Names, race and their influence on the courtroom
The past few weeks you, Gentle Reader, and I have been cogitating on the volatile issues of how bias might affect cases in court. Thank you for your interest. Now I would like to lightly examine a case or two where my own objectivity might be questioned.
The first involves my two-word name and the fact I was born on the Osage Indian Nation in Oklahoma. While I grew up with numerous peers who were Osage, I can make no claim to that proud heritage. But as my father was born in Indian Territory in 1905, before Oklahoma became a state, and because my mother’s family, the Berryhills, included undocumented members of both the Creek and Cherokee nations, our family does have a slight Native American tradition of which we are proud; although our name was an amalgamation from Prussian/German lineage prior to migration to America in the 17th century.
The original Prussian spelling of Raedwine meant “counsel-friend.” Regardless, when I served as a deputy prosecuting attorney in Vanderburgh County, Indiana, some of the folks I prosecuted knew I was from Oklahoma and had an “Indian sounding” name. And though Indiana might have been Indian Country when the Mississippi River marked “America’s” western border, when I lived in Indiana, Hoosiers were quite a ways removed from Native American culture. In fact, Osage County, Oklahoma, was more the stuff of Hollywood than reality to most people in Vanderburgh County. Anyway, the defendants I came into frequent contact with as a prosecuting attorney often put me into the paid gunfighter genre.
It will not surprise you that when I was vigorously seeking jail time for some of those misguided souls, they took umbrage at my efforts and me. One of those habitual backsliders was a young African-American man whom I prosecuted more than once. He was not amused at my repeated attempts to remove him from polite society and often referred to me to my face as, “Red Skin” not Redwine.
The culmination of my uncomfortable and frequent contact with Mr. Politically Incorrect occurred during a jury trial where Mr. Miscreant, who had about as much court experience as his young court-appointed attorney, overruled his lawyer’s advice and demanded to testify in his own defense. As I had a list of several convictions of impeachable offenses by Mr. _____ that I could bring out before the jury on cross-examination, I was eager to get a chance at him. Well, as the saying goes, “Be careful what you wish for.”
This particular charge of about 40 years ago occurred out of one of those situations we in today’s media market would call a Black Lives Matter fact pattern. George Willie _____ was seen beside a broken window to a business. A concerned citizen called the Evansville, Indiana, police department and a squad car with two officers was dispatched. The police saw G.W. ____ at the scene and chased him for several blocks. George’s story was he had done nothing wrong but was afraid the white cops would never believe him and might harm him. As he told his story I grew ever more excited for the chance to bring him down.
The heavily tattooed, long-dreadlocked, dashiki wearing, multiple earringed, very dark defendant sullenly answered my cross-examination questions for several minutes then when I brought out his most recent prior conviction he loudly said as he glanced at the jury and then stared me in the eye:
“Redwine, why is you always after me? We Black folks and you Indians should be on the same side, after all, the white man stole your land!”
The jury tittered, the judge laughed, the defense attorney knocked his fist on his counsel table and I was struck dumb. And, yes, if you must know, Mr. Repeat Offender was found not guilty by the jury. I avoided ever going up against Mr. Eloquent again by claiming I did not think it would be fair for me to do so. In reality, I just didn’t want to give him another chance.