Justice Opinion

My thoughts about the justice stories that are hitting the headlines -- with a focus on stories about race, guns, and self-defense. Find out where I stand.

Justice Outreach

This is the platform for our justice advocacy efforts, currently focused on the Talking Race Project, The Hurt Words Project, and Juvenile Outreach. Find out what we’re up to.

Justice Education

I frequently conduct CLEs and seminars for Bar Associations, Criminal Defense Associations, the National Trial Lawyers, and law schools. Find out what I’m talking about.

Mathew Ajibade Memorial Notice

Written by Mark O'Mara on . Posted in Outreach

Memorial for Mathew Ajibade
11 AM Saturday, March 7, 2015
Adams Funeral Services
510 Stephenson Ave, Savannah, GA 31405

mathew ajibadeMathew Ajibade’s friends knew him as Matt Black -- a smart, charismatic, passionate young man who won the hearts of everyone he met. On Saturday, March 7, Matt would have celebrated his 23rd birthday. Instead, his friends and family will gather for a memorial service to celebrate his life. Matt died on New Year’s Day while in the care of the Chatham County Detention Center.

Those who knew Matt, knew he suffered from bipolar disorder. On January 1st, he experienced a manic episode. Matt’s girlfriend called 911 for help; she wanted an ambulance to take Matt to the hospital, but because she wasn’t specific with dispatch, they sent police instead of medics. Rather than being taken to the hospital, Matt was taken to the Chatham County Detention Center where he died in a restraining chair.

We still do not know why Matt died. This memorial will provide an opportunity for friends and family to express their grief over their loss -- but it will also be a time to demand answers about the circumstances surrounding Matt’s death. It will be an opportunity to start a conversation about how law enforcement handles people with mental illness.

This event is open to the public. It is not just for those who knew Matt, but for anyone who has a concern about how law enforcement engages with people with mental illnesses. It is for anyone who has a concern about how law enforcement engages with young men of color. It is for anyone who wishes to lend their voice to Matt’s friends and family’s call for justice.

View the Facebook Event Page for Matt's Memorial»

Terry Jackson Friend of the Constitution Award

Written by Mark O'Mara on . Posted in Education

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Terry Jackson was a Savannah criminal defense lawyer known for his dedication to both his clients and his profession. He lived his life fighting for the idea that every citizen accused should be entitled to a vigorous and competent defense. He was also a true believer in the Constitution -- that the spirit of that document was to protect the rights of individuals against undue government intrusion. Terry left us in 2012, but only after being the first recipient of the Terry Jackson Friend of the Constitution Award. The award recognizes those who give a lifetime of service to their profession and to their clients: those who take on and vigorously defend those cases that are difficult and unpopular.

I was both surprised and honored to be contacted by Sam Dennis, the President of the Georgia Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, who informed me that the Board of Directors agreed that I would be the 2015 recipient. I’m privileged to be able to follow in Terry Jackson’s footsteps and also those of Doug Peters, the 2013 recipient, and Dwight Thomas, the 2014 award winner. I will cherish the honor, and do my best to be true to the award and to Terry’s legacy.

DOJ Fails to Address Problems with Forensic Evidence

Written by Mark O'Mara on . Posted in Opinion

I read, with disgust, an article announcing that the only federal judge on a commission to improve forensic science in the criminal justice system had to resign in protest after criticizing the Department of Justice for causing the commission to be wholly ineffective. US District Judge Jed S. Rakoff could no longer tolerate DOJ's refusal to work towards a better exchange of information between prosecutors and defense attorneys, particularly regarding forensic experts.

Judge Rakoff said, "I believe it reflects the determination by the Department of Justice to place strategic advantage over a search for the truth." His words are both troubling and frightening. I liken this to prosecutors who protest or object to new trials when DNA evidence exonerates a convicted citizen. If we are to maintain trust in a criminal justice system -- a system already under attack for its deficiencies, we cannot allow artificial inadequacies to be injected intentionally.

Prosecutors are to seek justice, not just convictions. The awesome power we entrust to them has devastating consequences when abused. How can any prosecutor argue that less disclosure is better? Justice does not live in the shadows cast by hidden information, it only survives out in the open.

We look at the Department of Justice as being not only the best law enforcement agency in our country, but throughout the world. But that is an honor that DOJ must earn every day through honesty, integrity and transparency. Citizens, particularly citizens accused, deserve no less.

The Marissa Alexander Case Shows the Problems With Mandatory Minimum Sentencing

Written by Mark O'Mara on . Posted in Opinion

cnnThe Marissa Alexander case provides an excellent example of how an "imperfect" self-defense argument can have devastating and disproportionate consequences. Because the jury did not accept Ms. Alexander's self-defense argument, they had to convict. What they probably didn’t realize (because in Florida juries aren’t told the sentences attached to their verdicts) is that they triggered Florida’s 10-20-Life mandatory sentencing requirement.

In Florida, a person who uses a gun in the commission of certain felonies (including aggravated assault) must face minimum mandatory sentencing. If the gun is possessed during the commission of one of the enumerated felonies, a minimum 10-year sentence is required. If the gun was discharged, as it was in this case, it is 20 years. Florida’s minimum mandatory sentences are served day-per-day; there is no early release.

It might be appropriate to impose minimum mandatories on violent felons who use guns to further the commission of a crime such as armed robbery. The idea, however, that Florida does not allow any discretion--even judicial discretion--for more complicated scenarios truly makes it difficult to adjudicate these cases.

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