Commentary

Kids charged in brutal Philadelphia murder still deserve due process | Michael Coard

The online lynch mobs already are baying for blood. There’s a long and racist history of that happening

July 19, 2022 6:30 am

(Adobe Stock/The Philadelphia Gay News).

James “Simmie” Lambert Jr. was an impeccably stylish 73-year-old grandfather innocently minding his own business in North Philly near 21st and Cecil B. Moore Avenue on June 24 when, as police reported, he was taunted, stalked, and attacked by seven children – one as young as 10-years-old. He died the next day from severe blunt force trauma to the head.

So far, two 14-year-olds surrendered and have been charged with third-degree murder, which means they are not being accused of a “willful, deliberate, and premeditated” homicide. That would be first-degree murder. Instead, they are being accused of intending merely to hurt someone but a death unintentionally resulted. (By the way, second degree murder, known as “felony murder,” does not apply in this type of case.)

So now what? Well, if you read what’s being posted on social media and listen to what’s being said on radio talk shows, you’re seeing and hearing lynch mobs being formed. Most people are outraged. They’re describing these children as thugs, animals, predators, savages and monsters.

Those people say these children, consisting of four males and three females age 10-14, committed a vicious adult crime and should do serious adult crime, even if that means they get executed by the state or killed/maimed by adult prison inmates. Those people say, “An eye for an eye.”

But we lawyers learned back in law school during debates in moot court class that “argumentum ad populum”– which is the belief that something is correct simply because most people believe it to be correct – is a fallacious argument.

In other words, just because most people believe something to be true does not make it true. In fact, it more likely makes it false since most people don’t have interest in or access to the research that experts do.

Accordingly, please allow me to share with you some of the expertise I learned from law school and from more than 25 years as a criminal trial attorney but mostly from the likes of Charles W. Bowser directly and Cecil B. Moore indirectly.

Do you remember the case of George Stinney Jr.?

He was the 14 -year-old child who in 1944 was executed in a South Carolina electric chair after having been convicted of stalking and attacking two white girls, one seven and the other eleven, and then killing them both with severe blunt force trauma to the head.

Many in the local Alcolu community in South Carolina, both Black and white, jumped to conclusions about young George. The white media whipped up racist hysteria using racist tropes of violent Black criminality. Even George’s seventh grade teacher, a Black man named W.L. Hamilton, told The Sumter Item newspaper, “I remember the day he killed those children … which was the [same] day he got into a fight with a girl at school who was his neighbor …. George carried a little knife and he scratched this girl with his knife.”

And as recently as 2014, Sadie Duke, a white woman who claimed to have known George when they were both kids, said that the day before he allegedly killed the two girls on March 22, 1944, he said to her, “If you don’t get away from here and if you ever come back, I will kill you.” And another local white person, who was 15 at the time, described George as a bully.

Based on the public outrage resulting from the brutal murder of two white girls, most of the public (naturally almost all whites and surprisingly more Blacks than one might expect) wanted George tried, found guilty and dead.

Therefore, on June 16, 1944, despite egregious due process violations before and during the trial, despite conflicting and insufficient evidence, and despite valiant appeals by NAACP attorneys, George was escorted into the execution chamber at the South Carolina State Penitentiary in Columbia and strapped into the electric chair.

After slapdash adjustments were made because his small body couldn’t fit properly in the death chair, three separate jolts of 2,400 volts of alternating electrical current shook and ravaged his frail five-foot-one inch, 95-pound body, cooking him from the inside out.

On that date, he became and remains the youngest person executed in the United States of America.

But 70 years later, on Dec. 17, 2014, little George’s conviction was vacated by a judge who saw the case for what it was: a blatant due process injustice.

By the way, a blatant injustice isn’t merely the result of what happens to people who didn’t commit the crime they were charged with. A blatant injustice is also the result of what happens to people who did commit the crime they were charged with but who didn’t get a fair trial and whose due process rights were violated.

I’ll never forget what happened back in 2009 when I represented John Lewis in the murder of Police Officer Chuck Cassidy.

As I was walking into the Criminal Justice Center, a reporter shoved his microphone into my face and yelled, “Mr. Coard. Your client is seen on video shooting and killing a police officer. Why are you representing him?” I responded, “OK. It is on video and he did kill a heroic police officer. So, there are two options right now. We can take my client upstairs for a trial or we can take him out back for a lynching. What do you suggest?”

With that one question, I was able to enlighten that reporter about what we lawyers call “due process,” which simply means the rules of court based on the Constitution.

Even if there was a video with audio along with ten credible eyewitnesses with binoculars and microscopes, the rule still required the right to an attorney, the right to a preliminary arraignment, the right to a preliminary hearing, the right to a formal arraignment, the right to pre-trial motions, the right to a trial, the right to a jury, the right to a sentencing hearing if a defendant is found guilty, and the right to state and federal appeals.

Therefore, adhere to those rules by going upstairs to the judge or trash those rules by going out back to the tree.

That’s where we are with the seven kids who allegedly killed the beloved Mr. Lambert. But maybe it wasn’t all seven. Maybe one or two or more were merely present. And maybe the actual culprit/culprits were mentally deficient. Maybe something else. Maybe not something else.

And that’s exactly my point. We don’t know because nothing’s been proven. That’s precisely what the courts are for. They are there to compel the prosecution to not only prove its case but to do so beyond a reasonable doubt.

In the words of William Blackstone, the greatest legal mind in Western jurisprudence, “It is better that ten guilty persons escape than one innocent person suffer.”

Accordingly, those due process rules that I mentioned must be adhered to. And they require that the children who allegedly killed the beloved Mr. Lambert must be tried as juveniles in Family Court, not as adults in Criminal Court. Here are three reasons why:

1. Kids ain’t adults.

They’re kids, age 10-14. There’s a reason why society doesn’t allow kids to vote, serve on juries, have sex with adults, join the military, buy cigarettes, drink alcohol, work full-time, get married, sign contracts, file lawsuits, apply for credit cards, etc. Kids, generally speaking, are impulsive, immature, impressionable, and often worse. I know because I was one.

In the 2005 Roper v. Simmons case, the Supreme Court (finally) realized that kids ain’t mini-adults who should be eligible for the death penalty even when they commit egregious murders. The Court said such punishment of children was “cruel and unusual” in violation of the Eighth Amendment. The Court relied on studies from preeminent academic institutions including the Harvard Medical School and UCLA’s Department of Neuroscience that concluded that the frontal and pre-frontal lobes of the brain, which regulate impulse control and judgment, are not fully developed in adolescents.

2. Black kids are victims of racist courts.

As documented by Human Impact Partners, a public health social justice think tank, “Youth of color are overrepresented at every stage of the … court system. Rampant racial inequities are evident in the way youth of color are disciplined in school, policed, arrested, detained, sentenced and incarcerated …. Youth of color are more likely to be tried as adults than white youth, even when being charged with similar offenses.”

3. Pennsylvania’s adult courts are the nation’s worst child abusers.

As this Commonwealth’s own Department of Corrections website embarrassingly concedes, “Pennsylvania has the largest number of individuals who were juveniles at the time they committed their crimes and [were] later sentenced to life-without-parole … [and that number is] more than 500.”

That’s more than blatantly and historically racist Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia. More than any southern state. More than any state. Think about that for a minute while you’re thinking about lynching those seven kids.

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Michael Coard
Michael Coard

Opinion contributor Michael Coard, an attorney and radio host, is a columnist for the Philadelphia Tribune. His work appears on Tuesdays on the Capital-Star’s Commentary Page. Readers may follow him on Twitter @michaelcoard.

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