Detroit public defenders march for justice system changes

Public defenders and other defense attorneys led a march in downtown Detroit on Monday to press for changes in the criminal justice system, ahead of the 11th day of protesting among core marchers calling for an end to police brutality and discrimination.

Brandy Robinson, a representative for the Neighborhood Defender Service of Detroit, opened the defenders' event outside the Theodore Levin U.S. Courthouse, saying the need for change runs deeper than rooting out police officers who use excessive force and target people of color. 

“I can no longer accept an explanation of police terror that says we just need to deal with the few bad apples, the whole damn system is rotten,” said Robinson, a public defender for 15 years. 

Police escorted about 150 marchers, who wore white shirts in honor of black people killed by police, down Lafayette to Monroe on their way to the Frank Murphy Hall of Justice. Marshals in orange shirts provide masks and water and enforced social distancing.

Public defenders said they came out to bear witness to systemic racism and injustice toward black people in the criminal justice system. 

As part of their protest, they listed demands for changes to the legal system. Among them: 

Adequate resources for public defenders and a commitment to providing the funding, training, and support public defenders need to fight routine injustices that happen in courtrooms every day. 

•Ban "no-knock" warrants 

•End cash bail

•End the "criminalization" of blackness, poverty and drug crimes

•End mandatory sentences, minimum sentencing and “truth in sentencing” laws

•Invest in restorative justice practices

•Shift resources from police to community controlled programs 

•Immediately release inmates particularly susceptible to coronavirus.

Other organizations represented at the earlier protest included the Detroit and Michigan chapters of the National Lawyers Guild, the Detroit Justice Center, the National Conference of Black Lawyers, the State Appellate Defender Office and the Wayne County Criminal Defense Bar Association.

After the march reached Frank Murphy, the group was silent for the eight minutes and 46 seconds, the length of time white Minneapolis police Officer Derek Chauvin is accused of holding his knee on the neck of George Floyd, a black man. Chauvin has been charged in Floyd's death, along with three other officers who were on the scene of the May 25 incident.

Defense attorneys and others spoke in front of the courthouse, as well as a man who said he was wrongfully convicted. 

Public defenders and lawyers from the Neighborhood Defender Service march on Monroe Avenue during a protest against police brutality in Detroit on Monday, June 8, 2020.

“I stand for the people who can’t speak for themselves whether they’re dead or alive. ... We’re not going to keep tolerating this. ... Corruption must be addressed as long as corruption exists,” said Demetrius Knuckles. 

Knuckles, 47, said he was arrested in 1991 for a murder he did not commit and jailed for 28 years.

Nicole Castka, a Detroit defense attorney, said the way police do their job must be overhauled. 

"It starts with the officers and how they're going into the neighborhoods," she said. "They’re putting their lives on the line, but that doesn't give you the right to shoot someone in their house seven times or put your knee on someone for eight minutes over a $20 bill."

Chanta Parker, the managing director of the Neighborhood Defender Service, which opened about a year ago, said organizations such as hers need funding to assure defendants have competent, effective representation. 

"We’re in court every day, so we get a chance to see the system, the way that it works ... and so we fight for people who don’t have resources and who the system would otherwise look the other way to,” she said. 

Nathan Nemon, 29, of Ann Arbor said he attended the march to express support for the work of public defenders.

“I came to this specifically because Detroit didn't have a public defender about a year ago," he said. "NDS and the other public defender organizations are critical to fight against systemic racism and police malpractice.”