law, memories, nostalgia, YouTube

Repost: Our “senior trip” to the Virginia State Pen…

It’s spring, and when I was in high school, that meant taking field trips. When I was a senior in high school, my government teacher, Mr. Eccleston, took us on a trip to Richmond, Virginia. This was something he did every year, although I’m pretty sure our class was the last one to go to the Virginia State Penitentiary. That’s because they closed the “Pen” in 1991, and tore it down. Here’s a repost of my 2013 blog post about my experience visiting Virginia’s old state prison… Meanwhile, I’m still thinking about today’s fresh topic.

Most high school kids go off to some interesting or exotic place when they become seniors.  I guess, in my case, the place my senior class went for the “senior trip” was exotic and interesting enough, though it wasn’t an overnight trip.  My senior year of high school was actually full of interesting field trips, to include a trip to a local medical school, where my biology classmates and I saw cadavers.  We also went caving, and visited the National Zoo in Washington, DC.  I skipped at least three other field trips because I didn’t have the money to go.  But probably the most interesting of all the trips we took was the one that took us to the State Penitentiary in Virginia.

Here’s an interesting talk about the former penitentiary, which was demolished just after our visit in 1990. If this subject interests you, I highly recommend watching this video. The speaker, Dale M. Brumfield, is very engaging and this is a fascinating subject.

The Virginia State Pen was a very old structure that had received its first prisoners in 1800.  If you click the link, you can see some photos of the place, which was eventually demolished.  It sat next to the James River in downtown Richmond, Virginia. 

In the spring of 1990, when we had our field trip, the Pen was about to be closed down.  There were still inmates there when we came to visit the place.  I remember how my classmates and I were each frisked, then shown into this huge cell block that had several tiers of tiny cells, which you can see in the featured photo.  The place was painted light blue and there was a smell of human filth, sweat, and detergent in the air.  The building was obviously very antiquated and unpleasant.  It definitely needed to be torn down or renovated.

Gazing up, I could see the huge windows allowed birds to come in.  They flew near the ceiling and probably mocked the inmates with their ability to come and go at will.  On the floor, I spied a dead mouse that looked like it had been there for awhile.  A heavily muscled guy with a mullet wore a wide leather belt with a set of handcuffs prominently displayed in a case as he led us through the facility.  He didn’t wear a uniform, though he obviously worked at the prison.

The inmates were in a different part of the prison when we visited.  I remember looking at the first big cell block, which was apparently vacated as inmates were transferred to other facilities.  We also visited death row, which had also been vacated.  Some inmates were in a yard nearby as we made our way to the death house.  They shouted and jeered at us.  I remember the death row cells were a whole lot larger than the ones in the cell block.  They had bars all around them and a lone television set was mounted on a pole that would have allowed all of the inmates to watch it.

At the end of the hall was the electric chair, which Virginia used to execute a lot of men until lethal injection became the preferred way to put condemned people to death.  Several of my classmates sat on the big oak chair, outfitted with heavy leather straps with big metal buckles.  I remember one teacher actually pretended to strap a couple of students in.  Back then, it was kind of a joke, but today, it seems kind of inappropriate and not that funny.  Virginia is a notorious death penalty state.  (ETA: Thanks to former Governor Ralph Northam, the death penalty was abolished in Virginia last year. I never thought I’d see the day.)

I remember after we saw the penitentiary, we went to Virginia Commonwealth University for lunch.  Two of my sisters are VCU graduates, so I was somewhat familiar with the place.  By then, I knew I was headed to Longwood for college. 

It was an eerie day… and probably the day that I first started to have ambivalent feelings about the death penalty.  

Edited to add in 2022: In his amazing talk in the above video, Dale Brumfield, talks about the kinds of crimes that would land people in the penitentiary. At one point, he talks about how Black men could be arrested and imprisoned for being caught on someone else’s property. They could get up to ten years for just appearing to LOOK like they were going to commit theft. As he was talking about that, I couldn’t help but think about the Ahmaud Arbery case, and how he was gunned down by three White men who thought he was a thief. It’s so sad that we haven’t evolved much since the early days of the Virginia Penitentiary’s history.

