“Justice” System Abuses Young Man Until He Lynches Himself

Kalief Browder committed suicide when he hanged himself with an air conditioner power cord on June 6. Actually Kalief Browder’s death at age 22 is a state killing with uncounted accomplices among police officers, prosecutors, judges, prison guards, prison officials, legislators, mayors, governors, and all the rest of the state justice apparatus that was utterly incapable of providing anything close to decent, just procedures in dealing with a wrongly-accused, innocent, 16-year-old black man.

Anyone who pays the slightest attention soon learns that the “justice system” is an oxymoron. It is a system that colludes with the rich, powerful, and guilty as they loot the country with impunity. It is a system with its own institutional impunity that brutalizes the poor, powerless, and sometimes innocent with a cruel and careless indifference that leaves its participants mostly dehumanized and often dead – either on the street with the limited due process of a police shooting, or at home by suicide after experiencing the full effects of the corrections process. All this has been true for decades.

Metaphorically, Kalief Browder was one more victim of the way American justice has become more and more the mirror of Guantanamo, a legal black hole where mere captivity is sufficient evidence of guilt and actual innocence is irrelevant.

Some call Kalief Browder’s suicide a tragedy. It’s not. It’s the logical, if not inevitable, result of the deliberately cruel punishments of a deranged culture of “law-and-order.” Kalief Browder’s death is the result of a chain of official crimes for which none of the official perpetrators are likely ever to face any day of reckoning.

Commissioner says ugly history has no part in “reform” process

The commissioner of New York City’s Department of Corrections, Joseph Ponte, is just one of hundreds of office-holding perps who have contributed to the creation of a criminal “criminal justice system,” and he is mentioned here only out of sheer bad luck because he’s current. On June 9, at a meeting where proposed official reforms were postponed after objections from reformers, Ponte defended official delay in an odd way. These reforms were aimed at the horrendous New York prison, Rikers Island, which is likely to be scapegoated (quite justly) to take the heat off the rest of the system (quite unjustly). Rikers is the epicenter of the state’s systematic five years of torture of the innocent Kalief Browder.

“As tragic as that death is, it did not play any part in this process,” Ponte said at a news conference, revealing perhaps more than he realized. He calls the death “tragic,” as if it happened by an act of the gods, without context. Calling it “tragic” is a useful distancing tactic for a commissioner of a homicidal Department of Corrections. But to say out loud (publicly!) that three recent years of well-known, documented, incontrovertible, systemic brutality played no part in the process of reforming the criminal system – that suggests a level of denial and fecklessness that can only perpetuate conditions that should never have been allowed to come into existence in the first place.

Five years of state torture worked like a death penalty ­– for no crime

The state’s obliteration of Kalief Browder’s person had begun even before May 15, 2010, when it took on Kafkaesque aspects: he was falsely accused of stealing a backpack, arrested on a flimsy complaint, charged on inadequate evidence, and sent to Rikers to await a trial that would never take place. He would spend almost three years in brutal conditions in the juvenile section of Rikers, where 50 young men slept in one large dormitory room. For two thirds of that time he was in solitary confinement. The longer he maintained his innocence, the longer the state punished him. Prison surveillance video shows other prisoners beating him on one occasion. In a video two years later, a guard beats him while he is handcuffed. After prosecutors finally faced reality in the 31st court hearing in the case on May 29, 2013, the state withdrew the charge, the court dismissed the case, and Kalief Browder was free to recover from intolerable injustice on his own, without support or recompense from his persecutors.

The only reason Kalief Browder ended up in Rikers was the result of a prior arrest during which he had failed to maintain his innocence. A few months before his 2010 arrest for alleged backpack-stealing, Kalief Browder had pleaded guilty to being part of taking a delivery van for a joyride that ended in hitting a parked car (he was not the driver). The judge sentenced him to probation and “youthful offender” status, something of a legal fiction that was supposed to mean he would have no criminal record. It didn’t work out quite that way.

