One of Our Proudest Moments

A report in today’s Washington Post ( “Suit Argues Prince George’s Police Probe Went Awry,” 11/8/00, B1) was a reminder, for me, of one of the proudest moments that I’ve ever experienced as a human rights advocate. The report refers to a tragic series of missteps that began to unfold on April 26, 1995, when Cpl. John J. Novabilski was murdered in cold blood. The aforementioned report reveals information that even I was not aware of, and underscores the reason why my position on capital punishment in America is as it is.

Officer Novabilski, 31, was moonlighting as a security guard outside a PG liquor store, when a gunman walked up and shot him 11 times, then stole his service weapon as he slumped in the front seat of his police cruiser. According to the report, PG County detectives eager to solve the brazen murder of a fellow officer “threatened and badgered two witnesses until they named an innocent man as the killer.” That innocent man was 25 year old Jefferey C. Gilbert.

I can still remember the climate like it was yesterday. For 48 hours PG County police engaged in a “reign of terror” against any black male who remotely fit the description of Novabilski ski masked assailant. In the wee hours of April 28, Gilbert and his girlfriend were aroused from their sleep by a heavily armed SWAT team that came crashing through the door of their apartment. In the melee (more accurately described as police riot) that ensued, Gilbert was beaten so badly for allegedly “resisting arrest,” that he had to be hospitalized for several days – among the injuries contained in a 20 page medical report was mild brain damage.

The following day the Washington Post published the picture of the blood splattered wall of the apartment following Gilbert’s arrest. A testament to this young man being tried, convicted and punished on the spot. However, medical injuries proved to be the least of his worries; Mr. Gilbert was on the verge of being given a one way ticket to Maryland’s death row! And this is where my colleagues and I stepped in.

Not long before this tragedy unfolded my book, entitled Criminal Justice in America, was published. One of the disturbing statistics that found its way between the covers of my book was [at the time] there were an estimated six to seven thousand wrongful imprisonments in America each year; and further, that a significant number of these resulted from police and/or prosecutorial misconduct. I also included a short essay on award winning journalist, and political prisoner, Mumia Abu-Jamal, a resident on Pennsylvania’s death row. With this in mind, I was forced to take issue with the manner in which Gilbert had been arrested, and the manner in which family and friends of his were terrorized.

I wrote a report that was published in the Prince George’s Journal, and this was followed by a radio interview. Our initial focus was not on the merits of the case involving Gilbert, but on Constitutional guarantees of due process rights and the presumption of innocence. The reaction to our initiatives was both interesting and instructive. Mr. Gilbert happened to be a young black male with a less than desirable reputation in the community. (In today’s Washington Post report, one of the coerced witnesses against Gilbert, Darryl Hensley, was reportedly told by a detective, “Gilbert was the killer,” as he “slammed Gilbert’s photo in front of him and said, ‘Gilbert was a bad guy who doesn’t need to be around.'”)

No one would stand up for the rights of Gilbert or his family. Not the PG County NAACP nor the PG chapter of SCLC, none of the local politicians, no one. We were the only citizens group to protest what the police had done! And we received criticism for it; so much so that rumblings of discontent even began to appear within our small grassroots coalition. But with Allah’s help, we dug in our heels and stuck to our principles. Our position was – that even if he were guilty – as an American citizen he is supposed to be entitled to due process; and his family and friends should not have been terrorized by police simply because of there association with someone suspected of a crime. Our principled advocacy proved to be prophetic.

About a month later at a stakeout in PG County, for a man who was reportedly known to have an intense hatred for police, an FBI agent was killed, and the man himself (Ralph McClean) reportedly committed suicide. In his possession was found the gun used to kill Cpl. Novabilski, along with the officer’s own police issued weapon. Case closed? Not so easy. What happened next should serve as a wakeup call for all of the apathetic citizens of America, whose silent indifference provides a green light for police misconduct throughout this disturbed nation.

Both the Acting Police Chief (an African American), and the States Attorney’s Office (led by an African American) determined that Gilbert was still their number one suspect. And they proceeded to explore any connection that might exist between him and Ralph McClean. What we did next was critical.

The following day after the official announcement of business as usual, we convened a press conference in front of the Upper Marlboro (MD) government building that houses the State’s Attorney’s Office for Prince George’s County, and the media turned out in full. At the press conference we called for two things: the immediate release of Jeffrey Gilbert, and a federal probe into the circumstances surrounding his arrest.

Within 24 hours of our press conference, the leading news [broadcast] reports were that Jeffery Gilbert would be released (charges dropped), and that the Justice Department announced there would be an investigation to determine if his civil rights were violated in the course of his arrest. To this day there are people in and outside the county who maintain that we were the ones who, “saved that young man from being railroaded” onto Maryland’s death row. We know that everything happens by Allah’s decree; and we thank Allah that His Will was expressed through our activism.

There is so much more that I could say about this case and the peripheral issues surrounding it. Let it suffice with this. Nothing (as usual) came of the Justice Department’s probe, and this why police misconduct has continued to be an epidemic in Prince George’s County, Maryland – resulting in civil juries awarding plaintiffs more than $6 million in this year alone. This case is now in the US District Court in Greenbelt, and once again the end result will probably be a sizable monetary award that taxpayers in the County will have to foot, because of their own negligence. The bottom line is, and has always been, that we get the police officers and the policing that we deserve – and we pay for it in more ways than one.