SU graffiti prosecution resulted in justice

In the fall of last year Salisbury University was thrown under a national microscope. The spotlight of America’s media was suddenly focused on our little hamlet. And people from every corner of this great country wondered – had we forgotten the triumphs of the civil rights movements or the dream of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, who reminded a nation of the unalienable truth that all people are created equal?

William McDermott.

Students, staff, faculty members and parents pondered the same questions.

As the Deputy State’s Attorney for Wicomico County, I personally spoke to African American parents who were former alumni of Salisbury University and, up until this moment, had been proud at the prospect of sending their daughter to their former alma mater.

But, now, they were forced to confront the odious proposition that their university was not as it once was since they graced its halls. Fearing that their daughter would be judged not by the quality of her character, but by the pigment of her skin, they called me to quell such apprehensions.

Hate-and-vulgar-filled speech, scribbled on walls, shook the very foundations of SU’s identity. Instead of enjoying a well-earned reputation as an institution of national distinction, it was now a university propped on the shoulders of the national consciousness – thus languishing in the purgatory between the better angels of progress, and the ruinous demons of racism.

For months, we worked in conjunction with members of the Salisbury University Police Department in their investigation. Ongoing investigations can be frustrating to the general public due to our ethical inability to comment, substantively, on them. Instead, our silence is frequently interpreted as inaction.

And, in that vacuum, the seeds of distrust, division and intolerance are sown.

Inaccurate rumors were spread, and the fans of social media stoked the engulfing flames of racist bigotry.

Salisbury University’s enrollment declined, particularly amongst minority students. Thus, while the graffiti had stopped, the emotional trauma and economic damage would persist until the person responsible was brought to justice.

Suspect identification

The wheels of justice move slow, however, this is by design. As a prosecutor who believes that every person is entitled to due process – we dotted every “i” and crossed every “t”.

There were numerous interviews, countless hours of video footage to review, and search warrants to be authored, signed and executed. We even went so far as to analyze the suspect’s Fitbit information for changes in his cardiac rhythms during the times of the graffiti.

By the end of the investigation, we were convinced beyond all reasonable doubt that we knew who committed these disgusting acts of racial hatred, and his name was Kevin Jerome Jackson.

During the course of our investigation, Mr. Jackson retained the services of a defense attorney.

From our perspective, we had an interesting opportunity to employ a tool at our disposal that often goes underutilized, but one that had previously brought success – The Pre-Charging Plea Agreement.

A Pre-Charging Plea Agreement is an agreement with terms and conditions in which an individual pleads guilty before a charging document is even filed. Traditionally, in those circumstances where this is an available option, it inures to the interest of judicial efficiency.

But, like any case, we needed to speak with the interested parties, mainly the university.

What became clear to us was that the university had two primary objectives.

First, and perhaps most crucial, that the perpetrator take responsibility for each and every one of the despicable instances of graffiti found on campus between September 2019 and February 2020.

The other desire was for finality – the hope that a definitive resolution would erase the physical marks of bigotry inflicted upon the walls of the university, and likewise mend the accompanying spiritual wounds.

With those goals in mind, we invited Mr. Jackson and his attorney to our office. We gave Mr. Jackson a seat at the table, and encouraged him to ask questions as we presented our case against him.

At the end of that meeting, we offered him a plea. While the terms were made public, they generally included that he would plead guilty to a hate crime, admit responsibility for all of the hate-filled graffiti found on campus, and that we would be arguing to the court that he be sent to jail for 18 months.

One week later, he accepted.

To be clear, the maximum penalty he faced for that charge was three years. Just as I told Judge Abigail Marsh that day, 18 months isn’t enough. Three years isn’t enough.

But pleas are sometimes about what both parties can live with, when considering all of the interests at stake.

In this particular plea, not only did he admit responsibility, but a plea, unlike a trial, has extraordinarily limited appeal rights. The alternative to this plea would have been a trial, and the trial process is both long and arduous.

Difficult choices

Under our current administrative court orders (because of Covid-19), it would have likely been well into next year before we would have had the opportunity to try this case. In the meantime, and in the wake of societal unrest surrounding this very issue, the idle hands of our adversarial process would have likely forced people into a Hobson’s Choice, wherein neither side would emerge wholly victorious. In the worst case scenario, the trial process would have led to months of unrest, uncertainty and fear amongst the campus community.

Yet, through the framework of the Pre-Charging Plea Agreement, we were able to bring the perpetrator to the table, find justice through acceptance and use the criminal justice system to achieve a resolution that in many ways reflects a deeper truth than that of a verdict rendered by a jury or judge.

While I am, and will continue to be, a faithful steward of due process – many amongst us have lost trust in it. As such, when focused through the looking glass of duty and obligation, it is a far different outcome when a defendant admits responsibility as opposed to merely being found guilty by a system in which some have lost confidence.

As Judge Marsh so eloquently put it when sentencing Mr. Jackson: “This was justice.”

In the wake of this plea, many have argued that the sentence was too harsh; while, invariably, some others have argued it was too light. And still, some have speculated that had he been a person of a different race the outcome would have been different. In this chorus of cynics, I am reminded of a lesson my mother taught me.

We were a foster-care family growing up, and anytime a child in need was placed in our home, regardless of what time of day or night it was, she would cook a meal. At 2 a.m., she’d be standing over a hot stove. She would talk to them about who they were, instead of why they were there. She would break bread.

We need more people willing to break bread in the world today. We need more people to remember that compassion and empathy only exist if you walk a mile in someone else’s shoes, and see the world through those persons’ perspective.

Law school can never prepare a person for what it’s like to be a prosecutor.

It’s a job that keeps most of us on call 24-hours-a-day, seven-days-a-week. It’s a job that doesn’t stop the phone from ringing because dinner is ready or the baby won’t stop crying.

It’s a job where, on most days, someone is likely to disagree with a decision made or a conclusion rendered. And that’s OK, because for us, this is not simply a job or a career, it is a calling. 

So here’s our open invitation. If you ever disagree with something you hear or read about, our doors are open and the phones are on. Visit us. Call us. Break bread with us. 

William McDermott serves as Deputy Wicomico State’s Attorney.

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