In May 2010, another judge used Kalief Browder’s probation as the basis for sending him to Rikers and setting his bail at $3,000, more than his family could afford. Kalief Browder was the youngest of seven siblings (five adopted, including him) in a household where his mother also took in foster children, raising 34 children in all. Unable to make bail, unable to afford a lawyer, Kalief Browder was assigned an over-committed, solo-practice, court-appointed attorney who worked in Westchester County as well as the Bronx and who apparently never managed to meet his client face-to-face.

No one working for the state did his job, and some acted criminally

The court-appointed lawyer’s failure to get his client released, when that’s all his client was asking for, is despicable. It’s also a common result in a system that makes no serious effort to assure the accused of any reasonable hope of seeing his constitutional rights enforced. Kalief Browder’s court-appointed attorney certainly failed to get the state to honor his client’s Fifth Amendment right to due process of law, or his Sixth Amendment right to a speedy and public jury trial, or his Eighth Amendment protection against excessive bail and cruel and unusual punishment.

But the court-appointed attorney’s failing pales in comparison to that of the state actors at every level, state actors whose responsibilities include, first and foremost, upholding the Constitution without anyone having to nag them to do it. For almost everyone in the system involved in this case, the Constitution was not just ignored, it was treated as a joke and an irrelevancy. At the lowest levels, that’s a clear reflection of what higher officials want and expect:

  • The arresting officers failed to establish probable cause, basing their arrest on the changing story of an unreliable accuser who eventually went back to Mexico;
  • The initial judge and all the judges till the last simply failed to be judges, failed to look at the case and see it for the unsustainable accusation that it was, failed to give any consideration to the defendant’s adamant insistence on his innocence; only Judge Patricia DiMango treated the case rationally and humanely, finally releasing Kalief Browder a week earlier than she had to after the state had held him 33 months;
  • The prison guards either committed crimes like assault or tolerated the guards who assaulted prisoners;
  • Prison officials haven’t cared for years that prisoners in their care are routinely destroyed;
  • Mayors and governors have chosen to pretend not to know that the system was broken and breaking everyone in it, because these people have no constituency and running a constitutional government is hard work that requires integrity;
  • And legislators have spent dishonest decades posturing as “tough on crime” when what they were really up to was tantamount to institutionalizing torture and vitiating the constitution.

Kalief Browder’s case illuminates all these failings, and there is talk of “reform,” but the talk is thin and the reform is limited, mostly aimed at Rikers, which desperately needs reform. But police reform, judicial reform, political reform – all are national problems, all are required by a constitutional government, all seem likely to go begging in the long, dark night of American decline.

Outside the justice system, Kalief Browder got some help

Although his family was supportive throughout, they were over-matched against the state. And when Kalief Browder was released, and came to live at home again for the first time since he was sixteen, his room was too much like a cell and his life a constant struggle to catch up with all the state had taken from him.

A relative called Paul V. Prestia, an attorney with a history of fighting hard cases and sometimes winning them. After hearing Kalief Browder’s story, Prestia was appalled, especially by the casual incompetence of uncaring prosecutors. He filed a suit in early 2014 seeking damages from the N.Y. Police Dept., the Bronx District Attorney, and the Department of Corrections. Presumably the lawsuit will continue on behalf of Kalief Browder’s estate.

While there were scattered, largely sympathetic media stories about Kalief Browder’s experience and lawsuit, New Yorker staff writer Jennifer Gonnerman provided the first comprehensive, detailed reporting of his life in October 2014 (and a principle source for this article). Gonnerman said she first heard about Kalief Browder through news coverage of Paul Prestia’s lawsuit:

… it got a tiny bit of attention here in New York City, and at first I thought maybe there wasn’t a need to write anything more. But then when I actually read the lawsuit and realized some of the specifics of what [Browder] had endured, I realized there was a much larger story and that’s when I started digging into it….

