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Unequal Justice Under the Law

Two high-profile cases last week illustrate that America is a study in unequal justice under the law when it comes to its treatment of black and white criminal offenders who face vastly different outcomes in America’s justice system.

Last week, “America’s Dad,” Bill Cosby was convicted of drugging and raping a woman 14 years ago. The woman, Andrea Constand, is among some 60 women who have accused Cosby, of lacing their drinks with drugs and sexually assaulting them.

The conviction is a devastating blow that will obliterate Cosby’s legacy as a groundbreaking black entertainer and philanthropist, and it should. He is now a convicted rapist. At 80, he doesn’t yet know his fate with regard to punishment, as his sentencing hearing is expected to occur within in the next two to three months.

Also, last week, the so called “Red Line Rapist,” John Hicks, a 41-year-old black man, was convicted and sentenced to two life terms for raping a nurse on the Washington, DC area’s Metro line in 2016. It was Hicks’ third criminal sexual offense (two separate indecent exposure incidents) and in apologizing to the victim, he admitted his guilt for the heinous violation.

There are few commonalities in these cases, but the most significant similarity – race will play a major impact in each case. Both of the perpetrators are black and both will likely receive far harsher punishment than similar white offenders.

Let me be clear, all rapists regardless of race, should be punished severely for their crimes, but its troubling that more often than not, America’s justice system dispenses unequal treatment under the law for black and white men who are convicted of the same crimes.

Unequal Justice and Celebrity Rapists

Harvey Weinstein reached settlements in two cases that barred the victims from pursuing charges against him, one with actress Rose McGowan, whom he raped in 1996 during the Sundance Film Festival, and another the following year with two female employees in the London office of the Weinstein Company.

The total cost of the settlements: $350,000 ($100,000 for McGowan and $250,000 split by the two employees in the London office). Sadly, the three victims are just the tip of the iceberg, as Weinstein is alleged to have sexually harassed or assaulted 85 women.

Cosby reached a settlement of $3.4 million with victim Andrea Constand, whom he drugged and sexually assaulted in 2004. There was no agreement, however, that charges not be pursued, which is what ultimately led to a conviction in his case. Prosecutors allege that over decades, Cosby’s victims number nearly 60.

While each of the high-profile Hollywood celebrity men is equally monstrous, they didn’t suffer equal punishment for their crimes. It’s hard to ignore race as a factor in the unequal treatment under the law with regard to Weinstein and Cosby.

Weinstein was effectively allowed to buy his way out of prosecution for his crimes and has all but disappeared from the radar following treatment for “sex addition.” Money effectively bought Cosby time, but it can’t and shouldn’t buy his freedom. But the reality is that it often doesn’t work the same for white men. White men are allowed to use their power, influence and money to buy their way out of prosecution for crimes. Need another example? Look no further than Brock Turner.

The Poster Boy for Unequal Justice

In 2015, Brock Turner, a college swimmer from a wealthy family, was discovered raping an unconscious

woman behind a dumpster. The two men who discovered him were so repulsed by what they saw that they chased him and held him until police arrived. He was tried and convicted of rape and ultimately sentenced to six months in prison.

During his sentencing the judge said a longer sentence would cause “severe impact” on Turner and “adverse collateral consequences.” You read that right: The judge opined that a harsh sentence for a rapist would negatively impact the rapist’s life. The judge noted that Turner didn’t have a weapon and hadn’t been previously convicted of a crime. But, he still raped an unconscious woman and got a slap on the wrist for it. He is the poster boy for unequal justice under the law. (It’s also worth nothing that Turner is appealing his conviction. If successful, he would have no criminal record).

By contrast, John Hicks raped a woman at knifepoint on Washington’s Metro red line, forcing her to perform oral sex on him. He’d previously been convicted of indecent exposure. His punishment: two life sentences in prison. There was no wealthy father to plead for leniency and no sympathetic judge to comply.

And there shouldn’t have been. Rape is rape is rape is rape. Money, influence and white privilege shouldn’t buy one freedom from prosecution or lighter sentences, but this is often what happens. Unless of course, the perpetrator is black. Then, you can bet, regardless of how wealthy he is, that he will face the full punishment under the law.

Justice isn’t so blind in America. It swings heavily in favor of wealthy, privileged white offenders time and time again.

Stacy Fitzgerald is a Washington, DC area Gen Xer whose obsessions include politics, traveling and food and wine ventures.

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