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The Fire Down Below:
Racial Disparity in the
Criminal Justice System
By Andy Thibault – Guest Blogger
Let me start with a simple definition for the question, “What is Racial Disparity?”
The answer comes from The Sentencing Project, a national non-profit promoting sentencing reform: “Racial disparity in the criminal justice system exists when the proportion of a racial or ethnic group within the control of the system is greater than the proportion of such groups in the general population.”
In a paper entitled “Reducing Racial Disparity in the Criminal Justice System,” The Sentencing Project notes that in 2006, 38 percent of prison and jail inmates were African-American, compared to their 13 percent share in the overall population. The paper also asserted that a black male born in 2001 had a 32 percent chance of spending time in prison at some point in his life, a Hispanic male had a 17 percent chance and a white male had a six percent chance.
Michelle Alexander calls this situation “The New Jim Crow,” which might also be called “Apartheid, American Style.”
The writer and Union Theological Seminary Professor Cornel West, in his Foreword to Alexander’s book, says: “There is no doubt that if young white people were incarcerated at the same rates as young black people, the issue would be a national emergency … it is also true that if young black middle- and upper-class people were incarcerated at the same rates as young black poor people, black leaders would focus more on the prison industrial complex.”
Alexander characterizes “the popular narrative that emphasizes the death of slavery and Jim Crow and celebrates the nation’s ‘triumph over race’ with the election of Barack Obama” as “dangerously misguided.”
“The colorblind public consensus that prevails in America today – i.e., the widespread belief that race no longer matters – has blinded us to the realities of race in our society and facilitated the emergence of a new caste system …
“I use the term racial caste in this book the way it is used in common parlance to denote a stigmatized racial group locked into an inferior position by law and custom. Jim Crow and slavery were caste systems. So is our current system of mass incarceration …
“[Chapter 3] debunks the notion that rates of black imprisonment can be explained by crime rates and identifies the huge racial disparity at every stage of the criminal justice process – from the initial stop, search and arrest to the plea bargaining and sentencing phases. In short, the chapter explains how the legal rules that structure the system guarantee discriminatory results. These legal rules ensure that the undercaste is overwhelmingly black and brown.”
No prisoner has served more time in the Niantic jail – aka York “Correctional” Institution – longer than Bonnie Jean Foreshaw, a battered and sexually-abused woman who has somehow managed to survive and hold on to her humanity.
Foreshaw gave birth to her first child after being raped at age 12. She’s been a victim of violence and sexual abuse from childhood through her 27 ½ years in prison.
After she was beaten by her third husband she carried a gun for protection. She was a machinist for Wiremold Company in Hartford for 10 years, a shop steward. She bought a house in Bloomfield and cared for her children.
Her third husband continued to stalk her.
One night in 1986 Foreshaw stopped for a drink at the Jamaican Progressive League in Hartford. A man named Hector Freeman offered her a drink. She declined. Freeman pursued Foreshaw, would not leave her alone, followed her to her car. Freeman asked why Foreshaw thought she was “too good for a drink” with him. Freeman said again and again he was going to fuck her up. Freeman came toward her, he reached into his pocket. Foreshaw feared Freeman was going to pull a knife or a gun. Instead, Freeman pulled a pregnant woman in front of him.
Foreshaw, then age 38, simultaneously fired her gun. She hit the pregnant woman who died. That woman, Joyce Amos, was used as a human shield after trying to restrain Freeman. Prosecutor James Thomas grossly overcharged Foreshaw for premeditated murder of a person she had never met.
The prosecution conveniently failed to disclose that Freeman had pending charges for assault of a police officer. A judge ruled Freeman’s tainted testimony was just fine. That’s the way it works when the forces of the state want a conviction for an inflated charge regardless of the facts.
The highest proper charge for Foreshaw would have been manslaughter. Justice might have been served and she would have been freed many years ago. At times like this it makes absolutely no sense that some people are in jail and others get to play golf and collect state pensions.
