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Black Rage Confronts the Law

Paul Harris
Copyright Date: 1997
Published by: NYU Press
Pages: 306
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  • Book Info
    Black Rage Confronts the Law
    Book Description:

    In 1971, Paul Harris pioneered the modern version of the black rage defense when he successfully defended a young black man charged with armed bank robbery. Dubbed one of the most novel criminal defenses in American history by Vanity Fair, the black rage defense is enormously controversial, frequently dismissed as irresponsible, nothing less than a harbinger of anarchy. Consider the firestorm of protest that resulted when the defense for Colin Ferguson, the gunman who murdered numerous passengers on a New York commuter train, claimed it was considering a black rage defense. In this thought-provoking book, Harris traces the origins of the black rage defense back through American history, recreating numerous dramatic trials along the way. For example, he recounts in vivid detail how Clarence Darrow, defense attorney in the famous Scopes Monkey trial, first introduced the notion of an environmental hardship defense in 1925 while defending a black family who shot into a drunken white mob that had encircled their home. Emphasizing that the black rage defense must be enlisted responsibly and selectively, Harris skillfully distinguishes between applying an environmental defense and simply blaming society, in the abstract, for individual crimes. If Ferguson had invoked such a defense, in Harris's words, it would have sent a superficial, wrong-headed, blame-everything-on-racism message. Careful not to succumb to easy generalizations, Harris also addresses the possibilities of a white rage defense and the more recent phenomenon of cultural defenses. He illustrates how a person's environment can, and does, affect his or her life and actions, how even the most rational person can become criminally deranged, when bludgeoned into hopelessness by exploitation, racism, and relentless poverty.

    eISBN: 978-0-8147-4476-5
    Subjects: Law

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xiv)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-8)

    Felicia Morgan was beaten at home by her parents and in the streets by strangers. She was raped at fourteen and robbed at gunpoint at fifteen. Her fear and anger began to devour her. At seventeen, Felicia took a gun and, with her eyes closed, put one bullet in the head of Brenda Adams. She was tried for robbery and murder in 1992 in a Milwaukee courtroom. Had her abusive childhood led to the homicide? Had growing up in a community devastated by poverty and racism shaped her criminal behavior?Black Rage Confronts the Lawexplores these questions as it...

  5. Chapter 1 The Black Rage Defense, 1846: The Trial of William Freeman
    (pp. 9-30)

    The first recorded black rage defense took place in 1846. The parties involved included the son of an ex-slave and the wealthiest family in Cayuga County, New York. The prosecutor was the son of a U.S. president, and the defense lawyer was a former governor of New York. The trial was described as “one of the most interesting and extraordinary criminal trials that ever occurred in our country.”¹ It is a story of oppression and blood. It is a story of race and America.

    William Freeman was born in a little settlement called New Guinea, a half mile from the...

  6. Chapter 2 The Black Rage Defense, 1971
    (pp. 31-58)

    In the years since William Freeman died in a jail cell, many lawyers have argued that there is a causal relationship between suffering from racism and engaging in a criminal act. Some of those attempts, such as Clarence Darrow’s defense of Henry Sweet for shooting into a white mob and Charles Garry’s defense of Black Panther leader Huey Newton for shooting a policeman, have been preserved in our legal literature. But most of those attempts have been lost to history. Lawyers less famous than Darrow or Garry have stood next to their clients and urged judges or juries to recognize...

  7. Chapter 3 The Law: Its Myths and Rituals
    (pp. 59-80)

    The black rage claim is a political defense because it confronts the myths of the law. It is a political defense because it injects race and class into a legal system that steadfastly avoids an honest and true discussion of these issues. Before we can fully understand the problems of raising and winning a black rage defense, it is helpful to analyze the legal culture in which we are immersed. This chapter examines the role of the law and three of the major underpinnings of the legal system: courtroom rituals, legal reasoning, and the pretense of colorblindness.

    The law is...

  8. Chapter 4 Black Rage 1971: The Case of James Johnson, Jr.
    (pp. 81-111)

    In 1968 James Johnson got a job in the automobile plants of Detroit. That meant it was more dangerous for him to go to work than to walk the streets at night. Working men and women have received many benefits from the industrial revolution. They have also paid an awful price in job-related sickness, injury, and death. In 1972 the “President’s Report on Occupational Safety and Health” made a conservative estimate that there were 100,000 deaths every year traceable to working conditions. In addition, the report concluded that there were at least 390,000 new cases of disabling occupational disease each...

  9. Chapter 5 James Johnsonʹs Workersʹ Compensation Case
    (pp. 112-124)

    The controversy over James Johnson did not end with the verdict in the criminal case. A bright young lawyer who specialized in worker disability cases had filed a workers’ compensation claim on behalf of Johnson. The lawyer, Ron Glotta, worked in the same law firm as Ken Cockrel and Justin Ravitz and was active in the movement to organize autoworkers. He was a cofounder of the Motor City Labor League, a group of white leftists whose purpose was to organize among white workers and to support the actions of the black radicals in the League of Revolutionary Black Workers, DRUM,...

