Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Cross-Burnings and Misty Miracles

"Racism isn't born, folks, it's taught. I have a two-year-old son. You know what he hates? Naps!" - comedian Dennis Leary

In October, 2004, police officers in Middletown, Ohio were called to a fire at an apartment complex on Oneka Avenue. When they arrived they found a burning cross, planted on the apartment grounds in a predominantly African-American neighborhood. The incident electrified the news media all over the state, and even outside Ohio.

I was the City Prosecutor, and this is my story.

A month or so prior to this event I was sitting in my office on a Tuesday afternoon doing weekly "warrant duty." Once a week we opened the office to permit complainants to make their case and issue an arrest warrant against someone who, they said, had done them harm.

The most regular visitors were businessmen who wanted to arrest someone for bouncing a check. (I really hated doing that, but that's a subject for another blog.) Most of the others had already called the police without achieving, to their way of thinking, a satisfactory result. So they came once a week to persuade me to arrest their ex-husband, their neighbor, their boss, whomever. For me, Tuesday afternoons were difficult duty. Perhaps once or twice a month I found sufficient evidence to arrest someone, but usually I had to say "no."

On this particular afternoon in September, an attractive middle-aged mother arrived with her young daughter. They patiently waited their turn on the bench outside my office, and when called they sat down in front of my desk. Mrs. Miracle, a 40-ish blond-haired, polite and well-spoken woman, told me that her 19 year old daughter Misty was being harassed by an African-American family who lived a few blocks away. I questioned Misty as to the evidence of harassment. "Were you assaulted?" No. "Were there any witnesses to the harassment?" A cousin. "Did the harasser track you down somewhere, follow you around, etc?" No.

I liked Misty. She was pretty, smiled and laughed easily --- she could have been your favorite dental assistant, or your favorite waitress at your favorite restaurant. But there was insufficient evidence of criminal wrongdoing, and I sent her away disappointed.

A few weeks later, I learned that Misty had been arrested for assaulting a juvenile. The day after that the cross burned, and the primary suspect was Misty's father. Michael Miracle and four other males were fugitives for a short while but ultimately were arrested and prosecuted. Misty was not present at the scene.

Middletown is a very typical medium-sized American city, with 50,000 residents, about 14% of which are minorities. The poorest residents tend to live in neighborhoods clearly delineated by color, and the street Misty lived on (Mohawk Street) defined the "boundary" between Caucasian and minority neighborhoods.

The burning cross inflamed the African-American community. Racial tensions frayed the nerves of nearly everyone in the city during the period between Misty's arrest and her trial date. On the date of her trial some of the cross-burning fugitives were still at large. The place was a barrel filled with dry gunpowder, but fortunately --- and to the great credit of all of Middletown's residents, and most particularly the ministers and other leaders of the African-American community ---- nobody lit a match. They believed in the system and wanted to see it work.

Misty's trial date arrived and the small courtroom was packed, with TV cameras, media, and community leaders. As I remember, the facts of the case were these: Misty was standing in the front yard of her home with two girlfriends, when a 15 year old African-American girl riding her bicycle turned onto Mohawk Street. Misty walked out into the street and confronted the girl, slapped her a few times, and the juvenile victim rode away. The victim was not seriously injured.

It wasn't exactly the crime of the century but for its bearing on racial tensions. It wasn't exactly a difficult legal case; the facts were well-supported. Yet still, I was more nervous prosecuting this case than any other.

For some reason, Misty's attorney permitted her to take the stand. Generally that amounts to bad courtroom tactics because the playing field belongs to the attorneys. The defendant doesn't get to say whatever it is he or she wishes to say. Attorneys during cross-examination are permitted to ask "leading questions"; i.e., simple questions which have a "yes" or "no" answer. For example, "You walked out into the middle of Mohawk Street, correct?" "And your purpose in walking out into the street was to confront the 15 year old victim on her bicycle, correct?"

Defendants can never win that argument. Perhaps Misty's defense attorney considered, with Misty's case being hopeless anyway, her bearing and personality would win sympathy from the court.

So I began a dispassionate, legally accurate cross-examination of Misty Miracle and the courtroom turned deathly quiet. I heard cameras whirring; I could hear Misty breathing as I examined my notes. I asked the questions necessary to cover the elements of the crime, and received the expected answers. Everything that had to be done, was done.

But something was missing. I found myself --- and this is not to my credit at all as an attorney, who should always remain cold and detached --- I found myself drifting into normal conversation with Misty.

"Misty, why .... why did you walk out into the street when you saw this girl?"

"Well she was in my neighborhood. She was on my street", she answered.

And then, in what may remain as the only Perry Mason moment of my career, I responded --- and sensing I hadn't said it just right, repeated more accurately ....

"Maybe she had a reason to be on your street. Maybe she had a right to be on your street!"

Misty was quiet. The courtroom was still. "No further questions, Your Honor."

The Judge passed sentence. He gave her the maximum 180 days in jail. And she served every last day. On the facts of the case she didn't deserve anything like that. She deserved maybe 3 days in comparison to other offenders, or perhaps a few days more because the victim was a juvenile. I don't suppose for a moment that she ever said, "Dad, will you please go burn a cross in that girl's front yard?" But when your actions, inadvertently or negligently, cause an entire city to fly to arms, you can't quibble about the length of your sentence.

Misty was demolished on the witness stand, and relative peace returned to Middletown. As the courtroom emptied and I collected my papers, I felt only sadness. People lined up to "congratulate" me. Pffft. I knew that I had done my job; I knew that the media and the community heard what they wanted to hear. But I thought only of poor Misty Miracle, serving 180 days in the Middletown jail.

No comments:

Post a Comment