Justice for Black defendants wrongfully and excessively sentenced in Richmond, Virginia

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Say the name Uhuru Rowe. Uhruru Rowe - a comrade, brother and friend. Uhuru has spent over two decades imprisoned and has a future that is shaped by carceral politics – Uhuru is a political prisoner, who was sentenced to 93 years in 1995 for a conviction where recommended sentencing was 13 years. We have made calls to our cities to defund the police and to defund the carceral state towards a horizon of abolition. Uhuru’s life and ongoing struggle for justice is a material circumstance created by justice systems that do not work for black men, and therefore do not work for any of us.
In the words of Dr. Ruth Wilson Gilmore “Abolition requires that we change one thing, which is everything. Abolition is not absence it is presence. What the world will become already exists in fragments and pieces, experiments and possibilities. So those who feel in their gut deep anxiety that abolition means knock it all down, scorch the earth and start something new – let that go. Abolition is building the future from the present in all of the ways we can.”
A world without loved ones in bondage is possible in our lifetimes.

We are living in an unprecedented time in American history. Due to the ongoing racial justice protests in response to the killings of unarmed Black citizens at the hands of police, more Americans have been awakened to the existence of racism in the criminal justice system than at any other time in American history. Long before the current wave of racial justice protests began, Governor Northam acknowledged the disparity in sentencing between Black and white defendants.
In response to recent protests surrounding the murder of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis on May 25, he ordered the removal of confederate statues on the historic Monument Avenue in Richmond and convened a special session of the General Assembly to address police and criminal justice reform.

In the aftermath of the nationally publicized "blackface" scandal when he and many of his colleagues and community activists were calling on him to resign, he took the necessary step of creating a Commission to Review and Examine Racial Inequity in Virginia Laws to identify those laws that have had a disparate impact on Black Virginians.

While we applaud the Governor for taking these steps, more is needed. On March 8, 1998, the Richmond Times-Dispatch published a study of court records for June 30, 1994, through September 30, 1997, which found that the average Black defendant convicted of a felony in the South Richmond Manchester Courthouse was sentenced by former Richmond Circuit Court Judge James B. Wilkinson to a term that was 38 percent longer than what the average Black defendant received in the North Richmond John Marshall Court .The study also found that the average white defendant convicted of a felony in the Manchester Courthouse was sentenced by Judge Wilkinson to a term that was 13 percent shorter than what the average white defendant received in the John Marshall Court.

Canon 3B(5) says that "A judge shall perform duties without bias or prejudice. A judge shall not, in the performance of judicial duties, by words or conduct manifest bias or prejudice, including but not limited to bias or prejudice based upon race, sex, religion, national origin, disability, age, sexual orientation or social economic status ..."

If Black lives truly matter to Governor Northam, then steps should be taken to address the disparate impact of systematic racism on all people of color, including those currently in prisons, jails and detention centers as a result of racial bias by judges, prosecutors, and police. Racial justice and equality under the law can only be achieved when racism, bigotry and other forms of discrimination no longer determines the outcome for Black citizens entangled in criminal justice system.

Therefore, during this critical juncture in Amercan history, we urge Governor Northam to assemble a commission invested with the power and authority to:

~ conduct a comprehensive review of all active and nonactive sentences handed down upon Black defendants by Judge Wilkinson;

~ determine if said sentences were tainted or influenced, in whole or in part, by Judge Wilkinson's racial bias or prejudice. This determination shall be made by examining how much said sentence exceeds the sentencing guidelines recommended by the VCSC; Judge Wilkinson's stated reason(s), if any, for departing outside the recommended sentencing guidelines; or any other speech, gesture or conduct by Judge Wilkinson during trial or sentencing that can reasonably be perceived or construed as racial bias or prejudice;

~ make recommendations to the Governor for the grant of a conditional pardon or a commutation of any active or inactive sentences in cases where it has been determined that said sentences were tainted or influenced, in whole or in part, by Judge Wilkinson's racial bias; and

~ recommend to the Governor and members of the General Assembly the adoption or passage of any policy, procedure or legislation that will allow a defendant who is currently serving an active sentence in the Virginia Department of Corrections, and whose sentence has been determined to have been tainted or influenced, in whole or in part, by Judge Wilkinson's racial bias or prejudice, to motion or petition the Circuit Court of the City of Richmond for a reduction or modification of their sentence.

Sources:

"2 Analysis Find Similar Conclusions: No Factors Other Than Race Found To Account For Sentencing Disparity," Richmond Times-Dispatch, March 8, 1998

"A Hard-Liner on Crime: Defense Lawyers Pass Judgment on Wilkinson," Richmond Times-Dispatch, March 8, 1998

"Sentencing Probe May Be Asked: Black Lawyers' Group Plans To Discuss Request April 18," Richmond Times-Dispatch, March 22, 1998

"Governor Northam acknowledges sentencing disparity between black and white defendants," https://www.richmond.com/new/virginia/government-politics/citing-racial-inequity-northam-vows-to-veto-all-future-minimum/