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Peace, justice and the courts

Note: The following speech was delivered on Sept. 10, 2005, at the annual meeting of the Owensboro-Daviess County chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

Good evening, Mr. and Mrs. Walker, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen. (Thank you for the introduction)

I am honored and humbled to be before you tonight. I am humbled because of the rich past and traditions and the wonderful legacy of the NAACP. The NAACP has earned the right to be the standard-bearer or the voice for justice and equality in this nation. . . in this state. . . and in this community. I am encouraged by this gathering tonight as we celebrate this noble organization.

As we sit here tonight I think of the tremendous struggle our nation is enduring to establish peace and justice in Iraq. . . . trying to establish a constitution there, trying to build a system of justice over there. And when I saw the travesty unfolding in Louisiana and Mississippi last week I wonder why we are expending the effort and resources over there to teach something we haven’t learned over here.

When I see some national media showing a white family taking merchandise out of a store and labeling them “survivors” and then in the next sound byte show a black teenager, a child, doing the same thing and label him a “looter”. . . I am outraged . . . Outraged at the injustice. I suspect that in the coming months we will hear and see more about that from Louisiana.

But before I tell you about what the struggle for peace and justice means to me, I think you are entitled to know a little more about me and my experience and education. When I thought about coming before you tonight I asked myself why I wanted to do this. . . I knew it might get a little hot under these lights for a prosecutor. But then I thought that because I am your chief prosecutor you are entitled to know what I think about social justice and about my experience.

I remember, when I was a child, some of the lessons I learned about race and social justice. Part of our family was a black woman who was raised in my father’s home with him and his family. She came to help my mother with seven children and I gradually realized that she was part of our family longer than I was. And that she was empowered to discipline us and punish us and that we had better listen to her. And I learned that she loved us as part of her own and we loved her as part of us.

In our church community a black family lost their home in a fire and some of them came to stay with us for several weeks. And when we went to school we, and they, were ridiculed because we had a black family living with us. But when my sisters and I talked about this at home we were taught that our classmates were wrong and that we were better than that.

And I remember in April 1968 when Martin Luther King was killed it was a time of mourning in our house and not in the homes of some of the people we knew. I remember and saw people from Louisville drive down to Judge Gordon’s house in protest. . . and that I was taught that he was a good and courageous man and a judge. . . and a lawyer. And when Ray Charles sang “Georgia On My Mind” on the floor of the Georgia legislature, I was there on the floor in Atlanta. And I have met and had lunch with Andrew Young.

Now I tell you these things because of what I am about to tell you. Because you should know these things because of what I am going to tell you . . . about my job. In a perfect world envisioned by Plato and others race and color would not be a factor. But in my world it is a factor . . . often. . . sometimes on a daily basis.

I prosecute crimes where race is a factor . . .
Race is a factor in jury selection.
Race is a factor in what a jury does.
Race is a factor in what I recommend.

I can’t tell you about the racial disparity in punishment in Jefferson County that has recently been the subject of the news in the Courier Journal I don’t know about that. I have no doubt that it is a problem there but I don’t know about the facts in the Jefferson County judicial system. I do know the details and facts about what I deal with and my office. In my office, as a policy, race is not a factor unless it is forced upon us, unless it must be.

I can tell you that when young black men are motivated and baited to violence because of racial slurs there will be consequences for that violence . . . but its going to be mitigated because of racism.

When I look at a young white man from a good home, middle class...good education who is before us for a recommendation for dealing drugs because he wants to make some money or get his friends high and then, I look at a young black man, with less opportunity for a job, with no role model in the home and the knowledge I have that in this community there are no jobs, no scholarships . . . because for some young black men in this town dealing drugs is the only immediate way to make money that they have . . . race is a factor in what I recommend. And sometimes the criminal process is a teaching opportunity. I can tell you that the judges I appear before are good, honorable and compassionate men. And NOT racially motivated.

And that they are sometimes surprised by my recommendations and they question them sometimes. But they know that almost always . . . almost always I know more about the facts than they do. I know more of the facts. They also know that I recognize a duty to fairness and that I know that are likewise motivated and inspired to be fair.

You should know that in some cases, no matter what a prosecutor does . . Some people are not going to be happy. I know this everyday. But I also know that what happens in the courtroom is watched, as it should be . . . not by the media, they do a fine job . . . but by some members of the public . . . but not enough. It used to be that the courtroom drama was the source of entertainment for people and they used to be full. But not anymore. Sometime we finally pick a jury the jury are the only people in the courtroom other than the parties. I see white families in the courtroom more than I see black families . . . and it makes a difference sometimes to those judges who may change their minds about sentencing if they see family support. Too often there is no one there but the defendant.

You should also realize that I know a jury can be racially motivated to be biased . . . both ways. I can only imagine what it would be like to be a white man arrested by a black police officer . . . taken before a black judge . . . tried by a black prosecutor . . . before an all black jury . . . and represented by a black lawyer. I can only imagine. But what I am telling you and what I want you to understand from my comments to you tonight is that I do imagine it . . I think about it.

You should know that I know sometimes cases must go to trial. Sometimes only a jury should say not guilty. That sometimes a community needs to hear a jury say not guilty. Or that sometimes a grand jury needs to say there is no more threat of prosecution. Sometimes a community needs to hear guilty.

You should know that I know the struggle for social justice is not just about what a jury says but how a prosecutor behaves and responds. And that sometimes a community gets the justice it deserves. You should know that I know a jury can be wrong and that a case should not go to a jury at all. You should know that I know that sometimes the racial motivations of some people should not be played out in front of a jury . . . or the newspaper. They don’t deserve the attention they seek.

These are hard and sometimes difficult decisions and sometimes the jury gets it wrong and sometimes I get it wrong. And sometimes the court does. Justice isn’t always what you think it should be. But the taste of justice, real justice, in the courts is sweet when everybody there knows the right thing was done. It is sweet cool water and sometimes crystal clear.

Striving for justice, everyday, is difficult. Sometimes a community gets the justice it deserves, but the struggle is everyday. It can be a challenge. For some people in this room I don’t have to tell you that . . . that justice is a daily struggle . . . some of you live it everyday. Some are doing it now.

Perfect justice, like perfect peace, has to be sought. It’s not going to be given to us. We have to work for it. For people like me, others in the court system and law enforcement and yes, some defense attorneys, it is a privilege to work in this arena. A privilege and an awesome responsibility. And if you take on this responsibility you should, as I do, ask yourself if you are doing the right thing . . . everyday.

Some months ago one of our sons, Rex Chapman, said on national television that he remembers growing up in a racist environment. Many people were angry that he said it. Truthfully, many people were embarrassed . . . they should have been. I was glad that he said it because it made people think. And if you think about it you might be inspired to do something about it. You might find the courage it took for Thurgood Marshall, Andrew Young, Rosa Parks . . . . Dr. King. And although he’s not in the same league as those I just mentioned, what he said took courage as well.

And so when I think about my contribution to you tonight . . . with these words I know it’s not enough. And so tonight I tender my application to you for a membership to commemorate its work. Not just a membership for this year but for a life membership . . . because the struggle for peace and justice, as you know, is a lifetime struggle. When I think about the tragedy in New Orleans I want my money to go to the NAACP because the work of the NAACP is far from over in Louisiana. And I would be proud to be a member of the NAACP. Thank you.

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