Harvard Law Students Urge Criminal Justice Reforms

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From an article by Tyler S. Olkowski, for The Crimson:

Nearly half of the Harvard Law School student body signed an open letter to President Barack Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder in the wake of recent grand jury decisions to not indict police officers for the deaths of two unarmed black men. The letter, released by the Harvard Black Law Students Association, calls for the use of body-worn cameras by police and the prosecution of police officers who “deprive black men and women of their constitutional right to life.”

The latest instance of student activism in response to the decisions, the HBLSA letter collected over a thousand signatories in 24 hours, including over 800 law school students, 39 student organizations, and 30 members of the faculty and staff. Of the faculty and staff, 9 professors, including Charles R. Nesson ’60 and Charles J. Ogletree, Jr., signed their names.

Last Tuesday, a Staten Island grand jury declined to indict a police officer who placed Eric Garner, accused of selling untaxed cigarettes, in a chokehold that led to his death. In a separate case, a St. Louis grand jury decided last month to not indict a white police officer who shot and killed Michael Brown, an unarmed teenager, after a physical altercation in August.

These decisions, according to the letter, illustrate a justice system that “remains willfully blind to the injustices and inequalities that persist along racial and economic lines in this country.”

The letter calls for Eric Holder and the Justice Department to bring civil rights charges against police departments and officers for “violat[ing] the constitutional rights of black men and women.”

Lastly, the letter, which was written in a week by members of HBLSA, invites Holder and Obama to Harvard Law School to continue the discussion and challenges the pair “to restore our faith in American Justice.”

The HBLSA launched a “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” campaign in August, following the death of Brown, and hosted a “Ferguson Reality Check” conference in October. At the end of November, the group also organized a luncheon to discuss the death of Brown and subsequent protests in Ferguson, MO.

While HBLSA has not directly organized the recent protests against the decisions, many members have participated in the rallies, and the organization supports the activism, according to McKenzie L. Morris, a third-year law student and the president of HBLSA.

“Although HBLSA led the creation of the letter, it’s not just us signing on,” Morris said. “It’s a ton of organizations who have supported us in every way.”

Download a pdf of the open letter here.

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