Gonnerman’s 7000-word piece is subtitled: “A boy was accused of taking a backpack. The courts took the next three years of his life.” This New Yorker-esque understatement rather minimizes the official outrages visited on Kalief Browder, but The New Yorker doesn’t docri de coeur. All the same, its quietly methodical, devastatingly detailed style takes the reader deep into systemic injustice that cries out for radical change and meaningful, official accountability. As Gonnerman quotes Attorney Prestia:

Kalief was deprived of his right to a fair and speedy trial, his education, and, I would even argue, his entire adolescence…. If you took a sixteen-year-old kid and locked him in a room for twenty-three hours, your son or daughter, you’d be arrested for endangering the welfare of a child.

None of the dozens of people whose behavior contributed to the death of Kalief Browder are likely ever to be arrested for their criminal acts or negligence. Kalief Browder was subjected to criminally negligent and criminally abusive treatment by every level of the “justice” system, from cops to prosecutors to defense attorneys to judges to guards to prison administrators to mayors to governors and most culpable of all, legislators who “save” money by taking people’s lives.

Obama deploys one of our most treasured cultural lies: “equality”

The same day Kalief Browder ended his tortured life, there was something of a state funeral for the late son of Vice President Joe Biden – Beau Biden, who died last week of brain cancer at the age of 46. Beau Biden’s death is as sad as any, but he also lived a life of privilege beyond the reach of anyone like Kalief Browder. Nevertheless, President Obama said, in his eulogy for Beau Biden: “He learned that he was no higher than anybody else, and no lower than anybody else.”

In saying that, the president embraced one of the profound cultural lies that the privileged chronically ask the rest of us to believe. We are conditioned to be polite and not call out its absolute dishonesty in masking the injustice that is the highest privilege of the privileged. The reality is that some are born “higher” than most people and enjoy that undeserved advantage regardless of how well or poorly they live their lives.

By all accounts, Beau Biden lived an honorable and decent life. At the same time, he was undoubtedly always “higher” than Kalief Browder. He was always immune from even the possibility of spending three brutal years in Rikers on a flimsy charge just because he couldn’t make bail.

By contrast, the life of the younger brother, Hunter Biden, illustrates how being higher than others matters. Hunter Biden’s cocaine use led to his resignation from the Navy reserve, not the jail time the Kalief Browders of the world could expect for the same behavior. And it’s all but unimaginable that a Kalief Browder would be cut in on the imperial looting of Ukraine by getting a seat, like Hunter Biden, on the board of the Ukrainian energy company Burisma Holdings.

Both Biden brothers enjoyed lives much higher than Kalief Browder’s, about whom President Obama has yet to say a mumbling word. That very reality – rather pleasant for the Bidens, very harsh on those who are lower – that reality is where systemic corruption starts to take its relentless toll on the lives of the unprivileged.

Kalief Browder’s last entanglement with the law began April 20, when he and his brother were involved in a fight with some neighbors over an alleged mugging. Police arrested Kalief Browder and his brother, held them overnight, and released them the next day on their own recognizance, with no bail. Attorney Prestia called the charges – failing to move along, disorderly conduct, resisting arrest – “baseless…. They will never prove this case, they’ll never try this case, they’ll never win this case.”

The first court hearing in this new case took place June 10. By then Kalief Browder had hanged himself. Nevertheless the prosecutors refused to dismiss the charges without a death certificate, and the judge went along.

William M. Boardman has over 40 years experience in theatre, radio, TV, print journalism, and non-fiction, including 20 years in the Vermont judiciary. He has received honors from Writers Guild of America, Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Vermont Life magazine, and an Emmy Award nomination from the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. A collection of his essays, EXCEPTIONAL: American Exceptionalism Takes Its Toll (2019) is available from Yorkland Publishing of Toronto or Amazon. This article was first published in Reader Supported News. Read other articles by William.