The online lynching of Dawnta Harris

The involvement of four black teenagers in the death of a white female police officer in Baltimore County has triggered the kind of response that sets off alarm bells for anyone who knows history — as it should for all of us.

As might be expected in a world in which fact and fiction and everything in between instantly bombard us from the internet, 24-hour news cycles and a proliferation of punditry, we are hearing a lot about the incident. But we know very little about what happened when 29-year-old Officer Amy Caprio met 16-year-old Dawnta Harris in the Perry Hall community just before 2 p.m. on May 21.

What we know is that Caprio, a much-admired officer, responded to a call about a suspicious vehicle and that she died after being struck by a Jeep Wrangler driven by Dawnta, a troubled teenager whose mother had turned to the juvenile justice system for help. The police have said that Dawnta had been acting in cahoots with three other teenagers who were burglarizing homes in a part of the county where black faces stand out.

Dawnta and the others have been charged with first-degree murder and are being held in jail in Towson. One of the teen’s lawyers, J. Wyndal Gordon, called what happened an accident.

While in an ideal world race and gender would be irrelevant to any reaction to a bunch of teenagers behaving irresponsibly and triggering a tragedy, ours is far from that nirvana. And so you see in social media posts and hear in radio blather that black “animals” and “thugs” should die. There’s little of the reserve and concern expressed when white teenagers go on shooting sprees in the nation’s schools.

“I was hoping they’d kill him during the apprehension,” one poster wrote on the Baltimore County Police and Fire page on Facebook, adding: “What a waste of life. He’s currently breathing the air some decent person could be breathing.”

Such sentiments may not represent most people. In fact, I tend to believe that most would agree with the Essex woman who joined hundreds of ordinary people who turned out to show their respect during Caprio’s funeral service Friday: “It’s awful for both families,” she said, “the family of the officer and the mother of the driver.”

But it’s always the vocal minority that whips up frenzy, drives conversations and leads mobs. All of Baltimore County did not lynch black 16-year-old Harold Cooper in 1885 after he was accused of attacking a white 17-year-old girl. But 75 masked men smashed their way into the Towson jail to drag him out to a tree outside and hang him.

Lynching is not the only form of truncated justice, especially when key players are trying to avenge the death of a fallen police officer. Fellow officers find ways to mete out punishment, maybe in rough rides while transporting suspects or in arranged beatings behind bars. Investigators lose evidence or ignore witnesses. Prosecutors forget to share crucial information with defense lawyers.

Knowing that every act has a meaning, two fearless criminal defense lawyers have stepped up to assure that the thin blue line, the mob mentality and a judge characterizing him as a “one-man crime wave” do not obliterate the constitutional rights of Dawnta Harris, a kid now caught up in a system designed to punish adults. Dawnta’s record shows that his penchant for being caught in stolen vehicles apparently dates back to December.

Those who do not accept the notion that everyone is entitled to a vigorous defense have sent death threats and other menacing messages to Dawnta’s legal team: Mr. Gordon and Warren Brown. While Mr. Gordon dismisses them as “electronic thugs” who would not say to his face what they say in social media or on talk radio, Mr. Brown says the vitriol “underscores the importance of this boy receiving all the help he can get.”

“In taking on the case pro bono, J. Wyndal and I are saying, ‘He matters. He’s not garbage. He’s clothed and covered with our credibility.’”

It is the credibility of the justice system that’s being tested here. All of us not directly involved in the case should check our emotions and watch with open minds as the wheels of justice turn.

E.R. Shipp, a Pulitzer Prize winner for commentary, is the journalist in residence at Morgan State University's School of Global Journalism and Communication. Her column runs every other Wednesday. Email: ershipp2017@gmail.com.

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