CITY VOICES. New York blacks search for color-blind justice
No matter what is said about the highly publicized Tawana Brawley case, it speaks volumes about the complex and troubled relations between blacks and the criminal-justice system. Tawana, a black teen-ager from Wappinger Falls, 50 miles north of New York City, says she was abducted and raped by several white men last November. Her family's advisers - a minister and two lawyers - contend that the legal system makes it nearly impossible for the case to be tried fairly, because the victim is black and her alleged assailants are white.
Despite skepticism about their behavior by both blacks and whites, these advisers have struck a nerve in New York and across the nation concerning the courts' treatment of blacks and other minorities.
A special task force, convened by New York Gov. Mario Cuomo, released a report last month that said bias-related crime is unevenly and inadequately handled by law enforcement officials. The report also presented evidence suggesting that such crimes are increasing.
The task force was set up after one black man was killed and another assaulted by a group of white youths in the Howard Beach neighborhood of Queens in 1986. The task force found that many victims perceive police and court procedures and personnel as insensitive. ``Victims are often treated as perpetrators,'' it concluded.
At a New York State Judicial Commission hearing last month to examine racial bias in the courts, Brooklyn Civil Court Judge Yvonne Lewis testified that some judges seem to think that ``a white litigant is more likely to tell the truth than a black litigant.''
At the hearing, Administrative Judge Burton Roberts, head of the criminal division of the state Supreme Court in the Bronx, said 95 percent of the defendants and 90 percent of the victims in his jurisdiction are black or Hispanic. By contrast, members of minorities constitute only 26.3 percent of the judges and 30 to 35 percent of the other court staff. Judge Roberts says having more minority judges might improve perceptions of the system.
Also at issue is the treatment of victims of bias-related crimes.
Governor Cuomo and state legislators from the black and Puerto Rican legislative caucus have been wrangling over a bill that passed in the state Assembly last month. The legislation, now slated to go before the Senate, seeks stronger penalties and establishment of an enforcement office headed by a special prosecutor whose sole job would be prosecute bias-related crimes.
``We are calling for a continuing special prosecutor because of the many unsolved cases,'' says David Patterson, state senator for Harlem and Manhattan's Upper West Side.
Mr. Cuomo opposes the special prosecutor provision and instead seeks the establishment of a bias unit in the attorney general's office. But many caucus legislators are skeptical, because, they say, it is the district attorneys who ``may be part of the problem.''
Many oppose the bill because of its ``intent'' provision, says Frank Breselor, a Senate staff member. That provision assigns harsh penalties for crimes committed with the intent to deprive a person of his civil rights. Mr. Breselor says this provision is an ``artificial construct'' that is nearly impossible to prove.