In 1979 a motorist named Jeff McCullaugh was stopped in Baltimore by a police officer because of a broken tail light. The officer asked for Mr. McCullaugh’s drivers license and returned to his cruiser to write a $50 ticket for the infraction. And that is where this story should have ended. Unfortunately McCullaugh had the same name as a wanted murderer and was arrested on the spot and hauled off to prison.
Although a now a serious situation, the obvious case of mistaken identity should have been immediately resolved by the courts and McCullaugh freed at once with an sheepish but heartfelt apology. But in a strange twist of fate, the presiding judge, who harbored some enmity for McCullaugh’s attorney, refused to release him from prison due to a legal technicality.
McCullaugh, who was not the brutal murderer he is supposed to be but was actually an innocent, is quickly victimized in prison. Repeatedly raped, he finally snaps after his court case is thrown out and takes hostages in a desperate attempt to draw attention to his plight. The folly of this strategy is quickly realized when a police sniper kills McCullaugh before his attorney, who has just arrived at the prison, can intervene on his behalf.
Does this situation sound familiar?
That’s right–Sandra Bland. For those of you who have been living under a rock the last couple weeks, Sandra Bland was a motorist who recently died in police custody after a routine traffic stop. Bland was African American and the arresting officer was white, but that is really only part of the story.
Bland, a recent graduate of Prairie View A&M and Chicago native, had just returned to Waller County, Texas (the location of Prairie View) seeking employment at her alma mater. The school offered her a position and she moved from Chicago. Shortly thereafter she was pulled over by a Texas state trooper for failing to signal a lane change after she moved to the right to get out of way of his accelerating cruiser.
Unless you are a member of the law enforcement community, most citizens are already raising their eyebrows. “Wow…it must have been a slow day for that trooper” might be one charitable comment some are thinking. If you are African American, you might be thinking this is a case of DWB–driving while black–a rather infamous habit of suburban police of pulling over African Americans on the slightest pretext. Or no pretext.
Apparently Ms. Bland was thinking somewhere between the two above extremes, because she is clearly irritated by the trooper’s actions and speaks to him in a hostile manner. The trooper quickly loses his cool and demands Bland put out her cigarette, for which she refuses. At this point the trooper says she is under arrest and attempts to drag her out of the car. She fights him off and he steps back and draws his taser. This gets her moving and she exits her car and moves to the side of the road, where the trooper handcuffs her.
Now here is where it gets murky. The handcuffing takes place off camera. Bland, clearly enraged at her treatment, verbally abuses the trooper, who in return struggles to physically restrain her. A Prairie View police officer arrives on the scene and moves Bland to his cruiser to take her to jail. The trooper charges her with assaulting a police officer (allegedly kicking his shin and swinging her elbows), which is a third degree felony. The presiding judge sets bail at five thousand dollars. Not having the five grand, she calls back to Chicago to try to raise the money. While waiting for an answer she languishes in jail for three days. On the third day she hangs herself to death with a plastic garbage bag.
Which brings us back to the unfortunate McCullaugh. Or fortunate in that case, because his story is entirely fictional. It was the leading plot element of the movie “And Justice For All”, starring Al Pacino and John Forsythe. It garnered two Academy Award nominations, including one for Best Original Screenplay for the script written by Barry Levinson. The movie strongly resonated with audiences and was a commercial success. What makes the movie relevant to Bland story is its social commentary on the American legal system and how easy it is to get ground up in the machinery of this country’s justice. The movie hit theatres thirty-six years ago. It is disturbing to realize that how little has changed since then to address the inequities in the manner in which the business of our courts, jails, and police departments is conducted. It is high time something is done.