I learned about Carlos Riley Jr.’s case from his cousin Boots Riley of the band The Coup. Boots reached out when Carlos, a 21-year old unarmed black man, was pulled over for an alleged traffic violation by a black plainclothes police investigator in an unmarked vehicle.
Carlos was pulled over on the morning of Dec. 18, 2012, by Durham Police Officer Kelley Stewart. Carlos complied, and a patdown confirmed he was unarmed. Telling Carlos he was not free to go, Officer Stewart began to threaten and (what I would call) attack Carlos. The officer described his use of physical force as part of a continuum he referred to as “soft hands” escalating to “hard hands,” ultimately resulting in the threat of lethal force. Stewart repeatedly shouted, “Get back, or I’ll shoot you,” and reached for his gun.
Carlos says Stewart shot himself in the leg as he drew his weapon, allowing Carlos to take the gun away. (The officer testified the gun discharged during a struggle). Shortly thereafter, Carlos turned himself in to police in the presence of his father and other witnesses. Boots and the Riley family felt infinitely thankful that Carlos prevented his own death that day, but he faced significant charges. A jury recently acquitted Carlos of all charges but common law robbery, for taking the officer’s gun. A witness testified that she saw Carlos holding the officer back, pointing the gun away.
Carlos was federally indicted by a Durham County grand jury in early 2013 and was encouraged to take a plea. He was already looking at 10 years in federal prison; for Durham’s DA Roger Echols to bring Carlos back to state court was a questionable use of taxpayer dollars. Fortunately, this time Carlos turned down the plea bargain. With a moving, skilled defense from his court-appointed attorney, Alex Charns, Carlos took his case to trial and won.
Most news I found about Carlos’s case centered Stewart’s perspective. Few stories portrayed the differing perspectives fairly, contextualized Carlos among his loved ones and community, or quoted people who saw Carlos’ actions as acts of self-defense. Even after Carlos was cleared, reporters repeatedly referred to him as “Cop Shooter.”
Every day for a week I sat in Durham County courtroom 7D. Riley family members listened intently, some pausing to bow their heads and pray. Supporters steadily streamed through; at the peak I counted 45, all wearing purple – Carlos’s favorite color – a bright contrast to the many uniformed cops showing support for Stewart, presumably on our tax dollar. We believe “Black Lives Matter” has meaning beyond the urgent, necessary demonstrations in the streets that have marked this most extraordinary of years. It means, too, the steady work of transforming our educational system, broadening access to health care, or sitting in solidarity in a courtroom that seems wholly unaware of the blessing that a young person is still alive.
The morning before opening statements commenced, the DA’s office unsuccessfully tried to haveCharns removed from the case. Attorney Charns said he had never experienced anything of this kind from a prosecutor’s office in 33 years as a human rights lawyer. The structures that protect the powerful consolidated quickly to defend a police officer who, by all evidence, had shot himself in the leg and then blamed the youth whom he had threatened. We heard officers reinforce each other’s stories about the military-style hunt combing neighborhoods for Carlos (who had turned himself in) and give evasive responses to the defense’s questions.
During the course of the court’s proceedings, we received an education in many ways that the system is broken. Officer Stewart did not call in this traffic stop or file the report which would allow it to become part of the state record. Of the encounters that Stewart has chosen to report, 77 percent of his traffic stops are of black people.
In closing statements, Charns drew an empty chair to the center of the courtroom to represent unheard evidence. Of 93 witnesses listed, most testimonies were never introduced, including that of Chief Jose Lopez, who did not respond to subpoena. Gesturing towards the chair’s vacancy, Charns questioned the lack in crucial evidence: no burns on Carlos’ hand; no injuries on Stewart except the gunshot wound (despite claims of a blow-for-blow battle); no photographs showing the entrance wound; no doctor’s testimony; no workman’s comp paperwork to show if Stewart’s gunshot was filed an accident, and more.
Those sitting in the courtroom never saw the gunshot residue analysis form on which an officer wrote the chilling words “one shot fired by officer.” The judge disallowed the defense from reminding the jury of Carlos’ Fourth Amendment right to freedom from unreasonable searches or excessive force by police. After the jury found Carlos not guilty, Chief Lopez released a statement expressing the Durham Police Department’s disappointment.
The night before jury selection, hundreds gathered at Hayti Heritage Center for the screening of the short animated film “I, Destini” by 15-year old Destini Riley about her family’s experience of her brother’s incarceration. Destini explained that everyone assumes all black men are lions, but the truth is that her brother is more like a giraffe.
In his recent book “Between the World and Me,” author Ta-Nehisi Coates writes, “And you know now, if you did not before, that the police departments of your country have been endowed with the authority to destroy your body. … The destroyers will rarely be held accountable. Mostly they will receive pensions. And destruction is merely the superlative form of a dominion whose prerogatives include friskings, detainings, beatings and humiliations. All of this is common to black people. And all of this is old for black people. No one is held responsible.”
Indeed, no one will be held responsible for harms being done to our community’s youth unless we collectively determine that there must be another way, for the sake of the giraffes who have been maligned as lions, and for the humanity that shines within all of us.