A College, a Gun—and a Big Injustice
After a Morehouse College student shot a classmate three times, he was sentenced to… graduation. Inside an outrageous case that shows that the old-boys network is color-blind.
This story is about a violent incident and a legal response so outrageous that a president who taught constitutional law and his attorney general should both look up from their servings of Washington blues and take notice: A tempest of blues is also blowing another way. Obama’s judicial warriors must do justice to the victim of a man who got an unconscionable break in a time that is not supposed to be so good for bad guys.
This is an example of what, it seems to me, is a train wreck of good intentions that become toxic upon squealing collision ... A bad guy benefits from every wrong that has ever been done in the interest of bigoted white men.
Central to this tale is the question of equal treatment under the law. Every important perspective on this issue is opposed to justice being hobbled by “unwritten laws” of prejudicial entitlement. That vision of entitlement—shared by law enforcement, prosecutors, those on the bench, juries, and influential members of the community—does dirt in a way so indifferent to fairness that its stench shrills up the nostrils on the way to high heaven. In our time, it is much harder to get equal justice if the victim of a crime finds himself in the color-coded world where prejudicial entitlement is extended to black criminals, and black victims are treated unsympathetically, even indifferently.
After being thrown out of an Atlanta club for unruly behavior on Halloween night 2007, a Morehouse College student named Joshua Brandon Norris bumped into fellow student Rashad Johnson, had words, went to his car, and returned to the club, screeching to a halt before getting out and pushing a gun into Johnson’s face. They struggled, and Johnson was shot three times in the leg before Norris fled. Charged with aggravated assault and possession of a firearm, Norris faced a possible sentence of 20 years. Instead, he was offered a plea bargain under which he would serve no time but had to graduate from Morehouse. Norris graduated a few weeks ago, and the Johnson family, which was not notified of the deal, was shocked, not surprisingly.
This is an example of what, it seems to me, is a train wreck of good intentions that become toxic upon squealing collision. It is a misreading of context, in which a bad guy benefits from every wrong that has ever been done in the interest of bigoted white men and every unfair sentence given to black men. Joshua Brandon Norris came out ahead because of an attempt to right wrongs of the past and wrongs taking place today.
There are two schools of thought about this kind of corrupting entitlement. One comes with statements like this: “There are too many black men in prison right now. It’s another form of slavery, keeping those black men behind bars so that the prison industrial complex can continue to earn money from their sweat and toil.”
Here is the other: As one black historian who works in the Atlanta academy said, “Now we have this feeling that we must save black men at all costs, even if the cost falls on the backs of black women who have been abused and other black people who have been victimized by criminals.”
The assessment extends upward from there. A year or two before Katrina, I met a judge who had recently left the bench in New Orleans because he had become deeply disturbed by a pattern of extended entitlement toward guilty black criminals appearing before him.
“Look,” he said, “I have had cases with water-tight proof—loads of DNA—that a guy was a serial rapist. Here was a man who had definitely raped more than a dozen women. The jury, full of black women now, voted to acquit. I was so shocked by one verdict that I held the jury in their seats while the courtroom was cleared. I asked them, with all of that proof that this man was a definite menace to women—black women in every single case—how could they release him to almost surely rape again? Know what they said? They said that they did not want to be part of putting another black man behind bars.”
Within eight months of shooting his fellow Morehouse student, Norris was accused of smashing a glass into the face of his girlfriend at a bar in Nashville. It doesn’t stop there.
The problem of Joshua Brandon Norris’ case extends beyond the plea bargain. His case suggests an almost conspiratorial role played by Morehouse College, which is seen by certain people in Atlanta as too infested with all of the elements that create an old-boy network—a long record of stellar accomplishment leading to a sense of mission and privilege that form the high road to the gully of entitlement.
Said one woman who had taught in Atlanta for a number of decades: “We just don’t talk about anything that is wrong with Morehouse men. That is not part of the rules. This is not to say that Morehouse is not a great college and has not produced or been led by great men, including Benjamin Mays, Martin Luther King, Maynard Jackson, all great, no doubt about it. But there is the functioning idea that if a Morehouse man is in trouble, either keep your mouth shut or do your best to help him get out of that mess. That’s what the Norris case is really about, helping him as a Morehouse man. The hell with anybody else.”