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law, racism, true crime

Chasing and finally catching justice for Ahmaud Arbery…

I remember being horrified as I first read about Ahmaud Arbery’s last moments on this planet. The 25 year old Black man was out running in Brunswick, Georgia on February 23, 2020. He was unarmed, and made the unfortunate decision to pass through Satilla Shores, where he would eventually encounter the three White men who ended his life. Travis McMichael, his father, Gregory McMichael, and their neighbor, William “Roddie” Bryan, chased Arbery in their vehicles. Unlike Arbery, two of his pursuers were armed. The two McMichaels had weapons and rode in a vehicle together as they chased the young man who was out for a run. Bryan brought his camera, which he used to video the confrontation. In light of what happened yesterday, I’m sure Bryan wishes he’d left the camera at home.

Gregory McMichael, a former police officer in Brunswick, had initiated the chase when he saw Ahmaud Arbery run past his house. He had wrongly suspected Arbery of burglary or theft in Satilla Shores and decided to take it upon himself to make a “citizen’s arrest”, bringing along a .357 Magnum pistol revolver. Travis joined his father, toting a shotgun. Bryan inexplicably decided independently to join in the chase, but hadn’t known if Arbery had done anything illegal.

Although Arbery had, on several occasions, entered an under-construction house with no doors in the neighborhood, there was never any evidence of theft, according to security camera footage. Travis McMichael had made a call to 911 about a week and a half before Arbery’s final run. He reported that Arbery was breaking into the unfinished house. Moreover, according to The Toronto Star, Arbery’s relatives were known to local law enforcement.

Gregory McMichael did have a past with Arbery, as McMichael had been an investigator for Brunswick Judicial Circuit District Attorney’s Office from 1995 until his retirement in May 2019. When he was in high school, Arbery was sentenced to five years probation as a first offender on charges of carrying a weapon on campus and several counts of obstructing a law enforcement officer. He was convicted of probation violation in 2018 after he was charged with shoplifting. McMichael had been involved with the case, and was instrumental in getting Arbery’s probation revoked.

Arbery’s mother, Wanda Cooper Jones, had asked that the Waycross Judicial Circuit District Attorney, Roger Barnhill, recuse himself from the case. This was because Barnhill’s son was a prosecutor who had worked with Gregory McMichael in a previous court case involving Ahmaud Arbery. It was very fortunate that Cooper Jones had made that request, particularly since she hadn’t known that McMichael and Barnhill had any ties to her son’s legal past. She simply hadn’t wanted Barnhill on the case because his son worked for the Brunswick district attorney’s office. If Barnhill hadn’t recused himself, Cooper Jones’s lawyer, Lee Merritt, said, “the case would’ve been no billed to a grand jury and the McMichaels would’ve gotten away with murder.”

Barnhill had written in his letter of recusal that Arbery and his family had been in trouble with the law in Brunswick, and that his older brother was incarcerated. One of Arbery’s cousins also had a past with the police department. To those revelations, attorney Lee Merritt said:

“This speaks to the wider issue of mass incarceration. If Black people have any kind of criminal record, somehow that justifies their murder.”

But talk to some people in the community, and they will swear up and down that a person with a rap sheet deserves to be killed if they’re caught doing something illegal. Especially if the person with a rap sheet is not White. Sure enough, it took 74 days before the three men who were responsible for killing Ahmaud Arbery were finally arrested and charged with murder. The local prosecutor was friends with Gregory McMichael and did not want to bring charges against the men. So yes, the men were brought to justice, but it could have easily gone the other way.

Justice is served.

The trial took place in Brunswick, but every Brunswick Judicial Circuit Judge recused themselves from the case. Consequently, Chatham County Superior Court Judge Timothy Walmsley presided over the trial. Yesterday, I watched as Judge Walmsley read the verdicts for the three men who claimed “self-defense” when they decided to pursue and kill Ahmaud Arbery. I’m not sure why these guys thought Arbery didn’t have the right to defend himself when he was confronted by three men, two of whom had weapons.

