Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Concerned parent writes NDSS and NDSC

This letter was sent to us by a concerned dad. It follows up on a question he asked during the NDSS, NDSC and FRIENDS Town Hall call on Tuesday. We think he makes some excellent points. We hope that NDSS and NDSC read this letter carefully. 

Dear Mr. Colman and Ms. Goodman,

I write to follow up on yesterday's town hall conference call.  First, I want to thank you for hosting the event.  I appreciate the effort at community outreach.

At the meeting, I expressed my view that Maryland state officials should be the focus of our demand for an independent investigation rather than the federal government.  Today I wish to follow up on that topic.

As we discussed, it is encouraging that the United States Department of Justice ("DOJ") has reached out to your organizations.  Like you, I remain hopeful that someone inside the DOJ will initiate an impartial investigation of the Saylor homicide free of the personal entanglements that derailed the matter at the local level.
I am, however, concerned about over-reliance on federal action.  To begin, as we discussed, the federal actors you are in touch with have relatively narrow mandates limited to civil rights, disability rights, and overlap between the two.  Yet for the reasons we discussed, this case---while presenting a fairly clear-cut case of excessive force---may not reflect the willful deprivation of Mr. Saylor's rights due to his status as a legally protected minority.  Similarly, I am concerned that a claim that the off-duty deputies violated Mr. Saylor's civil rights may be complicated by the fact that the men were acting in a private capacity on the night in question.

More fundamentally, I am concerned that over-reliance on "civil" and "disability" rights to establish the guards' culpability undermines the core narrative that our community should adopt and repeat: that because Ethan Saylor had Down syndrome, the off-duty deputies did not view him as worthy of basic human dignity, and they thus overreacted to an innocuous situation by killing him over the price of a movie ticket.  Viewed from this perspective, Mr. Saylor's death presents a violation of the basic human right to life.  By relying on the narrower statutory rights enforced by the DOJ, I fear that our community will lend credence to the off-duty deputies' narrative of innocence: that miscommunications and/or health problems stemming from Mr. Saylor's Down syndrome are to blame for the homicide rather than their own misconduct. 

For these reasons, I believe Mr. Saylor's case is best cast as a violation of state criminal law, and that it falls primarily on the higher Maryland authorities to see that justice is served.  On this point, the Trayvon Martin case from Florida serves as a useful point of comparison.  There, as here, the killer overreacted to an innocuous situation based on his personal prejudices against the victim, i.e., that Mr. Martin (a young black man) was not worthy of basic human respect.  Similarly, there, as here, local law enforcement placed its stamp of approval on the killer's misconduct by failing to seek criminal justice.

There, however, unlike here, a massive outpouring of public outrage---fueled in large part by national advocacy groups such as the NAACP---forced the governor's hand to appoint a special prosecutor, who ultimately brought criminal charges against George Zimmerman. 

That, I believe, is where your organizations come in.  Governors and attorneys general are inherently political creatures, a circumstance that cuts in both directions.  On the one hand, politicians frequently have their eyes on re-election and/or higher office, and are thus reluctant to ruffle the feathers of law enforcement, whose support they believe they will need to advance their own careers.  On the other hand, politicians will respond to public pressure when they believe it is in their best interest to do so.

As the Trayvon Martin case demonstrates, large national advocacy groups such as yours have the prestige, platform, and resources to galvanize their constituencies (and others similarly situated) to compel action at the high levels of state government.  I thus urge you to focus your attention on the Governor and Attorney General of Maryland, as well as any other appropriate high-level officials, to launch an impartial investigation of Ethan Saylor's homicide in addition to any action that the federal government may (or may not) take.

Yesterday you reaffirmed your commitment to demanding an impartial investigation.  I take you at your word.  Please do everything within your power---including contacting the appropriate authorities, organizing marches and rallies, coordinating social media efforts, and so on---to grab the attention of the appropriate state officials before it's too late.  I believe this action is a moral imperative of your respective offices, and that only you have the ability to coordinate the large-scale efforts necessary to ensure Justice for Ethan.

Please feel free to contact me any time regarding this matter.  Thank you.


  1. How does the Maryland grand jury's decision not to indict the officers on state criminal charges impact this recommendation? Typically, in that situation, indictments are only sought & issued based on new evidence. The independent investigation by the DOJ could provide that new info & the civil rights aspect is what gives the DOJ authority to investigate an otherwise state criminal issue.

  2. A response from Concerned Dad:

    "My take is that even if MD has some kind of "new evidence" rule, there's no reason why an investigation by the state AG or some kind of special prosecutor couldn't provide the "new" evidence. Of course, as you point out, the feds can and should act as well. Imagine a scenario where a white guy kills a black guy in an ugly and racially-charged incident, and the local DA, for unstated but obvious racist reasons, declines to charge, and the grand jury (unsurprisingly) fails to indict. Clearly, if the case got high profile enough, some grown-up in state government would eventually step in to clean up the mess--by whatever mechanisms exist in the state to do that--without relying on the feds, even if only for self-interested PR purposes."