Central Jersey Alumnae Chapter Hosts Sold-Out Red Carpet Viewing of “Just Mercy”
Submitted by Raquel Y. Liggon-Horn
On Sunday, January 11, 2020, the Central Jersey Alumnae Chapter (“CJA Deltas”) presented a sold-out, Red Carpet event at the Reading Cinemas Manville. Hosted by the Arts & Letters Committee, the chapter held a private screening of the movie Just Mercy and more than 200 guests atttended. Viewers were immediately impressed by a personal, on-screen welcome from cast member Karan Kendrick to CJA members and guests. Kendrick portrays Millie McMillian, the wife of Jamie Foxx’s character, death row inmate Walter McMillian. Attendees subsequently experienced a range of emotions — – laughing, clapping, and crying — as they watched the movie.
At the conclusion, Arts & Letters tri-chairs Denice Ware, Nicole Rogers, and Sheyreese Sayers facilitated a thoughtful post-movie discussion. Guest panelists included attorneys Douglas Mitchell and Cathleen Price. Mitchell, a social justice advocate who specializes in criminal defense and bankruptcy law in his private practice is also Conflict Counsel for the State of New Jersey, Office of the Public Defender, where he represents both juveniles who are criminally charged and adult defendants. Price was personally sent to the screening by Just Mercy author Bryan Stevenson to represent the grassroots organization he started in 1989, the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI). She has worked for EJI for 27 years and knew many of the characters represented in the movie.
Topics during the discussion were thought provoking. Attendees learned that racial disparities exist everywhere, but the United States has the most prisoners of any country. In fact, approximately six million Americans cannot vote due to felony disenfranchisement. Mitchell commented that although there is no death penalty in the state of New Jersey, there are life sentences with no eligibility for parole due to issues of mass incarceration and racial injustices. Price spoke to the prosecutorial misconduct seen in the movie and suggested that the movie can teach lawyers how to hone their craft. It can also teach others what to expect, and help people ensure the right questions are being asked and that their cases are handled properly by counsel. She noted that there has been a 500% increase in incarcerations since 1970 and an increase in the use of the death penalty. Price stated that as community members, all should be calling elected officials to express our outrage. While prosecutors in some states are elected, the Governor appoints them in New Jersey. Attendees were urged to hold the governor accountable for who he appoints and the actions they take.
Price challenged all to educate people on the prosecutorial function and to advocate for which crimes should be prioritized. She added, “Cruelty never helps us get to a better place, and that one in 10 cases are exonerated.” Price said that people would never get on a plane with such odds and wondered why they accept this with regard to death sentences. A viewer asked what the public could do to ensure that persons who abuse their power, lie, and violate the legal rights of others do not remain in power. Sadly, Price explained that the government is held to a higher standard of proof when it is accused of misconduct, but she and Mitchell concurred that everyone must vote and engage in voter facilitation.
Delving deeper into the issue of convicted felons, Price stated that a problem with the right to vote is that the administration of it is in the hands of the states. In Massachusetts, prisoners do not lose the right to vote. Machines are brought into prisons. Some states allow felons to have the right to vote after a period of time such as five years, and still others strip the right completely. Price said, “It’s a disenfranchisement technique related to the mass incarceration of black people.”
An attendee, who identified herself as a teacher and referenced the school to prison pipeline, commented that schools often mimic law enforcement in their treatment and criminalization of students. Mitchell explained that schools have special authority and some autonomy. As such, consulting with law enforcement does not have to be the first response of schools in many incidents. He also discussed programming designed to show what it feels like to live under martial law and bringing in trauma specialists who can raise the discourse. Another guest asked what the public could do to decrease incarceration for minor crimes. Mitchell said lawyers should listen to their clients because often there’s a rush to judgment. He added that the public should push for diversionary programs and look at alternatives to incarceration, as well as being educated about the process and engaging elected officials. Price urged attendees to show up in court if they have the space and time because “our presence in the courtroom changes the dynamic.”
Overall, it was a wonderful event and viewers left with strategies to make an impact. It is important to note that Bryan Stevenson, whose mother is a member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc., was invited but could not attend. He sent his regrets and provided a 2020 EJI calendar for each attendee titled “A History of Racial Injustice.”
Chair Denice Ware thanked Mitchell and Price for their participation and assured them that the CJA Deltas are heavily involved in social action. She affirmed that the chapter tries to ensure a social action component in most activities in which they engage, such as this Arts & Letters Red Carpet event. Ware and President Karen Wade Culp gifted Mitchell and Price with a signed copy of She Came to Slay: The Life and Time of Harriet Tubman by Erica Armstrong Dunbar. The CJA Deltas left the event with the understanding that the chapter have a lot of work to do and the consensus is that they are ready.
Submitted by Raquel Y. Liggon-Horn On Sunday, January 11, 2020, the Central Jersey Alumnae Chapter (“CJA Deltas”) presented a sold-out, Red Carpet event at the Reading Cinemas Manville. Hosted by the Arts & Letters Committee, the chapter held a private screening of the movie Just Mercy and more than 200 guests atttended. Viewers were immediately …