Travis McMichael was pronounced guilty of all charges. Gregory McMichael was pronounced guilty of all but one charge of malice murder. William “Roddie” Bryan was pronounced guilty of felony murder (3 counts), aggravated assault, false imprisonment, and criminal attempt to commit a felony (1 count each). These were just the charges brought against them by the state of Georgia. There are still federal charges pending against the three men.

Not a happy day for these guys. They will probably not see the light of day as free men again. Bryan looks like he’s about to burst into tears as the judge announces the verdict.

I am impressed by Judge Walmsley. He handled this case very soberly, professionally, and fairly. I think his conduct starkly contrasts that of Judge Bruce Schroeder, who was reportedly more brash and quirky in the way he ran Kyle Rittenhouse’s recent trial in Wisconsin. The result of Rittenhouse’s trial was much less lauded by the public, as Rittenhouse was acquitted of all charges. Of course, these two cases have to do with race relations, but they aren’t really that similar. It still surprised me that Ahmaud Arbery’s case in Georgia seemed to end much more fairly than Kyle Rittenhouse’s case did in Wisconsin. Personally, I think Rittenhouse was acquitted because the prosecutor was too ambitious about the level of charges against Rittenhouse. I do think Rittenhouse should have gotten some prison time.

Today is Thanksgiving, and I have no doubt that Ahmaud Arbery’s family is giving thanks that the men who were responsible for killing Ahmaud will have to pay for their crimes. Ahmaud Arbery’s father, Marcus Arbery, let out a celebratory whoop when the first guilty verdict was read. He now says that he and his family can move forward. Maybe this is a sign of some progress in our country.

This video was key evidence that got three men convicted. It was recorded by William “Roddie” Bryan, who probably wishes he’d minded his own business on that February day last year.

I don’t take any delight in seeing people locked up in prison, but I do think prison is necessary and just for violent crimes, especially those done out of hate. There is no excuse for the way these men hunted down Arbery and killed him. I do have some compassion for the loved ones of the incarcerated, even though I do think they belong in prison. Prison is tough on families, and Gregory McMichael’s wife is going to see her husband and her son go away, probably for the rest of their lives. I’m sure that is heartbreaking for her. But I also think that justice is finally being done. The McMichaels and Mr. Bryan should not have taken the law into their own hands.

If anything good has come out of this incident, it’s that some very old and bad laws have now been stricken from Georgia’s books. According to The New York Times:

…the trial of [Arbery’s] accused killers also brought up issues of policing — although in this case, it involved questions about private citizens and their rights to detain people who they believe to be breaking the law.

Those rights in Georgia were spelled out in a controversial Civil War-era statute that was significantly weakened by state lawmakers in direct response to the outrage over the Arbery killing. Lawmakers also passed Georgia’s first-ever hate crimes law as a result of the incident.

All of that set up a remarkable kind of trial in which the defendants claimed they were not guilty based in part on an old law that their actions helped to dismantle. At the same time, they were not charged under the new Georgia hate crimes law., though all three have also been indicted under the federal hate crimes statute.

Maybe the new legislation against hate crimes will mean that Ahmaud Arbery’s death won’t be entirely in vain.

Incidentally, Bill and I have been to Brunswick, Georgia. We went there in October 2009 to pick up my car, which was brand new and had just been shipped from Germany. I remember it to be a very weird town, mainly due to the strange taxi driver who picked us up at the tiny airport there. He was an old guy who drove like a maniac and scared the wits out of Bill. Bill ended up complaining about the dude at the hotel where we stayed– an Embassy Suites that was connected to the mall, which apparently didn’t even have an ATM.

The manager of the hotel actually refunded the cost of our stay because Bill noticed that the hotel had a shuttle and it wasn’t mentioned on their Web site. He had If we had known the hotel had a shuttle, we could have been spared the wacko taxi ride with the sketchy guy who had to be paid in cash and drove us to a bank. We never went back to Brunswick, although the beach area was kind of appealing. I think if we ship our cars next time we move to the States, we’ll have them delivered in Charleston. It may cost more, but it’ll be a lot less weird.

Happy Thanksgiving, if you celebrate. I think our holiday will mostly be a normal day, albeit with Bill off. He just vacuumed for me, which is a real treat.

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