“Injustice occurs in empty courtrooms”

Marian Winton, attorney Chris Irwin of the Public Defender’s Office, and Imani Mfalme-Shula (left to right). Photo submitted.

To many of those who work in the courtrooms of East Tennessee, the criminal justice system is broken, possibly beyond repair.

They see a system that routinely allows the innocent to be punished, the poor to be jailed before trial regardless of their guilt or innocence, and for Blacks to suffer disproportionately in almost every conceivable way.  

There are ways to fight back, but few people know about them and it’s close to impossible for someone to bring about change by themselves. 

Teaching people how to fight effectively against the system’s injustices is what Imani Mfalme-Shula of Community Defense of East Tennessee (CDET) does for a living. 

“We believe in accountability and true justice but do not believe this system can achieve that,” Mfalme-Shula said.  

Comprised of people facing criminal charges, their families and their communities, CDET is about having an impact on the outcomes of cases and transforming the landscape of power in the court system. 

“It was created from them watching police brutality and the injustices happening and they would be in the street protesting and organizing but once loved ones entered the courtroom, they lost that power, so they started strategizing and coming up with techniques about how to bring activism and organizing into the courtroom,” Mfalme-Shula said.

CDET was founded in Knoxville in 2016 after then-Public Defender Mark Stephens learned about the participatory defense model in his interactions with Gideon’s Promise, a nonprofit group trying to build a movement of public defenders who provide equal justice for marginalized communities.   

San Jose California was the first city with a participatory defense program, and Knoxville was only the third city in the United States that the model was shared with, Mfalme-Shula said. 

CDET is made up of families who attend weekly meetings where they can receive support and advice on how to navigate the criminal justice system and bring their loved ones home sooner. The purpose of CDET is to empower, educate and liberate. Instead of paying a fee, families are encouraged to “pay it back” by sticking around and continuing to attend meetings to support the next family that comes along. Mfalme-Shula says that while families are encouraged to stay with the group to help others, CDET wants families to do so by choice, not because they feel obligated to do so.

According to Mfalme-Shula, the number of families taking part in CDET’s program varies from week to week. Many variables have an effect on participation, from the current case load in the criminal justice system to other time commitments that family members have, especially when cases drag on for years and years.   

“You can also have cases that are over quickly, or you have a family that comes once but then is afraid to go against the system.  Our goal is to let them know that we are going to help them fight and to support them,” Mfalme-Shula said.  

“It’s not just about mass incarceration. It’s about our families. We understand the root causes that lead to mass incarceration…  This system creates more victims,” she continued. 

Marian Winton, who is currently attending the weekly meetings seeking help with a friend’s legal battles, said the sense of family and connection that is formed in the group is vital to those struggling against a system that holds almost all the cards.

“It’s a space for community. The meetings are helping me both emotionally and by others sharing their wisdom from their experiences,” Winton said.  

Before finding the group, she felt like she was fighting the battle by herself and was rapidly running out of both financial and emotional resources to do so. While helping to pay for her friend’s legal battles is still a challenge, she no longer feels alone. Plus, she’s now armed with strategies to help her friend that won’t waste her dwindling resources. 

“Another thing that we try to promote is that you don’t need a degree or connections to know what you are talking about,” Mfalme-Shula added. “It’s the community that are the experts. It is our family members that are out here dying and getting arrested.  You need to have an attorney, but that attorney is not on the ground and doesn’t know that neighborhood. It’s good to have an attorney and the community working together.”

According to lawyer Mark Stephens, who served as Knox County’s public defender for 29 years and is nationally recognized for his work on behalf of poor clients, this is an intentional part of the program’s design.  

“We are warned not to make the mistake of being too involved,” he said. “When lawyers are involved, it loses the chance for people to find their own voices.  We attended sometimes early on, but backed off.” 

Over time, the group has become a source for information and insights that can be every bit as important as the “expert” advice provided by an attorney, Stephens said. 

“A person might feel like they understand what they are being told when they are in our office, but they are being given a lot of information all at once and concepts may start to blend,” he explained. “Clients may end up making decisions based on conclusions that may not be accurate. CDET can clarify these concepts.  Additionally, they can fill in gaps that an overworked attorney might overlook, such as commissary costs, the cost to make phone calls, or that they can receive emails. CDET can make sure that those details are not lost.”  

Another key part of CDET’s work is courtroom support.  

“Injustices are most likely to occur in empty courtrooms” is a phrase commonly used by those within the participatory defense network. 

“It’s human nature for a judge to respond to a packed courtroom,” Stephens said. “The judge may not make this decision consciously, but when you see that the defendant has strong community support, that shows that he has value.” 

