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June 19, 2019

Speaking truth to power

In 2014, a young man, Bradley Scarpi, committed suicide while locked in a windowless punishment cell in the St. Clair County Jail, in central Illinois, not far from the Mississippi river. The death of that young man could and should have been prevented. So his family came to us seeking justice.

We sued – and in December 2018, along with my colleagues Sheila Bedi and Vanessa del Valle, we won a jury verdict for the family. The jury was right to find that a Jail officer had turned a deaf ear to Bradley’s pleas for help as he sank under the weight of depression and despair.

The local Sheriff disagreed. He complained in a media interview that the jury had the temerity to believe the testimony of prisoners and doubt the veracity of the Jail guard who denied wrongdoing.  He also took issue with our work, labeling the MacArthur Justice Center lawyers a group “traveling the state suing everybody.”

That’s wrong, of course.  We don’t just file lawsuits.  We do so for a reason—because we believe that our jury system can be a powerful vehicle for justice.  We file lawsuits because our country’s jails, our prisons, our criminal courtrooms, and our police produce tragic stories that cry out to be told.  We see it as our great privilege to be among “those lawyers” who use litigation to fight back against injustice. When a vulnerable person has been crushed by the machinery of the criminal justice system, where power has been exercised with callous indifference, where there is a wrong that needs to be made right and when, as sometimes happens, there is no other lawyer or firm willing and able to take the case—we hear a call to action.

With offices located in Illinois and in four other states, we have the capacity to fight these battles in courts across the country. When a mother in Mississippi is arrested and her child is taken from her because she cannot afford to pay a fine, we demand that her child be given back and insist that the responsible judge be removed from the bench.  When a prisoner in Indiana spends years in brutal conditions in a solitary confinement cell at the whim of a prison warden, we fight in court for compensation to the prisoner for the abuse.  When citizens in Baton Rouge, Louisiana are arrested for protesting the unjustified police shooting of Alton Sterling, we take the police to court.  When convicted persons on parole in the State of Missouri are returned to prison following secret, sham hearings where the parolees have no meaningful opportunity to show that they don’t deserve to be re-imprisoned, we go to court to demand that the system change.  When the United States government walks away from its responsibility to enforce the civil rights laws as a check on abuses by the Chicago Police Department, MacArthur lawyers, representing members of communities most affected by police misconduct, demand systemic change to the Police accountability system.  When the federal Administration enacts a ban on travel to the U.S. by citizens from majority Muslim countries, we call out the racism that underlies this policy.

For over 30 years, the MacArthur Justice Center has sought to be force for justice.  In these perilous times, our presence has never been more important. Every day, inconvenient truths are at risk of becoming the casualties of the arrogance, the avarice and the indifference of those in power.  That local Sheriff’s contempt for the honest jurors who had the courage to render a verdict for justice is not only incorrect—it’s fundamentally dangerous. It is contempt for the rule of law—a contempt that, sadly, flows from the height of power in this country all the way down to a county Sheriff in downstate Illinois.

We cannot acquiesce.  We must not allow the voices of the weak and the imprisoned to be drowned out as “fake news.”  We at the MacArthur Center take it as our mission to serve as messengers for those whose circumstances have robbed them of a voice.  These are hard and daunting times. But we will not be deterred in our mission. We stand with those who are locked away. We work for those who have been targeted by the criminal justice apparatus out of convenience or outright cruelty. We fight for an end to individual and institutional injustice and oppression.