Race and Justice Panel at NTL

Written by Mark O'Mara on . Posted in Outreach

20150122 ntl panel

At the National Trial Lawyers Summit on Monday, I was privileged to serve on a distinguished panel discussing race and justice. I joined Benjamin Crump, Michael Grieco, Martin Luther King III, Fernando Chavez, Mark Geragos, Alan Dershowitz, Gloria Allred, and Jose Baez.

Benjamin Crump talked about the need to acknowledge that young black and brown boys are being killed by police disproportionately, and he criticized a grand jury system that may give police too much of the benefit of the doubt. Michael Grieco, a defense lawyer and Miami city commissioner proposed that police body cameras have the potential to reduce deadly encounters between citizens and cops; he’s pushing for Miami to be a national leader on this front. Fernando Chavez, son of civil and labor rights advocate Cesar Chavez, focused on the plight of millions of undocumented but productive immigrants. Alan Dershowitz emphasized a need for cops to have better non-lethal use of force options and that we, as a nation, have simply too many guns that are killing our citizens and our cops. Mark Geragos asserted that prosecutorial misconduct is ruining the criminal justice system, and prosecutors should not be immune to being sued. Gloria Allred reminded us of the work that she has done, and that still needs to be done, regarding women’s rights and GLBT rights. Jose Baez spoke of the need to our justice system to be fair and equal for all.

I believe special prosecutors should be put in place when there are officer-involved shootings. The local district attorneys are essentially part of their law enforcement community. They know many of the cops, and they rely on the officers in their jurisdictions to provide critical witness testimony at trial. Prosecutors should not be put in charge of prosecuting the law enforcement officers they work with on a daily basis. If there is an officer-involved shooting in one district, a prosecutor from another district should conduct a grand jury and lead the prosecution. This will allow for a level of distance, and foster more trust in a system that desperately needs it.

I also discussed the subtle, though systemic, biases that still exist in the criminal justice system. While they are an easy focus because those biases can get you arrested, imprisoned or shot, they are merely emblematic of wrongs that exist throughout our society, from educational biases to socioeconomic ones. Change, as necessary as it is, will be slow, and will take dedication and patience -- a difficult request when more young minorities are dying.

Why Did Mathew Ajibade Die in Chatham County Detention Center?

Written by Mark O'Mara on . Posted in Advocacy

mathew ajibadeIn the very early hours of January second, Mathew Ajibade, known to his friends as Matt Black, died in a restraining chair at the Chatham County Detention Center.

Earlier on New Year’s Day, Mathew, who is diagnosed with bipolar disorder, experienced a manic episode where he struck out against his fiancee, Fisayo Odewole. Understanding Mathew’s mental illness, Fisayo called 911 to get help for Mathew. In her panic, however, she was not specific about the nature of the emergency, and instead of sending an ambulance, 911 dispatched police officers.

Despite Fisayo’s objections, police, after seeing the injury to her face, decided to charge Mathew with domestic violence and battery. Obstruction was added to the charges when Mathew resisted the arrest. Fisayo says she told the police about Mathew’s condition and asked them to take him to the hospital. She gave officers Mathew’s medication, and she even called Mathew’s employer, who understood Mathew’s condition, so they could further vouch for Mathew and document his condition.

Fisayo said that the officers promised to take care of Mathew, but instead, many hours later, they showed up at her door to explain that Mathew “had died.”

Instead of taking him to the hospital, officers took Mathew to the Chatham County Detention Center. A press release from the Chatham County Sheriff’s Office says that Mathew became combative during the booking process. While being restrained, Mathew injured three officers, and one officer suffered a concussion and a broken nose. Mathew was subsequently placed in an isolation cell and restrained in a chair. During a second welfare check, it was discovered that Mathew had died.

We don’t know the cause of Mathew’s death. The Georgia Bureau of Investigation conducted an autopsy on January 6th, and we expect to get an answer as soon as possible. But even if we discover the cause of Mathew’s death, the autopsy won’t necessarily tell us why Mathew died. Why wasn’t he taken to the hospital? Did officers take into account Mathew’s mental illness? How was he allowed to die while in officer’s care? You are not supposed to die from bipolar disorder.

These are the questions Mathew’s family have, and on Monday, they contacted me to see if I would help them get the answers. I agreed. Right now, there is so much we don’t know about the events that led to Mathew’s death. We hope that there was no wrong-doing or negligence that contributed to the death, but we are suspicious, and we have questions. We expect that the agencies involved in the investigation of this tragedy will be forthcoming, transparent, and expeditious in providing the answers we seek.

This case raises issues with how police deal with minorities and how they contend with people with mental illness. In the wake of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, there is a crisis of confidence in our criminal justice system. There is an opportunity now for leaders in Savannah, Georgia to show the nation how to properly deal with this type of tragedy. We and the rest of the nation is watching.

Mathew’s brother and friends have put together a website at Matt3lack.com to show who Mathew was, and to raise funds for funeral costs for friends and family in Maryland, and a memorial for friends in Savannah.

Why Police Body Camera's Will Work

Written by Mark O'Mara on . Posted in Opinion

On Tuesday, President Barack Obama pledged $263 million to procure body cameras and training for up to 50,000 police officers. On Wednesday, a grand jury declined to charge the New York Police Department officer whose chokehold contributed to the death of Eric Garner -- an incident captured in full on video. Unsurprisingly, Thursday brought cries of "what's the use?" After all, an officer walked even though there is a video of the killing.

So, body cameras must not make any difference, right?

Wrong. The fact is that even though the grand jury decided not to charge Officer Daniel Pantaleo over Garner's death, having a video of the incident has still had a huge impact -- without the video, the story wouldn't be leading the headlines, and protesters wouldn't have assembled to demand change.