Foreshaw wrote of her remorse in a volume of redemptive memoirs, “Couldn’t Keep It To Myself,” edited by the novelist Wally Lamb: “I never lost sight of the fact that I still had my life and Joyce Amos, the lady who tried to help me that night, had lost hers. She had been someone’s mother and someone’s daughter, same as me. A powerful sadness was closing in. I began to ask myself how I could survive – or if I even wanted to … ”
Dr. Evan Stark, a professor at Rutgers and an expert on domestic violence, has written that Foreshaw “acted in fear of her life … and her actions constituted a self defense … her understanding of the danger she faced and her response were drawn from an astute and experience-tested understanding of situations in which men use violence and control to hurt or dominate women.”
As “Couldn’t Keep It To Myself” was published in 2003, I began to learn about the Foreshaw case. I wrote about a dozen columns and news stories about prison conditions over the next couple years and made a pitch for Bonnie’s case on Tom Monahan’s NBC30 Sunday show: link.
I received correspondence from Bonnie periodically, then picked up the case again in 2013.
Here are some experts from an Associated Press story dated June 20, 2013 about the long-suppressed “Blue Note” which eventually led to freedom for Bonnie Foreshaw:
>A Connecticut woman convicted of murder for a 1986 shooting death has been granted a clemency hearing after a 24-year-old document questioning her trial lawyer’s work resurfaced …
>The state Board of Pardons and Paroles denied Foreshaw’s application for a clemency hearing last month, but changed the ruling Monday after learning about a 1989 public defender’s memo through newspaper columns, board Chairwoman Erika Tindill said. The board didn’t know about the memo when it rejected the application May 1, she said …
>The memo was written by then-public defender Jon Blue, who said he believed Foreshaw didn’t get a fair trial because of serious mistakes made by her trial public defender, Dennis O’Toole. Blue wrote that O’Toole failed to challenge a “highly questionable” confession Foreshaw gave to police, a confession she refused to sign. He also said O’Toole failed to present an effective mental state defense.
>Tindill said a staffer in her office alerted her to the memo after it was written about in news columns by Andy Thibault, a contributing editor for Journal Register Co. newspapers in Connecticut. Thibault declined to say Thursday how he obtained the document.
>“Had it not been for the surfacing of that memo, which we had no idea about, we would not have reconsidered her case,” Tindill said Thursday.
In a May 27, 2013 column entitled, “ ‘The Blue Note’ key to Bonnie Foreshaw case resolution,” I cited this key element of the memo regarding Bonnie’s status as a battered person:
“A great deal of [this] relevant material was never produced [at trial] at all,” Blue wrote. “No friends or family who knew Mrs. Foreshaw testified. A former husband had beaten Ms. Foreshaw on the head with a baseball bat … and she had spent two weeks in the hospital. No hospital records were produced. Ms. Foreshaw had three failed marriages ending in domestic violence and divorce. No divorce or police records were produced. After she got out of the hospital, she had ‘head problems’ and went to see a neurologist. No neurologist was produced. The neurologist referred her to two different psychiatrists, who saw her a number of times. Neither of these psychiatrists was produced … The end result was that the jury learned little or nothing about Ms. Foreshaw and what was really happening in her mind. She did not have an effective defense.”
I turn now to an Aug. 5, 2013 broadcast by WNPR’s Where We Live previewing the clemency hearing that was to follow in October. WNPR’s Vice President for News John Dankosky and Managing Editor Diane Orson set the table. Following are excerpts from a transcript:
ORSON: I’d read that a woman in prison at York Correctional Institution in Niantic, named Bonnie Foreshaw, had been granted a clemency hearing and I recognized her name because years ago when I first came to Connecticut Public Radio, I worked as a co-producer for the show Open Air New England with Faith Middleton and I remembered that Faith had actually interviewed Bonnie Foreshaw. It was in the early nineties. Anyway, I contacted Faith and she got back to me and confirmed that this was the same person and I began to research the case … March 27, 1986, Bonnie Jean Foreshaw – she was then 38 years old – a machinist at the Wire Mold Company in Hartford, she was shop steward, she was active in her union, she was supporting her children, she went to a Jamaican social club on Albany Avenue in Hartford and there she met a man who she’d never met before, named Hector Freeman, who wanted to buy her a drink. She refused him. He was persistent. She was in no mood and she left the club. At this point it’s important to mention that this is a woman who lived a very traumatic life. She is truly a battered woman. She’d been assaulted over and over again. She’d endured physical, verbal, sexual violence as a child. Later she was the victim of, as you said, horrible abuse by three husbands, stuff I don’t even want to talk about on the air. But suffice to say, I mean, she’s been beaten by a baseball bat, all kinds of horrible things. Bonnie Foreshaw made a decision to buy a .38 caliber gun for protection because her third husband was still stalking her and she felt threatened. So, back to the night of shooting, Hector Freeman follows her outside. He continues to sort of shout insults at her. And at this point I want to mention a documentary film was made in the mid-nineties about this case and it’s called The Nature of the Beast [by Ondi Timoner]. It’s quite comprehensive. And at this point I’d like to play an excerpt from that film. This is the voice of Bonnie Foreshaw from an interview in prison describing, in her words, what happened that night.
