The making of a racist travesty

The charges of first-degree murder for the killing of an infant in a small Georgia town bear the hallmarks of notorious racist frame-ups of the past, writes Jen Roesch.

De'Marquis Elkins appears in the Glynn County CourtDe'Marquis Elkins appears in the Glynn County Court

THE STATE of Georgia seems to be in the process of adding another travesty of justice to the long list of them inflicted on African Americans.

Two Black teenagers have been imprisoned without bail for more than four months on charges that they shot and killed an infant at point-blank range after her mother told them she had to money. But there are no witnesses other than the mother, no physical evidence tying the two accused to the crime, and no real explanation for why the young men would commit such a cold-blooded crime.

The only "evidence" against them is the claims of the white mother, which have holes and inconsistencies--and an ugly campaign by authorities and the media to portray one of the accused, along was his whole family, as a bunch of criminals and thugs.

From the behavior of cops and prosecutors to the media circus that has surrounded the case, the so-called "Baby Santiago" murder bears all the hallmarks of racist frame-ups of the past. In the wake of the acquittal of George Zimmerman for killing Trayvon Martin, this case shows another face of the criminal injustice system--and how it is saturated with racism, through and through.

The murder of 13-month old Antonio Santiago in Brunswick, Ga., began to dominate the news headlines in late March. The baby's mother, Sherry West, said she was pushing the baby in his stroller when she was approached by two Black teenagers. She claimed that they demanded money--and that when she told them she didn't have any, they walked around the stroller to shoot the baby in the face.

A few days later, 17-year-old De'Marquis Elkins and 15-year-old Dominique Lang were arrested and charged with first-degree murder.

The arrests happened around the same time Zimmerman was preparing for the murder trial, so the Georgia case immediately became a focal point for racist right-wingers. Zimmerman's brother immediately tweeted: "'Lib media shld ask if what these2 black teens did 2 a woman&baby is the reason ppl think blacks mightB risky."

CNN's Piers Morgan did a widely broadcast interview with Sherry West where she called for the death penalty for both teenagers. The media speculated about what could possibly have motivated the two teenagers to commit such a terrible crime.

Fast forward to July, and the media are now reporting what they label a "shocking development." The full report from the criminal investigation, which has now been handed over to defense lawyers for the two teens, shows that testing done the day of the murder found gunshot residue on the hands of both West and the baby's father, Luis Santiago.

While this could be explained in West's case by her proximity to the shooting, there is no explanation for why Santiago would have such residue on him. Both parents claim Luis Santiago was shopping at Wal-Mart at the time of the shooting. But the state forensic report states that the evidence "supports the possibility that [Luis Santiago] discharged a firearm, was in close proximity to a firearm upon discharge, or came into contact with an item whose surface bears GSR [gunshot residue]."

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THIS REVELATION certainly raises a case for reasonable doubt that Elkins and Lang killed anyone, but it also sheds light on the pervasive racism that has shaped this case from the beginning.

The prosecution has stated that it doesn't consider either parent a suspect. Even without the recently revealed evidence about gunshot residue, this would be surprising. According to a 2010 CNN report, approximately 550 children killed in the U.S. each year, nearly two-thirds are killed by a parent. Sherry West was the only eyewitness to the crime. On the basis of these two facts alone, she and the father should at least have been considered as potential suspects.

But there are more troubling factors that arose early in the investigation. West's adult daughter told police that she was concerned by her mother asking questions about how quickly she could collect on the baby's life insurance policy. The daughter also said her mother's stories were inconsistent. West herself clearly lied when she told CNN in March that police had conducted forensic testing and not found any gunshot residue. And neither she nor Luis Santiago have a credible story for why residue would have been found on his hands that day.

None of this proves that the parents were involved in the murder of their baby. But the facts do raise questions that should have been and still should be investigated. This is particularly true given the precedent of women killing their own children and pointing the finger at Black men. The most notorious of these cases was Susan Smith, who claimed a Black assailant had carjacked her car, with her sons in the backseat. She later confessed she had drowned the boys by letting the car roll into the water.

