Bias Awareness dinner honors McDonald, local prisoner litigation attorney team

By Frank Weir

Legal News

The 18th Annual Bias Awareness Week concluded last Thursday with presentations to local legend Frederick McDonald and to local members of the Neal Legal Team for its successful female prisoner sex abuse litigation.

Featured speaker at the awards dinner was Washtenaw County Sheriff Jerry Clayton.

McDonald received the Vanzetti M. Hamilton Bar Association's Frederick Douglass Racial Justice and Harmony Award while Deborah Labelle, Molly Reno and Richard Soble were honored with the WCBA's Martin Luther King, Jr., "I Have a Dream" Award.

"It is indeed an honor for me to receive this award," McDonald said. "Frederick Douglas is someone who I have much admired over the years. I am well pleased with the progress of the bar association and with the Vanzetti Hamilton Bar Association.

"I want to thank the many people have had contact with over the years. I look at my table here and see Delphia and J. Cedric Simpson, and Camille Horne. I want to thank them for their support.

"A lawyer from outside our county recently paid us a high compliment saying that they enjoy coming to Washtenaw since we treat each other with such great civility. She added that she would never let anyone sign an order without her first seeing it. That is something we do here all the time.

"Finally, Frederick Douglass was one of the most prominent members in American history. He was called the Sage or Lion of the Anacostia, a river near Washington, D.C.

"My favorite Douglass quote is, 'I would unite with anybody to do right and with nobody to do wrong.'

"We are all brothers and sisters."

Richard Soble accepted the Martin Luther King Jr., award on behalf of the three awardees.

"This is really not our honor; it is in honor of the 500 women, that grew to 900, who had the courage to speak out to the Department of Corrections that had complete control of their lives.

"Those who stepped forward in 1996 basically said, 'Enough. No more rapes, no more sexual harassment, no more invasions of our privacy and no more retribution. We accept that we may be further harmed by making these statements.'

"There were enormous pressures and harms visited on the inmates in the case but they stayed together and they understood that it would be a long process. It took courage to step forward and enormous courage not to be discouraged.

"The first thing they faced was our own judiciary. Judge Timothy Connors said the case should go forward. The Court of Appeals agreed but the Michigan Supreme Court sat on the case for five years without a decision on defendants' leave to appeal.

"We said what does this say to our clients, to the guards?"

Soble added that defendants filed 22 interlocutory appeals saying over and over that Judge Connors was wrong.

"The state was saying for 16 years of litigation that they felt Judge Connors was wrong but they couldn't prove it. They never seemed to understand that the judge was saying not only was there a viable case, but the defenses raised were not meritorious."

As the case went forward, Soble said that many depositions were taken and "they were not pretty."

"They are prisoners. The attitude was that you committed a crime and you're not entitled to relief. You are a liar, an addict, a prostitute, a whore.

"That was the attitude of the Department of Corrections. They considered our clients as sub-human and that's why they could be treated that way.

"The state's attorneys poked and probed and opened old wounds but our clients stood firm. They were a lot stronger than we were. They were being revictimized and yet they said they wanted to go forward, they stood together.

"And what was their goal? To tell their story to someone who would listen."

Soble noted that no supervisor was ever disciplined or discharged in the 16 years of litigation.

"How could this happen without someone knowing? A massive number of rapes and abuse and not a single supervisor was disciplined. And what message did that send to supervisors if nothing was ever done?

"So for three and half weeks they spoke to the jury. They told their story. It was painful. None of the women could speak without breaking down and being ripped apart again. The defense forced them to go into detail about it because they said this didn't happen, you are a liar, reinforcing what had happened in prison.

"They acknowledged in court what they had done wrong to be imprisoned. They talked about their crimes. Some were in for murder, they explained why. Some went to prison as early as 17 when they were kids. Some were serving life terms.

"The voir dire was interesting. A number of women said this has happened to me. The amount of sexual abuse and rapes are astounding and it's a secret, just as it was in prison. But the women outside might have had the ability to move away from the rapist, our clients couldn't."

He said that when the verdicts were read, "we sat their stunned."

"We began to hear sobbing behind us, where our clients were. Each verdict, a welling up, sobbing out of exhaustion and joy. They couldn't believe that after all these years, someone said, 'we believe you.'"

At the conclusion of that first trial, Soble said the jury asked Judge Connors if a letter from them could be read to the women.

"The jury said, 'As citizens, we are sorry and apologise for what you went through in our county.' In my practice I have never had a jury express themselves in anything other than what's on a jury form.

"Each of the women stood up and through their sobbing said a simple, 'Thank you. It means so much that you believed us and gave us our dignity back. You've given me a reason to live. You're the only people who ever gave us a chance to tell our story and the first to believe us.'"

As the first trial ended, Soble said, "What had happened was beyond belief. We hugged each other and we were disoriented in a sense. We celebrated but then the reality hit us: our clients went back to prison that day."

Published: Thu, Oct 29, 2009

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