BONNIE FORESHAW [IN FILE VIDEO]: [Indistinguishable] with his hands in his pocket and he was cursing and threatening. And all I wanted to do was get in my car. And before I could do that, he came towards me with his hands, cursing, threatening. I pulled my gun out and shot, you know, and just shot once. Next thing I know, the lady fell, the man stopped, I got in my car and left. About 20 minutes later I was pulled over and arrested and charged with murder, which I found out the next day that the lady had died and I was told in court that I was going to be charged with double murder because she was pregnant. I didn’t know him, I didn’t know her and she was just there trying to keep him from bothering me.
ORSON: … she was tried in 1987 for murder, not for manslaughter. Murder means intentionally causing the death of someone, premeditated murder. She’d never met either Hector Freeman or this woman, Joyce Amos, until the night of the shooting. So, she was arrested, you know, as we heard, minutes after the shooting. She was taken in, she was interrogated. Around 2:00 in the morning she hand-wrote out a confession, but she did not sign it. So, Bonnie has been represented over the years by a lot of people, like 20 different lawyers or something like that. A public defender was appointed to represent her for the death of Joyce Amos, the woman who had stepped – had been used as a shield – stepped into the situation. There are numerous questions, which we’re going to hear from Andy Thibault a little bit more about, about the way her case was handled in court. But the biggest question is why the public defender did not educate the jury about Bonnie Foreshaw’s history, a history that was really critical for people judging her as jurors to understand in order to make sense of why a battered woman might be carrying a gun, why she might shoot it if she felt threatened in self-defense. None of that was part of the trial. Instead, the jury found her guilty. She was given at the time, as you said, believed to be the longest sentence ever imposed in Connecticut’s history on a woman, a 45-year prison sentence. And so she has been incarcerated since then. She was 38 when she was arrested. She’s going to be I think 66 later this month. She’s been behind bars for more than 27 years.
DANKOSKY: I want to bring in Andy Thibault now to talk a bit about this. And as we get to this new piece of evidence, maybe you can shed a little more light on something that Diane was hinting at with that piece of audio from the documentary about why exactly she was charged with murder, why she was given such a very long sentence in this case.
THIBAULT: I think her charges were jacked up to advance the careers of prosecutors and cops and these charges had no basis in reality. In fact, I believe there’s an ongoing criminal conspiracy to violate Bonnie Foreshaw’s civil rights. I base that on a fake drug raid that was designed to dismantle her defense, the suspicious withdrawal of the motion to suppress her coerced confession. There’s a five-hour gap. We don’t know what happened between 2:00 and 7:00 a.m. and the prosecutor, James Thomas, falsely stated that Bonnie was a known drug seller, though he knew no drugs had been found. So, it was a setup. Bonnie, in effect, faced three prosecutors; the judge, the prosecutor James Thomas who stepped on a black woman victim of abuse and made her a poor woman by engineering the seizure of her house and diverting 80 grand that she could have used for a good private attorney…
DANKOSKY: Andy Thibault, why after all these years, given all of this evidence, given what we hear Wally Lamb saying about a model prisoner who has done so much during her time there, why has she not gotten clemency? Why has she not gotten out of prison?