“What that means,” says another Atlanta resident, “is that people who have one face when they are not dealing with Morehouse people, have another face when a part of the Morehouse family of alpha males is threatened with punishment. This doesn’t mean much in minor cases, but when Joshua Brandon Norris—the alpha male from Hell—is the one in jeopardy, somebody should have had the good sense to remove him from the scene and make it clear that the old-boy network only goes so far. But there was nobody there with any damn sense at all.”
This person was especially ticked off by Judge Marvin Arrington, whom he feels was hypocritical for “going around berating lower-class black men with Bill Cosby for their irresponsible, self-destructive, and violent behavior. All of his pontificating stopped at the courtroom door when a Morehouse man stood before him.” Only the district attorney, Paul Howard, responded to complaints by admitting on CNN that the plea bargain was "the wrong deal to make.”
That admission might be the key to a federal review of the case and its improprieties. Whatever gathering heat swirling through conversations and arguments about the case was the result of that CNN report and an article in the Atlanta Journal Constitution by Bill Torpy. Torpy’s reporting was was thick with details about Norris and his record with the police. What he found out makes the plea bargain even more disturbing than one thought it already was.
As it turns out, within eight months of shooting his fellow Morehouse student, Norris was accused of smashing a glass into the face of his girlfriend at a bar in Nashville. It doesn’t stop there. Two women from Clark Atlanta University accused Norris of angrily following them in his car, shouting harsh words before pointing a pistol at the two young women and laughing when they showed ducking fright. This was in November 2005, which means he was already a testy fellow two years before the shooting of Rashad Johnson.
Perhaps golden college boy Norris should not have graduated on May 10 with about 500 other Morehouse men. It actually seems that even Dr. Robert M. Franklin, the president of Morehouse, does not understand the toxic gravity of the case. But how would he? There are ordinary men in this world and there are Morehouse men and perhaps that is just that.
On April 21, Dr. Franklin addressed a “Town Hall” meeting at Martin Luther King Jr. International Chapel. His talk was entitled “The Soul of Morehouse and the Future of the Mystique.” Joshua Brandon Norris was probably there to hear Franklin. Everybody else was. I wonder what Norris—the puller of pistols, the smasher of glasses in faces, and the shooter—thought when his college president said this: “I will declare at every Morehouse commencement that Morehouse men must be so sensitive to the presence of disorder, mediocrity and injustice that they cannot sleep well at night until they tip the scale toward justice.”
One wonders how uneasy Franklin was and how much sleep he lost over accepting Norris back on campus after he had pleaded no contest. Though there have been no public statements by Morehouse about the Norris affair and absolutely no willingness to allow interviews concerning it, Franklin sent a letter to Rashad Johnson’s home in response to the student’s numerous complaints about how his shooter’s fate had been more than unfair. The Atlanta Journal Constitution quotes the letter as saying, “Your matriculation would be a wonderful triumph over adversity.” Apparently, triumphing over adversity has come to mean acquiescing to an old-boy network that is different in skin tone but not in its irresponsible use of influence. Once again, we see that black and white mirror each other at our best, our most mediocre, and our worst.
I began this believing the central thesis that, had Norris been one of the white men at Morehouse, he would not have been given the slack that Norris received, but a lawyer and fundraiser thoroughly involved with educating black boys and young men did not agree, however much he loves Morehouse most of all historically black colleges. “Not necessarily so,” he said. “If this asshole was a white Morehouse man, he would still have been part of the family. That means he might have gotten the same pat on the wrist…. You don’t fuck with Morehouse men in Atlanta. That’s an easy way to get your ass turned into grass.”
I doubt such pronouncements will scare off our attorney general, but if they did it would not be the first time that justice for black people has been ignored in favor of black criminals, high and low, be they Bloods, Crips, or just gun-toting college knuckleheads like Joshua Brandon Norris.
Stanley Crouch's culture pieces have appeared in Harper's, The New York Times, Vogue, Downbeat, The New Yorker, and more. He has served as artistic consultant for jazz programming at Lincoln Center since 1987, and is a founder Jazz at Lincoln Center. In June 2006 his first major collection of jazz criticism, Considering Genius: Jazz Writings , was published. He is presently completing a book about the Barack Obama presidential campaign.