Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Dragging death highlights black community's distrust of justice

Posted 7/22/2006 4:52 AM ET

The death of Anthony Graham — and what happened in the days after his murder — has roiled the black community.

Graham, a black man, was dragged seven city blocks by a car driven by a white man. The car then struck a brick wall and Graham's head hit a utility pole, killing him.

The driver, Thomas Sewastynowicz, fled the scene but turned himself in the next day. He was permitted to stay out of jail while awaiting trial — even though he was charged with murder.

Sewastynowicz's release has underscored a perception that Jefferson County's judicial system doesn't always give blacks a fair shake, and findings from a recent report appear to support some of the complaints.

A local commission investigating racial bias in the court system issued a report that said blacks make up a larger portion of the county's jail population than whites, even though more whites are booked into the jail.

Community activists say mistrust of the city's justice system has festered since the fatal shooting of a young black man by a white detective here two years ago.

Prosecutors say Sewastynowicz, 49, is out of jail partly because his attorneys "were successful in improperly getting the facts out there before the community and in giving the impression that Mr. Sewastynowicz was an innocent victim."

But local black activists say Sewastynowicz still should not be out of jail with a pending murder charge.

"I think he should be in jail right now with a big million-dollar bond on him or something to keep him stationary," said Graham's father, Dr. Toney Graham, a family physician in Lake City, S.C. "I'll bet you if it would've been my son, it would have been a million dollars on him."

He has traveled to Louisville for all of Sewastynowicz's court proceedings.

The commission report investigating bias found that black males spent an average of a week longer in jail after they were booked, according to data taken from the county's correctional facilities during the 2004-2005 fiscal year.

The study took a sample of offenders arrested on cocaine possession in Jefferson County from 1999 to 2002 and found that black offenders were incarcerated in 31.6% of cases, compared with 18.4% for non-black offenders.

The 2004 fatal shooting of 19-year-old Michael Newby by officer MacKenzie Mattingly during a botched drug bust brought simmering racial tensions in the community to a head.

Newby, who was black, was shot three times in the back, and Mattingly, who is white, was later fired from the department. A jury cleared him of all criminal charges, causing an outcry in the black community.

Newby was the seventh black man killed by police in five years in Louisville, a city of nearly 700,000, where blacks make up about 20% of the population and 13% of the police force.

"You have never seen that level of unrest, you never seen that kind of level of anger, recently," said Christopher 2X, a local activist.

Denise Clayton, a Circuit Court judge in Jefferson County and a member of the commission, said the survey may appear to uncover racial bias, but that is actually not a factor in the disparities.

Clayton, who is black, said the study found that white defendants are more likely to make bail partly because they tend to have more financial resources.

"I don't think the judges and trial commissioners are setting bond with race in mind," Clayton said. "But I certainly think there still is a distrust of the system by African Americans, and certainly this kind of result could make individuals question whether or not they're given a fair shake or opportunity once they're here on the issue of bail."

The commission is currently examining the racial makeup of juries. Civil rights activists have complained there are too few blacks on juries and too many all-white juries.

Sewastynowicz, who declined to be interviewed, told police he had stopped to ask for directions on March 31 when he encountered Graham near downtown Louisville. He told police Graham reached inside his Nissan sedan, and Sewastynowicz drove away, according to a police report. Graham held on and was dragged for seven blocks.

But Graham's wallet was found inside Sewastynowicz's car, and Graham was not armed, according to court records filed by prosecutors.

Sewastynowicz's attorney, Don Major, said his client was freed from jail because he has cooperated with authorities and had "no history of violence whatsoever."

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