THIBAULT: Well, it’s a fixed game and it’s no question this is a gross injustice and a shame for the state of Connecticut. I’d like to read a quote from Evan Stark, who’s a social worker who’s worked a lot for the prosecution. And he said, had Bonnie not been made stuperous by medication or had her character been accurately depicted, the prosecution would have been forced to answer the question that never surfaced at her trial: Why would a deeply religious woman in the throes of separating from her abusive husband with no history of violence, a good job and a happy family life, good home and excellent future prospects, risk all by shooting a man she had never met? Now, that fake drug raid I mentioned, a key player was Detective Kumnick, who is now the right-hand man of the Hartford State’s Attorney, Gail Hardy. So, I contend that her office and her actions are tainted in this case and others by using a guy like Kumnick. The judge, the public defender, the prosecutor, they all work for the state. They’re all on the same team. The state does not admit mistakes.
DANKOSKY: When it comes to some of the connections that you’re making, what evidence do you have about this fixed game, Andy?
THIBAULT: There was a fake drug raid that was used to dismantle her defense. You’ve got cops saying, oh, there’s all these guys who look like Rastafarians with guns running around Bonnie Foreshaw’s house. They make the drug raid, they seize her house, and on the court documents, nothing found, no drugs. The confession that was coerced in which she stated, I don’t want to sign this, immediately when Detective Murdock is called to the witness stand, the quote-unquote – I hate to say it – public defender, withdraws the motion to suppress the confession. Is that not suspicious? What did the prosecutor have on this guy? Nobody’s that stupid.
DANKOSKY: So, what happens next? There is a clemency hearing now scheduled for October.
DANKOSKY: What exactly happens in the saga of Bonnie Foreshaw next?
THIBAULT: Well, you never know what’s going to happen because everybody in the system is a political appointee, however, the chairperson of the Parole and Pardons Board said that this is new and compelling evidence and that they’re taking another look because of the Blue Note. I challenge anyone to look at the Blue Note and come to any other conclusion that if Bonnie Foreshaw had been charged properly with manslaughter, she would have been free many years ago.
To highlight the double-dealing by the state of Connecticut in this case, I turn again to Dr. Evan Stark, the Rutgers professor and expert witness:
Stark reported the local and federal authorities raided Foreshaw’s home, allegedly in response to reports it was a drug den, and seized her home under the federal forfeiture provision. But the $80,000 or so expended on the forfeiture proceeding and repurchasing the house exceeded the assets she needed for bail and to hire a private attorney. The court appointed an attorney who had never tried a murder case and had little criminal trial experience. In jail, she was given medications for depression that made her so drowsy she had trouble staying awake during the trial, let alone actively participating in her defense, Stark said.
In addition, Stark said, the drug raid was designed to undermine her defense and confounded the problems already faced by her inexperienced lawyer. Drug charges were still pending, when she went to trial and the state’s attorney [James Thomas] portrayed her as a “known drug seller,” though he knew no drugs had been found and that she neither had a history of drug use or any drug-related arrests, he said.
Would any reasonable or thoughtful person believe this kind of set-up is likely to happen to a white person of means? I ask this to set the table for further discussion. Certainly there are plenty of cases to cite in this historical context.
The ultimate outcome of the Foreshaw case, I contend, was a fluke, an aberration. The fortuitous surfacing of the Blue Note came after Judge Blue was embedded in the public consciousness because of his role as the presiding judge in the infamous Cheshire murders. Blue’s word was golden, even if it helped to free a person convicted unjustly. To his credit, Blue showed up at the clemency hearing to affirm his memo. And the chair of the board of Pardons and Paroles, Erika Tindill, displayed courage in affixing her signature to the clemency document.
Bonnie Foreshaw has been a free person since Nov. 15, 2013: link to YouTube.
We are very happy to continue this discussion Feb. 29 at the Willimantic and Danielson campuses of Quinebaug Valley Community College. Click here for details. Special thanks to the poet and Professor Jon Andersen for arranging this event, and to QVCC President Carlee Drummer and Associate Director of Career Services for their hospitality.
Editor’s full disclosure: Bonnie Foreshaw, CT Commissioner of Corrections Scott Semple and I were panelists at Ready for Freedom…? Life After Prison In Connecticut; Andy Thibault was the moderator. Also, former Chair of CT Board of Pardons & Paroles [now Superior Court Judge] Erika Tindill and I served together on the Board of Directors of Family ReEntry, a nonprofit based in Bridgeport, CT – Jeff
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