He continued: “The district attorney’s side has victims’ advocates, but there is no equivalent position for the public defenders. It is not balanced.  In the courtroom there is strong support for the victim, but there is no one there on the side of the defendant.” 

Mfalme-Shula confirmed the value of this practice by telling about an experience that she had while conducting a training in a court room. 

“The judge waited to the very end. We weren’t there for the case, we were just there doing the training,” Mfalme-Shula explained. “From the way it was going we thought that this person was about to get locked up. But the judge specifically mentioned our presence in the courtroom, and he did not lock him up. It really makes a difference when someone is facing that system all by themself vs when they have support.  

“That is what we focus on, supporting the person, letting them know that they don’t have to take that plea deal.” 

Innocent people often end up taking plea deals and serving jail time for crimes that they did not commit, she explained, so encouraging defendants to not give in when they are the victims of inappropriate pressure is vital.

“Why would you say that you are guilty if your innocent?” Mfalme-Shula said. “Well, if you’ve been torn away from your family, your job, your house and you are in a cage and someone says, ‘Hey, I’ll let you go back to your life if you sign this thing,’ what do you think you may do?”

As an example, Mfalme-Shula cited the case of Reggie Wilson, a Black man was arrested for aggravated assault and resisting arrest in a violent 2015 encounter with Knoxville Police Department officers.

During his arrest, Wilson suffered head injuries that required staples, a broken tooth, and a cut mouth.  Wilson was eventually acquitted  of all charges against him over the course of two jury trials, but it took until this year and civil litigation is still pending. 

He was repeatedly offered plea agreements but refused to sign off on one, Mfalme-Shula said.

“Reggie’s case started in 2015, and it wasn’t until this year that he got his second not guilty verdict,” she said. “That’s six years. People don’t have the ability to take off work for six years for court.  You cannot fight a system like that. He had that ability since he’s a barber, so he could do that by scheduling his appointments around it. 

“But if you don’t have the type of job where you can do that, if you have children and you don’t have childcare, you do not have the ability or time to say, ‘Look, I am innocent, I do not deserve this.’”

In addition to working on individual cases, CDET spearheads campaigns aimed at reforming practices that, in Mfalme-Shula’s opinion, do more harm than good: drug free school zones, life sentences for juveniles and racially unbalanced jury selection.

“For the families that are victims, they don’t feel like they’ve gotten justice for their loved ones either,” she said. “We are not fighting against victims. We are fighting against a system that creates more victims.  If people got what they needed in the first place, we would not be seeing so many victims and so many scenarios of young boys with their fathers lost and not knowing how to be men.” 

“It’s not surprising to me that Knoxville is comparable to Chicago at this point per capita on crime rates. We saw this coming a while ago.  We went to City officials, and we told them that we need certain things, and we were ignored,” Mfalme-Shula said.

In Mfalme-Shula’s opinion, news headlines from the past few months prove how untrustworthy — and racist — the current system is. There are far too many men like Reggie Wilson out there who are unable or unwilling to fight back, as they are resigned to the belief that there’s no way to win.

“The racist police department is backed by those who embolden them with lack of accountability,” Mfalme-Shula said. “The District Attorney’s Office, the police union and mayor stand idly by when there is clear and blatant racism and abuse of power. The officers who brutally beat Reggie Wilson remain on the force even after two different juries found him innocent. Where is the justice for him?”

She continued: “When a community sees that an innocent man of African descent can be beaten and those officers are cleared of any wrongdoing why would we trust or feel safe with an institution like that around?”

On a personal level, Mfalme-Shula has had a traumatic year in which she experienced the deaths of both parents in an eight-month period. She says that it was the community defense family, both locally and on the national level, that kept her going through this difficult period.  

“They made sure we had everything we needed to bury my mother, they made sure that I was okay, and they are still making sure that I’m okay. I’m so blessed to have those people around me,” she explained.  

“From those meetings and caring about each other, from what I’ve seen…  it starts to build community. As a society we have lost that sense of community…  If you come to the meetings long enough you are going to become family and we encourage people that once you come and you make it through your case, try to stay and help the next family that comes along,” she said. 

CDET’s meetings are currently held virtually on Monday evenings.  Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, they were meeting at Tabernacle Baptist Church but as of now they are looking for a stable meeting place.  

“We are looking for a home. We are going to start fundraising for a home, because we know that it’s important that people know where they can come to find us and where they can go to get that help,” Mfalme-Shula said. 

Mfalme-Shula asked that anyone with an available space, or who would be willing to contribute to the fundraiser, contact her through Community Defense of East Tennessee’s Facebook, Twitter or Instagram accounts.

Jennifer Stambaugh can be reached at news@hardknoxwire.com 

Published on July 19, 2021