SALT LAKE CITY — Dozens of public defenders and their supporters marched in the rain in Utah’s capital city Monday, condemning police killings of black people following the death of George Floyd in Minnesota.
Donning masks and huddling under umbrellas, the group of more than 100 joined their counterparts across the country in a somber demonstration, then rallied to seize on public support for broad reforms to the criminal justice system.
Protests nationwide have “raised the debate about issues we bring to the courtroom every day,” said Richard Mauro, executive director of the Salt Lake Legal Defender Association. A lawyer of more than 30 years, Mauro said he’s watched as lawmakers created mandatory minimum sentences and other policies that gave rise to mass incarceration and harmed generations.
“It’s decimated communities of color by robbing people of their dignity, taking away their freedom, and undermining opportunities for education, jobs and hope,” Mauro said. “This was true before the pandemic, but frankly it’s been exposed much more so as a result of that.”
The group trudged about three blocks in a downpour from the legal defender office. As the sky parted, they gathered at the steps of the Salt Lake City-County Building. After chanting “Black Lives Matter,” with the Matheson Courthouse as a backdrop, they kneeled in silence for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, the time prosecutors in Minneapolis say police officer Derek Chauvin pressed his knee to Floyd’s neck even after Floyd stopped moving and pleading for air.
The attorneys, who provide free legal representation for those who cannot afford to hire a lawyer on their own, answered, “It has to stop now,” as Mauro noted defendants who are ethnic and racial minorities tend to be detained more often, serve longer sentences and are more likely to die at the hands of officers. They called for greater anti-bias training for police and bail their clients can afford.
Data from the Utah Department of Corrections confirm elevated rates of minority Utahns behind bars. Hispanic Utahns make up 14% of the state’s 3.1 million population, but 19% of its prison population. And although just 1% of state residents are black, they account for 7% of inmates at the prison.
Similar trends have taken hold in Utah’s juvenile system, despite 2017 state reforms that funnel only youths facing the most serious allegations into courtrooms, said juvenile defender Pamela Vickrey.
“We know a couple years later that while we have had a lot of successes, we have not fixed the overrepresentation of youth of color in our system, and we have to continue to address that,” she said.
Attorney Elisabeth Ferguson held a sign that read “still separate and unequal” above a cartoonist’s renderings of a white man refusing to wear a face mask and of a black man with an officer’s knee on his neck, with both saying, “I can’t breathe.”
Ferguson has represented black Utahns who were stopped for traffic violations or jaywalking, minor offenses that white travelers rarely face, she said. The initial stops led to further investigation and criminal charges for her black clients.
“Try as I might to represent them the best I can, the system is fraught with systemic racism, and we need to take a stand to show that’s not right,” she told the Deseret News.
Ferguson took a knee and bowed her head among others carrying signs saying, “Know justice, Know peace,” and “Black lives matter to public defenders.”
College students Tyrees Sidberry and Deljah Jackson held a bright pink poster that read, “Tired of reading about racism? I’m tired of living it!”
While away at school in Oklahoma, Sidberry said he was driving with a friend who police suspected had shoplifted. After pulling them over, officers emerged from four cars with weapons drawn, Sidberry said, and accused him of selling drugs, although they lacked any evidence.
“Everything that you’re reading about, it’s worse living through,” said Sidberry, who is African American and white.
His mother, Melissa Fulkerson, a defense attorney, said a complete overhaul of the criminal justice system is needed, with a new version that prioritizes mental health and drug treatment.
“It has to change from the ground up, because the system began with racism,” she said. “It’s based on that premise.”
Prosecutors in Utah have voiced similar concerns. Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill joined 40 of his counterparts nationwide last week in urging law enforcers to take immediate steps against racially-biased policing and excessive force.
Public defender Sam Dugan said after the demonstration she is hopeful public scrutiny will foster reform but cautioned new protocols must be followed.
In Salt Lake City, recent policies setting steps for escalation and directing other officers to intervene are not being followed, she said. The force most recently drew criticism in the death ofBernardo Palacios-Carbajal,a 22-year-old armed man shot 20 times.
Alicia Gutierrez, who does administrative work in the federal public defender office in Salt Lake City, said while protests illustrate a tide of support, voters must study up and create change at the ballot box.
“You have to be your own voice,” she said.