Lynched by the Law
On June 16 the body of Raynard Johnson, 17, an African-American, was found hanging from a pecan tree in the front yard of his home in Kokomo, Mississippi.
The coroner ruled it a suicide, but Johnson's parents, Jesse Jackson, and civil rights leaders claimed that he was lynched for dating a white girl. A series of angry marches and rallies followed with loud calls for a federal investigation. The incident drew national media attention and ignited a public debate over the ancient taboo of black men having sexual relations with white women.
The same day that Johnson's death touched off a national furor, Keith Stockdale, 15, an African-American, stood silently in a juvenile courtroom 2000 miles away from Kokomo, in Rancho Cucamonga, California -- a mostly white, conservative bedroom community 60 miles east of Los Angeles.
He listened as a judge slapped him with a 46 years-to-life sentence. This is believed to be one of the longest sentences ever handed out to a minor in a juvenile court case.
Stockdale was convicted of the rape of three teen-aged white girls. Legal experts say the average prison sentence in adult rape cases where no weapon is used and the perpetrator has no prior record is 4-6 years.
In Stockdale's case, the arresting officer, the judge, prosecutor, and the court appointed psychologist were white. Stockdale's family and supporters have called the verdict a "travesty" and talk in terms of a legal lynching.
Unlike the Johnson hanging, the case drew no media attention, no angry protests, and no calls by civil rights leaders for an outside investigation.
But this case does shine a glaring light on the hypercharged issues of sexual violence, racial bias in the criminal and juvenile justice system, and the victimization of young black males.
The charges against Stockdale shocked friends and family members. A high school freshman who was an above average student, Stockdale played on the football and basketball teams, was not involved with gangs or drugs, and was well liked by teachers and coaches.
Stockdale admits he had sexual relations with the girls, but insists that the relationships were consensual.
Stockdale's family and supporters point to colossal flaws in the case to back their charge that his sentence is a travesty:
- unsupported victims statements,
- huge delay between the time the sexual acts occurred and allegations of rape,
- no medical evidence of physical injuries to the victims,
- no allegation that a weapon was used,
- favorable report from a psychologist.
The staggering sentence came only weeks after a Youth Law Center report showing that young black and Latino males are six times more likely to be tried and sentenced to prison than young whites, even when the crimes are similar. The report found that blacks make up 40 percent of youths tried in adult courts and nearly 60 percent of those sentenced to state prisons.
The white/black disparities in punishment of young people are even more gargantuan in California. A report from the Justice Policy Institute finds Latino youths six times more likely to be tried in adult courts than whites and blacks an astounding 12 times more likely to be tried as adults, and 18 times more likely to be remanded to the California Youth Authority -- for many, a first step toward state prison.
This savage treatment fuels the deep suspicion that judges, prosecutors, and probation officers bend over backwards to give young white offenders the benefit of the legal doubt and find extenuating factors to minimize their crimes, are far more willing to heed recommendations from probation officers for leniency -- and far less willing to brand and treat them as dangerous, habitual offenders, even when they commit violent crimes.
Though Stockdale had no prior criminal record, a white psychologist labeled him a dangerous, high risk offender, and recommended the stiffest possible prison sentence. Another psychologist reported to the court that Stockdale was not a high risk threat.
The court rejected the latter conclusion and slapped him with the harsh sentence.
In the juvenile justice system, young black males bear the brunt of the legal assault from a severely racially-warped criminal and juvenile justice system. The troubling case of Keith Stockdale may well be one more tragic example of that.
Readers wanting more information or willing to support Stockdale should write or call the Legal Defense Fund, Box 1078, Chino Hills 91709 310-827-0768.