain to prevent it from happening to others.
A Racial Equity Audit of DA's office is a good step, but DOJ must intervene too
A group of local lawyers and community leaders are working to ensure the women’s experiences aren’t repeated. The advocates this year demanded a Racial Equity Audit of Weirich’s office to identify, and hopefully correct, the systemic practices that lead to racist outcomes.
“Race discrimination in our legal system — from how Black people are prosecuted and punished more harshly, to how Black crime victims are dismissed and disregarded — is a crisis that can no longer be ignored,” the group wrote.
While the audit is a sound idea, this is not simply a local matter. When law enforcement is driven by discrimination and prosecutors disregard the Constitution, the U.S. Department of Justice and its Civil Rights Division must intervene.
The DOJ has the power to investigate local prosecutors. In 2020, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights and a coalition of civil rights groups urged the DOJ to investigate state and local prosecutors in Georgia after white men chased down and murdered Ahmaud Arbery, but prosecutors initially failed to bring charges.
In Memphis and Shelby County, such intervention is long overdue.
Bird Holmes is not the only Black child whose life Weirich has threatened. From 2018 to 2020, 98% of the 217 Shelby County children transferred to adult court were Black. It has been four years since a federal monitor tasked with oversight of the county’s juvenile justice system described Weirich’s tactics as “toxic … for African-American youth,” and the racial disparities have only worsened since then.
Similarly, shirking constitutional obligations to fairly present evidence — such as in Pamela Moses’ case — has been a hallmark of Weirich’s career: A Harvard Law School study examining the first five years of her tenure uncovered more than a dozen cases of misconduct and found Weirich led the state in findings of misconduct and the number of cases reversed because of it.
This sort of repeated discrimination and misconduct is precisely why DOJ enforcement is essential. Memphis’ system of injustice has gone unchecked for too long, and the Civil Rights Division has the power, and the duty, to force change.
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