Kalief Browder, Timothy Tyrone Foster and the failures of the criminal justice system

Kalief Browder, 1993-2015
Kalief Browder, 1993-2015

This week, Kalief Browder’s all too brief life came to an end when he committed suicide. If I had greater faith in this country’s position as a moral bastion, I wouldn’t be able to believe his tragic story. Kalief, just 22 when he died, was held in jail for three years without trial starting at the age of 16 for stealing a backpack, a charge he vigorously denied. He suffered in jail all that time partly because his family could not afford bail, and after all that his case was dismissed. He spent about two of those years in solitary confinement, a practice that most reasonable people recognize as torture. The conditions he faced were reprehensible: 

The beatings he suffered at the jail were captured on video that became public in April. In one incident, Mr. Browder is brutally assaulted by a guard; in another, he is attacked and beaten by a gang of inmates. He tried to kill himself several times. According to a lawsuit filed against the city on his behalf, his condition was made immeasurably worse by guards who sometimes denied him meals, medical care and bathing privileges — and fabricated disciplinary infractions to extend his stay in isolation.

As Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote, Browder’s story is a reminder that we mustn’t lose touch with the personal impacts of these brutal policies and the responsibility our society bears:

The numbers which people like me bring forth to convey the problems of our justice system are decent tools. But what the numbers can’t convey is what the justice system does to the individual black body. Kalief Browder was an individual, which is to say he was a being with his own passions, his own particular joys, his own strange demons, his own flaws, his own eyes, his own mouth, his own original hands. His family had their own particular stories of him. His friends must remember him in their own original way. The senseless destruction of this individual must necessarily be laid at the feet of the citizens of New York, because it was done by our servants, and it was done in our name.

Jennifer Gonnerman, who first brought Browder’s story to the world in a New Yorker article last year, shared a sad and touching remembrance.

Browder faced a litany of abuses that contributed to his psychological trauma. He was subjected to those partially because of a bail system that essentially punishes people for being poor. John Oliver tore apart this system and the human consequences on his show last week:

Death is also looming over Timothy Tyrone Foster, though thanks to a court challenge the state of Georgia hasn’t been able to deliver on that threat. Foster  is a black man who was sentenced to death by an all-white jury in 1987. He’s now arguing for a new trial before the Supreme Court because he argues that the prosecution deliberately struck four eligible black jurors. It turns out that striking jurors on the basis of race is currently rather easy to do. An earlier court case required justifications for dismissals if it was believed they were deemed to be on the basis of race, but those requirements are easy to circumvent:

[Justice Thurgood] Marshall’s skepticism was quickly vindicated. As soon as Batson was decided, prosecutors started coming up with tactics to evade it. In a 1987 training video that became notorious when it was leaked years later, Jack McMahon, an assistant district attorney in Philadelphia, told new prosecutors, “When you do have a black jury, you question them at length. And on this little sheet that you have, mark something down that you can articulate later. . . . You may want to ask more questions of those people so it gives you more ammunition to make an articulable reason as to why you are striking them, not for race.”

A consensus soon formed that the Batson remedy was toothless. In a 1996 opinion, an Illinois appellate judge, exasperated by “the charade that has become the Batson process,” catalogued some of the flimsy reasons for striking jurors that judges had accepted as “race-neutral”: too old, too young; living alone, living with a girlfriend; over-educated, lack of maturity; unemployed, employed as a barber; and so on. The judge joked, “New prosecutors are given a manual, probably entitled, ‘Handy Race-Neutral Explanations’ or ‘20 Time-Tested Race-Neutral Explanations.’

Some experts have suggested that an important first step is to track the racial makeup of juries, in the way that police track traffic stops. As Gilad Edelman points out in his New Yorker piece, “Batson is a reminder that a legal system formally blind to race is just as often blind to racism.”

Kalief Browder and Timothy Tyrone Foster’s tragic fates aren’t anomalies. They are signs of systemic problems that are wreaking havoc on people’s lives. We cannot afford to stay blind to them any longer.

Author: Rebecca Griffin

I am a passionate advocate for progressive causes with over a decade of experience organizing for social change. That organizing experience informs the way I look at the world and the challenges we face in working toward social justice. I started Of Means and Ends to write about social issues I care about and share my thoughts on how we organize in a smart, strategic way. Please visit and join the conversation.

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