However, local police have shown little interest in pursuing any other leads. Sherry West's daughter said that police have not followed up with her after she voiced her suspicions. The police and prosecutors had access to the recently released forensic evidence and apparently didn't follow up with any questioning of either Luis Santiago or Sherry West.

Instead, from the start, local authorities have seemed intent on accepting West's story at face value. Police conducted a local manhunt and then constructed a case against two teenagers when they appeared to fit the bill.

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ALL THIS bears many of the ugly hallmarks of racist frame-ups. As much as this case raises the specter of the Susan Smith trial, it also eerily echoes the false accusations and the media uproar of the Central Park jogger case in New York City in 1989.

In that case, too, there was very little information to go on and no eyewitnesses--the victim of the rape and assault was found barely alive. So police rounded up Black and Brown teenagers, violated their rights, coerced false confessions out of four of them, vilified them and their families, and railroaded them to prison for many years each. They were only proven innocent years later when another man confessed to the crime.

In the Baby Santiago case, the only information police had was West's claim that two Black males, who she estimated to be between the ages of 10 and 15, had committed the crime. West provided no detailed physical description--at one point, she said the younger boy could be as young as 5.

Police went to the local school and asked for attendance records to be turned over to them, and then went door-to-door looking for suspects. This is what led to Elkins and Lang, who were then picked out of a police line-up by West. Both are significantly older than West's initial report.

This eyewitness identification is the main evidence against the two young men. But even setting aside the holes in West's "identification" of the two, we also know from the work of experts such as the Innocence Project that eyewitness misidentification is one of the biggest factors in wrongful convictions. This makes physical evidence and witness credibility all the more important in cases that depend on eyewitness testimony--and neither exist here.

Instead, the case against Elkins and Lang relies on racist assumptions, circumstantial evidence and aggressive policing, bordering on harassment.

Within days of the arrest of the two, Elkins' mother, sister and aunt were all arrested on charges of fabricating false testimony. No one has revealed what the false testimony was, but it seems that the aunt and mother gave conflicting alibis for Elkins. The sister is also charged with dumping a handgun belonging to De'Marquis Elkins. This handgun has been consistently described by police as the murder weapon, but there is no physical evidence to prove that contention.

Incredibly, a Brunswick city commissioner and mayor pro tem--James Henry Brooks Sr., who is African American--was arrested and charged with influencing a witness and obstructing police after he stepped in between Elkins' mother and officers, and advised her not to talk to police without a lawyer present.

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RATHER THAN investigate any of the pressing questions about the parents of the victim or consider the stories of the two young accused, prosecutors and police, along with a willing media, seem intent on destroying the reputation of the entire Elkins family.

Watching news accounts, one could easily conclude that this is a family of hardened criminals. But the women in the family have been charged variously with shoplifting, speeding and driving without a license. De'Marquise's only previous arrest was for marijuana possession. He was recently identified as the suspect in an armed robbery of a local pastor, but he hasn't been convicted. There is nothing in his history or background to suggest he would be the cold-blooded murder of an infant in his stroller.

Yet this is the story that the media have accepted without question for months.

De'Marquise Elkins and Dominique Lang have been behind bars since their arrest--they were denied bail, despite a lack of previous felony convictions. Both young men are being charged as adults with first-degree malice murder and face life in prison if convicted. The only reason they don't face the death penalty is because Georgia bars the execution of juveniles. Elkins' aunt is also still in jail, and all his family members will be tried together in his case. They face trial starting August 19.

Elkins and Lang have pled not guilty, and their lawyers will therefore have the opportunity to show reasonable doubt about their guilt, especially given the police mishandling of the case. But it's chilling to think that, given aggressive prosecution, the two teenagers might easily have been pressured into a guilty plea to a lesser charge in exchange for reduced jail time. If they had, the recently revealed evidence about gunshot residue would have never come to light, and they would have had no opportunity to clear their names.

All this reveals how easily cases can be constructed against Black men for the most heinous crimes, even when there is no actual evidence and plenty of more likely suspects.

It's certainly possible that Elkins and Lang were involved in the murder of Antonio Santiago. But it's equally possible--probably more so--that they were just two Black teenagers who happened to skip school on the wrong day. That's the racist Russian roulette of the U.S. criminal justice system.