Yesterday, I wrote about the case where the Pulse nightclub shooter’s wife Noor Salman was acquitted of all charges, despite the determined efforts of prosecutors to make life as difficult as possible for her and coerce a confession. Fortunately for her, the jury overcame the ‘scary Muslim terrorist’ fear-mongering and cleared her. But as Shaun King reminds us, many people do not escape the heavy hand of prosecutors seeking conviction at all costs and gives the case of Natalie Pollard, where she took a plea deal just to avoid being badgered by the legal system.
Pollard, with four young children upstairs in the home, said that Nwankpa began beating and fighting her all over the house. She was pregnant and decided this time, she later told investigators, to grab a knife to protect herself. In the melee, she claimed she stabbed the man in self-defense. By the time police got there, he was bloody and breathing his last breaths. In that moment, and every moment since, Natalie Pollard, then a 32-year-old woman with no criminal record, expressed remorse, but said she did only what she felt she had to in order to protect herself.
It’s imminently believable. Over a four-year period, Nwankpa was accused of physically abusing at least three different women in two states.
Most reasonable people would see Pollard as a victim in this case. The justice system in St. Paul thought otherwise and charged her with second-degree murder — setting her bail at $750,000, an amount often reserved for the most hardened criminals. Armed only with a public defender, she was convicted, then sentenced to nearly 11 years in prison for second-degree unintentional murder.
AFTER SPENDING TWO years in jail or prison away from her children, Pollard was given the break of her life. The Minnesota Court of Appeals ruled that the jury in her case was given the wrong set of instructions. Instead of being given instructions on the general rules of self-defense, they were incorrectly given “justifiable taking of life instructions.” The difference in legal burden between the two sets of rules was vast. Her conviction was immediately reversed and remanded.
John Choi, the attorney for the county that includes St. Paul, was not moved and decided to try the case again. Never mind that Pollard had already been incarcerated for 28 months, giving birth to her baby during that time — he demanded more. We are talking about a woman who has lost everything — her home, her kids, and her freedom. According to family members, she is currently living in the basement of her uncle’s house, just trying to put the broken pieces of her life back together again.
And this is at the root of mass incarceration in the United States. Prosecutors, evidence be damned, are determined to fight for the longest possible sentence every chance they get. It’s a waste. Local activists expected the case to be dropped. Enough was enough.
With the possibility of serving 20 years in prison hanging over her head, earlier this month Pollard did what countless people who came before her have done: She took a lesser plea that she did not believe in whatsoever, for a crime that she does not believe she committed, in the hopes that it will keep her out of prison and buy her more time with her family. I don’t blame her even a little bit, but it’s wrong.
King’s statement that prosecutors “are determined to fight for the longest possible sentence every chance they get” is not quite correct. They only do so with powerless people. We have seen time and time again that prosecutors tend to take hard stands against the powerless, and thus burnish their ‘tough on crime’ credentials, and use that to hide the fact that they go easy on the powerful. We saw earlier how Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr, went after a small bank in New York’s Chinatown while leaving the big banks responsible for the financial collapse alone. We also saw how he did not prosecute Harvey Weinstein over the allegations of sexual assault. The governor of New York Andrew Cuomo has ordered an investigation into the handling of the Weinstein case.
Glenn Greenwald says that prosecutors such as those responsible for bringing the case against Salman need to be held accountable for their actions.
WHILE SALMAN’S ACQUITTAL should be a cause for celebration for anyone who cares about basic justice and civil liberties, justice will not be truly served in this case until punishment is doled out to the prosecutors who purposely hid key facts from the court in order to keep her imprisoned for a full year, along with meaningful reforms to prevent future FBI deceit and manipulation regarding interrogations.
One of the reasons prosecutors feel so free to lie, and one of the reasons the U.S. imprisons more of its citizens than any other country in the world, is because an ethos of impunity has been vested in prosecutors, whereby they are protected from all punishment — even when they deliberately engage in egregious misconduct that causes people to be unjustly imprisoned.
That is clearly the case here: The judge himself recognized that he was misled by prosecutors for a full year. If ordinary citizens lie to the FBI, they go to prison; if defense lawyers mislead a court with even a fraction of the culpability as these prosecutors are guilty of in this case, they are severely sanctioned, if not referred for disbarment. It is unconscionable to allow these prosecutors to go unpunished for what they did to Salman; they are the ones who obstructed justice here. And if the judge in this case has any self-respect or dignity — a big “if” for a federal judge when it comes to terrorism prosecutors — he will not allow them to have deceived him without consequences.
Beyond that, the FBI’s practice of interrogating witnesses without recording them should come to an end. Recording technology is obviously cheap and easy to use. There is no excuse for relying on the assertions of FBI agents about what witnesses say when recordings are far more reliable. “The FBI must join the rest of law enforcement and record all statements,” one of Salman’s attorneys, Charles Swift, told the press after the acquittal was announced. “It’s ridiculous if they don’t.”
Salman’s acquittal is undoubtedly due, in part, to the fact that, unlike so many Muslims terrorism defendants, she had outstanding defense lawyers representing her, led by former U.S. Navy officer Swift, who successfully represented Guantanamo Bay defendants all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court (and whose military career was killed because of it). But other terrorism defendants with highly skilled counsel have nonetheless been convicted despite a dearth of evidence, because of how tilted the playing field is against them.
The law should serve to protect the weak against the predations of the powerful but far too often it is used by the powerful to prey on the weak.