The Crime of Being Poor and Black
NEWARK, N.J.—This is the story of Emmanuel Mervilus, who got locked up for a crime he did not commit, whose life was derailed and nearly destroyed by the experience and who will graduate this spring from Rutgers University. It is a story of being a poor black man in America, with the exception being that most poor black men never get a second chance.
The only reason Mervilus got a second chance was because of one man, history professor Don Roden, who founded the Mountainview Program at Rutgers for formerly incarcerated students. This program accepts, among others, the students I teach in prison, one of whom, Ron Pierce, also will graduate this spring.
There are only a few saints in this world. Professor Roden is one.
Mountainview staff, students, professors and families gathered Friday at Rutgers’ Newark campus to speak of the struggles and hardships endured by students such as Mervilus and Pierce. Those at the two-hour meeting spent much of the time weeping or fighting back tears.
Mervilus is 6 feet tall and broad-shouldered and has long, thick dreads. He was never in a gang. He was not a drug dealer. He had a job. He came from a good and loving family. But he was cursed with being black and poor and living in a city, Elizabeth, N.J., where if you are black and poor you are always one step away from being arbitrarily shot or arrested or tossed into jail. This is true in nearly every city in America.
There are cops in poor communities who hunt black boys and men as if they are prey. To them it is a sport. These cops are not always white, although they are often white. But they are always sadists. Intoxicated by the power to instill fear, use lethal force indiscriminately and destroy lives—and allowed to do so by a judicial system that no longer protects the most basic rights of the poor, including due process, adequate legal representation and the right to a jury trial—they circle around their victims like human vultures. If we were to use the strict dictionary definition, these police officers are criminals.
“There is a cop who used to tell me when I was a boy he was going to give me my first adult charge,” Mervilus said. Mervilus said he did not want to name the officer, now a detective, for fear of retribution.
This cop made good on his threat when Mervilus turned 18 and was a senior in high school. He saw Mervilus on the street smoking a joint. Mervilus ran. The cop chased him. Mervilus turned, put his arms up and shouted, “I give up! I give up!” The cop threw him on the hood of a police car.
“I don’t remember anything after that,” he said. “I saw a flash. Next thing I’m in the back of the police car. There are scratches on my face.”
“I’m not a saint,” Mervilus said to me. “I did things. But everything I did I owned up to.”
When he got to the police station he was charged with having a dozen bags of marijuana. The charge was a lie.
“They need more than simple possession to lock you up so they plant drugs,” he said. “It makes the charge stick.”
He was in the county jail for two weeks and was assigned a public defender who told him to plead guilty. “The public defender told me, ‘How are you going to prove this [your innocence]?’ ” he said.
“No one wants to believe cops lie,” Mervilus said. “Why would a cop lie? Lots of reasons. Promotion. Quotas. And I don’t look like a regular citizen. I’m black. I got dreads. I fit the description. I figured I ran. I didn’t know much of anything at that time, you feel me? So, I said, I’ll take it. I thought that probation could be expunged if I did good. But I was wrong. From that day on, I said I would never, ever, plead guilty to something I didn’t do.”
He went back to high school, repeated senior year, and graduated. He got a job in the kitchen of a nursing home in Linden, N.J. He earned minimum wage. It was 2005. He was 21. He was living at home. He was stopped randomly one afternoon on the street by a cop. The cop ran his name in the system.
“He says there is a warrant for my arrest,” he said. “He says I just jumped two fences and put something under a rock. It was a total lie. I am arrested with another guy for manufacturing and distribution. I spent a month in Union County jail. And when you spend a month in Union County jail it makes you want to plead guilty. You’re confined to a little area. You don’t get out.”
“I was first put in a holding tank with someone else, some type of drug dealer going through withdrawal,” he said. “It was nasty. Throwing up. Diarrhea. Two steel bunks. One steel toilet. No windows.
“They put my bail at $75,000,” he said. “I paid $7,500—10 percent—and bailed out. I tried to get my old job back. They refused to let me back, said ‘abandonment of work.’ I didn’t want to hustle [illegal drugs]. When your back is against the wall, you can’t find a job, and you have to pay a lawyer, often all you can do is hustle. But if I hustled I’d probably catch another charge and go to prison.”
Eventually, his girlfriend’s stepfather helped him get a job at the port in Newark. He was making $12 an hour. But the criminal justice system was not done with Mervilus. On leaving a Dunkin’ Donuts in October 2006 he met a friend and they started walking down the street. Cops stopped them. There had just been a stabbing and robbery. The victim told the cops that Mervilus and his friend had attacked him.
“Why would he [the victim] point a finger at me?” Mervilus asked searchingly. “I look the part, a black man with dreads. But there was no evidence to corroborate his story. I didn’t have any blood on me. He said we stole his bookbag.”
The cops rushed him and his friend. They shouted, “Put your hands on the wall!” He complied. He was put in jail, and his bail was set at $100,000.
The loss of his job while he was in jail meant he could no longer support his mother, who was dying of breast cancer, his sister and two brothers. His father had left the family.
“Rent has to be paid, everything has to go on as if I’m there,” he said. So he told his family not to use their paltry resources to bail him out. “My younger brother was 16. I played the father role. The system failed me. It failed him. He lost me.”
His family believed the cops. That hurt the most.
“I’m Haitian,” he said. “My family is looking at me like, what? This guy’s robbing people? He stabbed someone who almost died? I get blackballed. No one comes to see me, not even my mom. My mom raised me better than that. All these Haitian people were saying, ‘Well, why is he locked up if he didn’t do it?’ I was hurt and depressed.”
One night after he had been in jail for seven months he was jolted awake in his cell. “It felt like there were claws digging into my stomach,” he said. “The pain was horrible.”
His mother, he found out later when his brother visited, died that night. She was 52. After the visit he insulted another prisoner and got into a fistfight. “It didn’t fill the void,” he said.
He finally got out on bail. His family had taken his mother’s body back to Haiti for burial, and he visited her grave. It was made out of white painted cement blocks and surrounded by a small gate. He brought flowers.
“I told my mom I was sorry I wasn’t there when she died,” he said. “I told her I was innocent. I wasn’t going to plead guilty. I told her I had let her down by not watching over my little brother. I was sitting talking to her for two or three hours. It was very emotional. It was the first time I cried. Her dying [always had been] my biggest fear. My mom would be asleep; I would stand at the door looking in to make sure she was breathing. I was a momma’s boy. Serious. Every day when I came home from work I brought her a chicken sandwich with mayo and pickles from Wendy’s.”
The prosecutor offered him a deal of five years in prison if he would plead guilty to the crime in which the man was stabbed and robbed. He refused. He was facing 20 years. He went to trial. The victim changed his story several times and at one point when asked if his assailant was in the courtroom pointed to someone other than Mervilus. It did not matter. Mervilus was sentenced to 11 years for first-degree robbery.
His younger brother worked at any job he could find to pay for a lawyer for Emmanuel. When the brother got the $12,000 needed to retain an attorney, Emmanuel filed an appeal. The lawyer exposed a series of discrepancies and inconsistencies in the testimony of the man who had been stabbed. Mervilus was retried, acquitted by a jury and freed after having been behind bars for four years. The process, which cost his brother $32,000, achieved an almost unheard-of result for a poor person in our dysfunctional court system. The lawyer, John Caruso, called the acquittal “a Halley’s Comet occurrence.”