Jerome Edwards said during a panel Saturday that Juneteenth is a celebration of the abolition of slavery — but the penal system is part of slavery.
“They went from the plantation to the penitentiary,” he said.
Edwards, 45, was released from prison last year after serving 24 years for a 1996 robbery and murder he said he did not commit. He said judges, prosecutors and police are “making money off of the lives of people that they’re putting in prison.”
“Somebody’s child was able to go to college because I was wrongfully incarcerated,” Edwards said. “But my education didn’t matter; my life didn’t matter.”
Edwards said he had a codefendant he didn’t even know — just one factor that should show how wrong his case was.
“There’s nobody there to make sure that things are made right. They make it seem like there is — give you a little avenue to go through, but really those are just closed doors, too,” he said. “I’ve been fighting this case for 25 years straight.”
Edwards said he wants his name cleared.
“One of the things that hurt me the most is that this family, this victim’s family, actually believes that I was involved in taking the life of one of their loved ones,” he said. “It’s terrible. And I want the justice system not just to change, but to be dismantled.”
Edwards spoke alongside PJay Carter, an activist, president of Black Lives Matter Topeka and member of the board of Kansas Holistic Defenders, and Sam Allison-Natale, a Lawrence defense attorney and chair of Kansas Holistic Defenders. The panel on criminal justice was moderated by Trinity Carpenter, the Lawrence activist who organized the Black Summer Juneteenth BBQ and celebration.
Edwards said he wants to be able to help others, and to prevent them from going through the same things he’s been going through.
“Can you imagine someone being housed in a cage for 24 years of their life for a crime that they did not commit?” Edwards said. “The screaming; the beating on the walls; the crying out, and nobody’s hearing their voice — it’s just wrong. I need counseling for this.”
The panel discussed racism and anti-Blackness within the criminal justice system — for instance, “Every race does crime and drugs at the same rate,” Carpenter said. “They are just policed and surveilled differently.”
Carpenter said an example of anti-Blackness she sees in the system is that Black people don’t get the benefit of the doubt that other people do.
“It’s why we don’t come home at the end of the day,” she said.
Carter said that applied to police killings of Black people — the benefit of the doubt is missing to the point that officers might pull their guns just to realize that someone was simply reaching for their cellphone.
“The ones who are paid out of our own pockets to protect and serve us see it as a courtesy if they’re in fear and they don’t kill us,” Carter said. “… The fact is, you take this job (policing), this job gets scary. You don’t shoot someone for the unknown.”
Panelists also discussed flaws in legal representation within the “so-called justice system,” as Allison-Natale put it.
He said that on a daily basis, he sees children shackled to be brought into courtrooms. And he said you can go sit in court any day, and you’ll hear attorneys tell the judge that they haven’t spoken with their clients and don’t really know what’s going on in the case, and ask to come back in a couple of weeks.
All the panelists noted that defense attorneys’ failure to fully review evidence in cases can have disastrous consequences. As one example Carpenter mentioned, in a Douglas County case that made national headlines, Albert Wilson was convicted of rape, but the conviction was later overturned in large part because his appointed attorney had not fully reviewed evidence that could have made jurors question his accuser’s truthfulness.
“I need the Douglas County community to see — we’re considered really progressive,” Carpenter said. “Then why do we have so many Black men falsely accused in this community?
The nonprofit Kansas Holistic Defenders group aims to do better for clients — Allison-Natale said the office will employ a full-time investigator, and a client advocate to help with residual effects that arrests can have, such as the loss of jobs and housing.
Carter said that as a board member, he will hold the attorneys accountable to ensure they’re doing all they can to provide clients with a robust defense.
Carter said that much work has been done by those who have come before — but it isn’t enough. He said he thinks the Kansas Holistic Defenders may not be a fix-all, but it will be a big step for the community.
“We have not won. Racism is still embedded in the system,” he said. “We’re not looking to change the system. The system needs to be dismantled and broken for change to actually happen, and be real and be long-lasting for our kids to benefit, and their kids to benefit.”