Second Thought: Wednesday, June 25, 2008
Aching for Justice

Local jury verdicts show a larger problem in our society.

By Valda Jean Combs

When an Arlington woman was indicted for manslaughter last year because she lied to her husband, I was concerned, but not much. Surely no jury would convict a woman who did not pull the trigger, while allowing the real killer to go free. I was wrong.
That woman, Tracy Roberson, was convicted and sentenced to two years in prison. When her husband found her having sex with another man in the bed of a pickup truck, Tracy Roberson yelled that she was being raped. And as the man tried to escape, Darrell Roberson fired at him four times and killed him.
Tracy Roberson lied. But she didn’t tell her husband to pull out his gun and start shooting. So when she was convicted, I waited for the outcry from women and fair-minded men. Instead, there was silence. When I began to question my women friends, they said things like, “She shouldn’t have cheated.” Or “She was a fool to have the man in her own driveway.” No one thought that a man who took justice into his own hands should have been held accountable for taking a life. And I find that disturbing.
Even if we believe the man thought he was defending his wife’s honor, couldn’t he have called 911? Couldn’t he have written down the license plate as the man drove away? The record shows that as the victim tried to escape, Darrell Roberson fired his handgun four times into the victim’s vehicle, striking him once in the head. Perhaps he could have pulled the man from his vehicle and fought him. But kill him? The woman was punished for lying and being an adulteress, and the killer went free. Many other choices could have been made between the lie and the killing. Instead, rage and vigilante justice were rewarded.
The Texas Penal Code doesn’t list adultery or lying to a spouse as criminal offenses. How then is it just for the woman to go to jail while the shooter goes on with his life, even “forgiving” his wife?
I could just chalk this up as an example of Cowtown justice, but miscarriages of justice are not unique to Tarrant County. A Dallas County jury recently sentenced an HIV-positive man to 35 years in prison for spitting on a peace officer. Yes, spitting. The jurors concluded, against all the medical evidence, that the spittle of an HIV-positive person is a deadly weapon. Moreover, they found that the drunken man hocked his loogie with intent to harm the officer. In fact, contact with saliva has never been shown to result in transmission of HIV.
In both cases, prosecutors convinced juries that such lying, adultery, and spitting, which aren’t even crimes, are punishable by time in prison. My constitutional law professor had a phrase to explain the way we feel when we read cases like Dred Scott v. Sanford or Plessy v. Ferguson. He would say they made our “justice bone hurt.” Well, these cases hurt my justice bone.
The fact these folk were charged in the first place is no surprise. Police officers arrest, question, and confront suspects face-to-face. It is not a pure process. It is impossible to be objective about a man who just spit on you or a fellow officer. But that’s the very reason we have checks and balances built into the system.
Once an arrest has been made, it is up to the district attorney to review the case. And the prosecutor’s primary ethical duty is to seek clear-headed justice — not revenge and not popularity with the police. In short, the Tarrant and Dallas County prosecutors could have said to law enforcement, “Sorry, but we cannot go forward on these facts.” I’m proud of the Dallas County DA’s efforts to free wrongfully convicted people. But in these two cases, something went wrong.
I know it is unpopular to be concerned about those convicted of crimes, but the truth is the lost years can never be reclaimed. The financial toll of a criminal prosecution is borne by taxpayers, along with the even higher costs of incarceration. The emotional cost to the families of both the victim and the accused is considerable.
I believe strongly in victims’ rights, but in the Roberson case, how is the victim’s family benefited when the man who shot at the victim four times is not paying for the crime? In the case of the spitter, the punishment clearly does not fit the crime. The HIV community, at least, has expressed outrage at the verdict in the case of the spitter, but where are the women’s groups? Where are the advocates for justice?
Each time I represent a criminal defendant, I am painfully aware that few of them have the resources to match those of the state, either financially or in the coin of jury sentiment. When I served as a prosecutor, I was always aware that the jurors saw me as the “good guy.” In the eyes of most jurors, the DA is the champion of truth and the advocate for the victim, and overcoming that is very difficult.
The importance of the district attorney as a check on law enforcement cannot be overstated, for when justice does not prevail, we all bear the cost. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” The stain of a conviction wrongfully attained against people we don’t care about will seep through our society until injustice no longer moves us to surprise or outrage.
We shrug and talk about “compassion fatigue” as we turn the page of our newspaper or go to the next story on the internet. We blame the defendants and rationalize our inertia. And when our government admits to waterboarding supposed enemies and holding suspects without hearings in undisclosed locations for years at a time, it barely registers that this nation has lost its bearings. And yet we know something is wrong.
Perhaps we should pay attention to that dull, persistent ache. It just might be our justice bone.

The Rev. Valda Jean Combs, a licensed attorney, heads FullProof HIV Ministry, which educates and raises awareness of HIV/AIDS in faith institutions.

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