Unpacking the Criminal Justice System

On April 18, several days before a verdict was rendered in the Derek Chauvin trial, the Diversity and Inclusion Office at Hotchkiss laid the groundwork for future discussions by hosting an informative session on the U.S. criminal justice system. Instructor in U.S. History Thomas Fisher moderated the virtual conversation with alumni Rachelle Hatcher Swan '01, Sheria Smith '01, and Justice Thomas Warren ’67, who shared their expertise in their respective legal fields.

The wide-ranging discussion covered the many stages of a criminal trial as well as the issue of police immunity and state laws aimed at stymieing police violence against Blacks and people of color.

Justice Thomas Warren '67, who has served on the Maine Superior Court since 1998, described in detail the criminal trial process, beginning with an indictment and ending with the sentencing. In highly publicized trials, jury selection is a critical, he said.

“In an ideal world, jurors don't know much about the case when they show up for selection, and they have not had an opportunity to form any opinions about it. But this is not possible in cases like the one involving Derek Chauvin, and so it's a very tricky issue for the lawyers to try and select the jury that they think is impartial and for the judge to manage that process,” he said.

Attorney Rachelle Hatcher Swan, who works for the Cook County Public Defender’s office in Chicago and represents indigent civil and criminal defendants, noted that case laws have changed regarding police officers charged with using deadly force.

In the ’80s, the Supreme Court ruled that police could not use deadly force against a fleeing suspect unless they had reason to believe they were very dangerous. But since then, case law evolved and the rule looks at it from a reasonable police officer’s perspective, So, there would be times when they would be allowed to use more deadly force against a fleeing suspect on foot.

Part of the problem is that in many police departments, there is no clear foot-pursuit policy, she noted. Also, officers are often trained in a military style, to be on high guard, and they need to be trained to take suspects into custody without taking their lives –– and to give suspects a chance to comply.

Sheria Smith ’01 has served as a civil rights attorney for the United States Department of Education and is currently the president of the labor union, which represents all 3,000 employees in the Department of Education. She commented on police immunity, noting that police officers charged with crimes in the line of duty are often protected.

In most states, police officers have immunity so it is difficult to convict them because of the laws that are in place, and I think we can all understand why those laws exist, she noted. 

“But I think we can also understand that there should be some readjustments to legislation to prevent these unfortunately common occurrences from happening, ” she said. 

“For students thinking about what they can do, there are other ways that can help correct the issue and that is in the political realm by having effective legislation.”  

Panelists agreed that there is no silver bullet.

“The defunding of the police movement, in my opinion, is the wrong rallying cry,” said Hatcher-Swan.

“But we do need alternatives to deal with more situations. We need mental health responders, and we need domestic violence responders. 

“We also need to just invest in people, and we need to end poverty, which we could certainly do. We need to create opportunities for people, so that there's not as much crime on the street, and ending the drug war –– all of that. There’s not an easy answer to this, and the hardest part of it is realizing how much we need, how much is broken, and how much work we have to do, because it's a collective answer. It’s not just one thing or one law we can pass,” she said. 

More than changing laws, Justice Warren added, “prosecuting authorities need to be more willing to prosecute police shootings. 

“In a lot of cases there is no prosecution and that is often because prosecutors aren’t willing to take the police on, either because they perceive themselves as law and order functionaries, or their political goals are not to prosecute police, or they work with policemen and they don’t want to sour that relationship. But if more police were held accountable over the years we would have a better situation right now,” he said.

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