Denial of black racism denies justice to Joel Lee

We find ways anew to kill Kenneth Lee.

In September of 1993, Lee's oldest son, Joel Lee, was killed during a robbery in Northeast Baltimore. The elder Lee -- a Korean immigrant -- probably died a little that day, as all relatives and friends of homicide victims do.


Baltimore police arrested and charged Davon Neverdon in the slaying. In July of 1995, Neverdon was tried in Baltimore Circuit Court in Joel Lee's slaying. A predominantly black jury acquitted Neverdon, who is also black, eliciting charges of racial bias from Kenneth Lee and others. On a radio talk show a few days after the verdict, one of the jurors said none of the six prosecution witnesses was credible.

When asked if she thought Neverdon had in fact murdered Joel Lee, the caller answered, "He probably did, but the evidence was weak."


Other callers took to the airwaves, chastising those who criticized the verdict. How dare they question the intelligence of black jurors? (As if a jury that doubts the credibility of not one, not two, not even three, but six prosecution witnesses is not in some way cognitively challenged.) How dare they imply that the verdict was racist? Black people, it was repeated ad nauseam and for the umpteenth time, couldn't be racist.

Kenneth Lee must have listened to this talk of inherent black moral superiority and died just a little bit more. Believing the jury had racist motives for acquitting Neverdon, Lee appealed to the federal government to indict Neverdon for violating Joel Lee's civil rights.

Last Wednesday, Kenneth Lee must have died even more, when federal prosecutors said they wouldn't indict Neverdon. Not even with Neverdon's uncle, Eric Dewitt Dunsen, claiming that his nephew admitted hating Koreans and killing Joel Lee because of it.

Dunsen even volunteered to be wired so that he could record Neverdon confessing to all this on tape. But federal prosecutors said no dice. Dunsen, serving 20 years on a drug charge, was damaged goods. He had no credibility. No jury would listen to him. From a prosecutorial standpoint, this reasoning makes perfectly good sense.

But to us regular folks, it smacks of a cop-out. All of us who are outraged by Joel Lee's slaying, who are incensed that we continue to kill his father piece-by-piece, have to wonder why federal prosecutors just didn't take Dunsen's offer and go for it. They might have lost the case, but sometimes you have to fight the good fight and risk losing, if for no other reason than to prove a point.

And the point here is that Kenneth Lee -- and the rest of Joel Lee's relatives and loved ones -- deserve justice. They didn't get it in Baltimore Circuit Court, and they won't be getting it in the federal courts either. It's as if the judicial branches of city, state and federal government have collectively flipped Kenneth Lee the bird.

Lynne A. Battaglia, the U.S. attorney for Maryland, obviously doesn't agree. But in a telephone conversation Friday, Battaglia seemed to show some sympathy with us regular folks.

"I can understand how you can have that viewpoint," she said of my feelings about the case. "But it's never that simple."


Neverdon could have been indicted under two federal civil rights statutes, Battaglia said. One is the conspiracy statute, in which prosecutors would have to prove conspiracy to commit murder. Under the other statute, racial animus and a violation of a federally protected right have to be proved.

Battaglia said U.S. prosecutors could prove neither beyond a reasonable doubt. And then there's that Dunsen guy, whose passion for justice in the Joel Lee slaying didn't surface until after he was in jail. Based strictly on the law, federal prosecutors were on pretty solid ground in declining to pursue the case, as Battaglia indicated.

But sometimes prosecutors have to forget a strict interpretation of the law and simply send a message. In the Joel Lee case, federal prosecutors had the opportunity to send one: that federal statutes pertaining to civil rights violations apply to everyone. They could have pricked that boil on the rump of the body politic that says that blacks can only be victims of racism, not perpetrators of it.

Purveyors of this fiction insist that in order to be racist, you need power. Blacks have no power, the argument goes, hence they cannot be racist. It's an attempt to invoke black moral superiority, but in the process those who use this reasoning end up conceding black inferiority. It's a subconscious admission that blacks are powerless and will always be so.

But in Baltimore blacks have power aplenty. The executive and legislative branches are run by blacks. There are black judges and a black state's attorney. There is adequate black representation on juries. We do, indeed, have power.

What, then, do we call it when we use that power to acquit a black man of murdering someone of another race despite overwhelming witness testimony indicating he did so?


Pub Date: 1/19/97