We want justice for Charles
On December 6, 2010, Charles Wilhite was convicted of first-degree murder for a crime that he has always maintained he didn't commit. No physical evidence tied Charles to the scene of the crime in the Six Corners neighborhood of Springfield, Mass., yet a jury deliberated for only three hours before returning its guilty verdict. Charles was sentenced to life in prison without parole.
Even before the trial, one of the state's key witnesses recanted her testimony. After the trial, Springfield resident Nathan Perez, another key witness, who had been given immunity in exchange for his testimony, recanted his statement. Perez further explained that Springfield cop Anthony Pioggia coerced him into implicating Charles. On May 14, Hampden Superior Court Judge Peter Velis granted Charles a new trial.
Since last spring, Charles' family, community activists and a number of Springfield residents have organized the Justice for Charles defense campaign to free Charles Wilhite. Vira Douangmany Cage, Charles' aunt and an organizer with Justice for Charles, spoke with and about the campaign.
CAN YOU describe how Charles ended up behind bars?
ON OCTOBER 14, 2008, Alberto Rodriguez was found shot in his car. As the police describe it, they heard a "ShotSpotter" report come in. ShotSpotter is a $600,000 technology that the Springfield police department has employed to detect and track gunshots. This system costs tens of thousands of dollars to maintain yearly. The audio was transmitted to the police station, and they arrived to where the shots were fired.
More than a year later--on December 17, 2009--[the police] picked up Charles in his living room, in the apartment he shared with his girlfriend and their daughter. Police had interviewed one of the supposed eyewitnesses, who at the time was being held in jail in Northampton. The "witness" signed a photo indicating that Charles was the shooter, and police moved that same day to arrest Charles.
Another witness described police pressure for providing the identification that she did. At the grand jury, they basically read the statement that she had provided to police, but she recanted her testimony before the trial occurred. At the trial, she explained that her testimony wasn't true--and that she wasn't even at the store [where the crime took place].
A third witness the prosecution brought to the stand said that she had never seen Charles Wilhite before in her life. When she had initially been interviewed by the detectives working on the case, she was in a hurry, covered the photo with her hands so she could just see his lips and nose, and signed off on Charles's photo, writing, "Maybe."
When it was the jury's turn to weigh the evidence, a jury member was beaten up, and he said that he was no longer comfortable serving as a juror. The judge let him step down, they came up with an alternate juror, and then the jury came back with a guilty verdict in less than three hours.
CAN YOU talk about how racism fits into Charles' case?
BULLIES ONLY go after individuals, victims who they think won't speak up, won't cry out, won't fight back. The bullies for me were the district attorney's office, the prosecutor and the detectives, and they banked on the fact that the public and the jury would buy into the stereotype that if you're Black, then you're a criminal, or that you have criminal tendencies. For me, that's how racism was in operation, because of what people see all around them and in the media.
And then you have to look at the community in Springfield, which is largely Black and Latino. People are under heavy policing, and then you are more likely to get caught for doing a crime, compared to a place where you can remain pretty anonymous with your life. But if you live in a densely populated area with a lot of police doing heavy patrolling, you're going to get picked up. Even if you didn't do it, you fit the description, you fit the bill.
CAN YOU talk about how the Justice for Charles group came about, and what the campaign has been doing?
THE GROUP started after the trial. At the trial, when one of the witnesses said in reference to Charles, "I've never seen this man in my life," that gave us hope. And then they put on this other witness who said, "The police thought I was a suspect."
I had known some activists from the Students of Color group at UMass, and I knew some activists from the Justice for Jason campaign, so our family got in touch with them. So a number of activists made the commitment to come out to our home, and we started meeting regularly.
Then came the Nathan Perez development. When he recanted his testimony and then the transcripts of the trial were released, we had a number of things going for Charles' case. That's how the committee came about. Students Against Mass Incarceration from UMass Amherst came out and started getting involved and supporting the campaign.
WHAT IS the Justice for Charles campaign demanding, now that Charles has a new trial?
ON JUNE 1, Charles' attorney left me a voicemail stating that the DA's office contacted him to say that they will not appeal the judge's decision [to grant Charles a new trial]. So that's huge, that's great, because they could have prolonged it if they wanted to, just for the sake of prolonging it and keeping Charles in prison.
So now they have to decide whether to drop the case or prepare for and follow through with a new trial. We want the state to drop the case against Charles and let him come home, to be with his family and live his life. To do anything else besides that is criminal in my eyes--it's cruel.
WHAT ARE the next steps and plans for Justice for Charles?
WE'RE BUSY planning our Juneteenth event, a celebration in Gerrish Park in Springfield. We want to have a bigger presence than we have had before, because Juneteenth is a celebration of freedom. I think that's an important theme--freedom.
And, sometimes we're outside, and we're still not free--when children can't come outside, when you have to work all the time, or when your apartment gets shot at, and you have kids inside, and you're so scared and you just want to move.
Or when there are no jobs, and you need to support your family. Or when you have kids, and then they're in jail, and they're involved in the criminal justice system, and they can't get out.
It would be a tragedy to think that Charles Wilhite is an isolated incident and that it rarely happens--because it happens all the time. For me, I think it's important to make connections--not to see things in isolation, to see patterns, to see that these are institutionalized things, that you need to look at the institutions that feed this.
It's important to have an analysis in order to fight against this. People are so quick to say that "it's self-improvement," "it's single mothers who are destroying the fabric of our community," "it's laziness because you don't have a job to support your family." We have to recognize the role of society, recognize the environment that has been created.
The difference between Charles Wilhite and other people is that we're organized, we're persistent and we're out there, and we make it known that we have courage and truth and justice on our side. Like my husband said, "We're his voice." We, the community of his supporters, are his voice.