It was April 1998 when two white New Jersey State Troopers, John Hogan and James Kenna, pulled over a van carrying four young men -- three black and one Hispanic -- on their way to a basketball camp. Before the stop was over, three of the travelers would lie wounded by police gunfire, and the issue of racial profiling would be propelled to the nation's front pages.
New Jersey officials conceded last year that the practice of singling out minority motorists for traffic stops to do drug searches had been longstanding, dating back at least as far as 1989. The state has already signed a consent decree with the Department of Justice to halt racial profiling and has been forced to release more than 90,000 pages of documents related to the practice (http://www.stopthedrugwar.org/njprofiling/). And the fallout continues.
Last Friday, New Jersey Attorney General James Farmer agreed to pay the four men nearly $13 million dollars to settle the civil rights lawsuit they filed against the state. (Civil actions against the two officers remain pending, as do criminal charges.) He also dropped criminal charges against 128 other persons who claimed they had been arrested because of racial bias.
Under the terms of the settlement, the state of New Jersey does not admit guilt in the shootings, but at a press conference last Friday, Peter Neufeld, who represented one of the men, said the settlement spoke for itself.
"In the agreement, there is no statement admitting or denying liability," Neufeld said, "however, they just agreed to pay out $12.9 million, and we think that number speaks volumes about what happened that night."
Keyshon Moore was driving south on the turnpike near Trenton as he and his companions headed for a North Carolina college to display their basketball skills in hopes of obtaining scholarships. After the troopers stopped the van, they fired 11 shots into it, claiming Moore had put the van in reverse and tried to run them over. Moore escaped injury, but passengers LeRoy Grant, Danny Reyes and Rayshawn Brown were wounded. Grant and Reyes were hospitalized for 13 days, Brown for two.
No drugs or weapons were discovered.
Grant and Reyes, both of whom still carry bullets in their bodies, will receive $4.4 million and $5.8 million, respectively. Brown will get $1.8 million, and Moore, the only one not wounded, will receive $912,000.
"Obviously, we have to set new goals for ourselves," Reyes said. "My life was based on going to school and playing basketball. Now I can't play anymore and I have to make new plans. Although the settlement may make the transition in our lives easier, it's only halfway to justice."
"It seems like we're still in the struggle," Grant told the press conference. "Like Dr. King, Malcolm X, Rosa Parks, they all took the back door so we could take the front door, but it seems to me we're still taking the back door."
Even as lawyers were announcing the widely-expected settlement in Manhattan, Attorney General Farmer dropped a bomb in Trenton with his announcement that he would drop charges in 77 out of 97 cases in which defendants sought to suppress evidence on the basis that they were stopped because of their race. 128 defendants had charges dropped.
The Attorney General was not happy. "Let's be clear," he wrote in a statement announcing the decision, "the defendants in these cases may have prevailed in their motions to suppress, but they are criminals nonetheless. All were carrying some form of contraband for distribution in communities in this and other states. It is, accordingly, impossible to view them as victims."
The Rev. Reginald T. Jackson, head of the New Jersey Black Ministers Council, told the New York Times he sympathized to some degree with Farmer's point.
"I think his sentiment is correct," said Jackson, "and yet, even with dismissing those indictments, even with the settlement today, it does not remove the fact that racial profiling is an issue we have to resolve, not only in New Jersey but across the nation."
[Ed: DRCNet takes a less sympathetic view of Farmer's remarks. By definition, the law, which Farmer is supposed to represent, considers defendants innocent until proven guilty. For a state's Attorney General to nevertheless brand un-convicted defendants as "criminals" is extraordinarily unprofessional, perhaps even slanderous. Attorney General Farmer should apologize for his comments or resign.]
Farmer also took the offensive to attack unnamed attorneys for taking racial profiling cases and to rebuke the state legislature for having the presumption to hold hearings on the subject.
"We have laid bare the truth," the Attorney General wrote, "but as we attempt to move forward, we are beset by the debilitating consequences of candor: opportunistic litigation and the disruption of belated legislative hearings which, however well motivated, will, by forcing us once again to inhabit the past, necessarily hinder our efforts to move forward."
Powerful Democrats weren't buying it. Senator John Lynch, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, which will hold the hearings, told the Times Farmer "should be ashamed of himself." He said Farmer and his predecessor, Peter Verniero (now a state Supreme Court justice) tried to stonewall the committee in earlier hearings.
"John Farmer shouldn't be complaining about the Judiciary Committee going back and trying to do what it was prevented from doing the first time, getting the truth," fumed Lynch.
Sen. William Gormley, a Republican and leader of the Judiciary Committee, was less harsh, but equally insistent that the hearings were necessary.
"If there weren't a process where the questions could be asked," he said, "how would the public feel about that?"