  10. Chapter 6 Racism, Rage, and Criminal Defenses
    (pp. 125-146)

    The environmental defense took a step forward in the case ofUnited States v. Alexander.¹ The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit heard theAlexandercase in 1972, just one year after the acquittals of Steven Robinson and James Johnson. Ironically, the decision has had a lasting impact because of thedissentingopinion. Judge David Bazelon, America’s foremost jurist in the field of law and psychiatry, wrote a penetrating dissent suggesting that severe socioeconomic hardship should be allowed as a defense to a criminal charge. Two thought-provoking articles have continued the discussion of whether an environmental defense, and...

  11. Chapter 7 To Use or Not to Use The Black Rage Defense
    (pp. 147-162)

    In most legal cases the lawyer has only one concern: the interests of the client. Unfortunately, the legal community has defined the interests of the client in the narrowest terms possible—the client’s best interests equal winning the case. A broader view would include preserving the client’s dignity and empowering her. This broader view is essential in a black rage defense, in which the client’s painful personal history is revealed to the public.

    Many cases go through the assembly line that passes for our criminal justice system, but very few of those cases send a message to the public. Most...

  12. Chapter 8 Race, Class, and the Trials of Clarence Darrow
    (pp. 163-182)

    In the preceding chapters we have seen how the black rage defense has been used in a psychiatric context. It can also be a vehicle for a self-defense claim. The law of self-defense is one of those instances in a criminal case where the state of mind of the defendant is considered relevant to the charges. For example, a person charged with murder can argue that the killing was justifiable homicide and that he is therefore not guilty. In order to justify the killing, the defendant must believe (1) that there was animminentdanger that the other person would...

  13. Chapter 9 A Survey of Black Rage Cases
    (pp. 183-202)

    It is difficult to survey black rage cases because most of them have not been reported in the news or in legal literature. As the modern version of this defense was being shaped in the 1970s, the political perspective of the establishment press resulted in little interest in cases that did not involve famous lawyers or sensational events. The pre-Watergate media was not interested in young lawyers exposing societal racism in criminal trials. Even in today’s atmosphere, unless the case is considered “newsworthy” little is reported other than the facts of the crime and the ultimate disposition.

    The legal process...

  14. Chapter 10 Urban War Zones
    (pp. 203-213)

    Doris first became a mother at fifteen, and then again at sixteen. She delivered her third child, Felicia, into the world at eighteen, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.¹ For the first years of her life Felicia Morgan lived with Doris and her father. Her parents had a volatile relationship and often would bring guns to the dinner table to protect themselves from each other. They beat Felicia with leather belts, extension cords, and switches. Her father left for Mississippi when Felicia was seven, and she went to live with her grandparents. At eleven she returned to her mother’s home, where the violence...

  15. Chapter 11 White Rage—Hate Crimes
    (pp. 214-227)

    One of the primary criticisms of the black rage defense is that it opens the door to a white rage defense. In his bookThe Abuse Excuse, Alan Dershowitz presents this critique: “If the black rage defense were to succeed, we would see white skinheads invoking ‘white rage’ in defense of white-against-black racist killings. Rage is simply not a valid excuse for violence against members of a different race.” Many skinheads and racist whites have been prosecuted for violence against blacks, Asians, and other racial or religious minorities. I am not aware of any of them arguing that they should...

  16. Chapter 12 White Rage—Do Prisons Cause Crime?
    (pp. 228-240)

    Alan Dershowitz’s criticism of the black rage defense is not convincing. However, there is another criticism that does have some validity. In law school it is called the “slippery slope.” This criticism speaks to the fear that once the legal system permits a black rage defense, we will slide headlong down a slippery slope and find ourselves allowing Latinos, Asians, Native Americans, and poor whites to use a comparable defense. This critique is supportable. The answer to it is that a person of any race should be allowed to try to persuade a jury that severe environmental factors contributed to...

  17. Chapter 13 The Cultural Defense and the Trials of Patrick Hooty Croy
    (pp. 241-263)

    In recent years the media has shown increasing interest in defendants who use a “cultural defense” to excuse, justify, or mitigate their criminal conduct. What is a cultural defense? Simply stated, it is the use of social customs and beliefs to explain the behavior of a defendant. It is sometimes called social framework or social context evidence. It is very similar to the black rage defense in its use of social, economic, and psychological evidence, but there are significant differences. The black rage defense is an explanation of how American racism impacts on African Americans. It has a powerful political...

  18. Chapter 14 “Remake the World”
    (pp. 264-276)

    What is the future of the black rage defense in America’s courtrooms? To answer that question we must first look at the social construction of crime. Second, we need to look at how the cataclysmic economic changes taking place today will affect African Americans. We can then look at two areas where the black rage defense is expanding and suggest situations in which such a defense is most appropriate and useful.

    Crime is real. However, the depiction of crime in America is often fictitious. The media’s drive for profits results in the overreporting and sensationalizing of murder and assault. Stories...

  19. Notes
    (pp. 277-290)
  20. Index
    (pp. 291-294)
  21. Back Matter
    (pp. 295-295)