WINSTON-SALEM MINISTERS CONFERENCE MEMBERS DEMAND FULL RELEASE OF SILK PLANT FOREST REPORT
Standing before banners that read, “Free Kalvin Michael Smith,” representatives of the Ministers Conference of Winston-Salem demanded that Forsyth County District Attorney Tom Keith resign immediately during a press conference outside the Forsyth County Hall of Justice on Sept. 11.
The press conference marked the second time in three days that a group of Winston-Salem clergy called for Keith to relinquish the post he’s held for nearly two decades.
“Mr. Keith’s apparently stubbornly held, virulently racist whitesupremacist and wildly inaccurate views that, ‘If you are African American you are six, seven or eight times or some figure more likely to have a violent history’ is at the core of the problem for Kalvin Michael Smith or any other black person accused of violent crimes in Forsyth County,” said the Rev. Carlton AG Eversley, referring to a quote attributed to Keith in an Aug. 26 YES! Weekly article entitled, “Forsyth DA: Racial Justice Act inherently flawed.”
The original quote printed in the Aug. 26 edition of YES! Weekly read as follows: “If you’re African American, you’re six, seven or eight times more likely to have a violent history. I didn’t go out there and say, ‘You commit eight crimes, and I’m a white man, I’ll commit one.’ That’s just instincts, that’s just how it is.”
On Sept. 9, YES! Weekly issued a correction to the quote attributed to Keith. The district attorney actually said, “If you’re African American, you’re six, seven or eight times or some figure more likely to have a violent history. I didn’t go out there and put a gun in your hand and say, ‘You commit eight crimes and I’m a white man and I’ll commit one.’ That’s just statistics. That’s how it is.”
Eversley said the difference of one word in a newspaper article was irrelevant.
“Whether he holds the point of view that black people are six, seven or eight times more likely to be violent based upon statistics or instincts is, for us, a difference that makes no difference,” Eversley said.
He went on to say that Keith’s quote was a distraction from the central issue of equal justice for all in Forsyth County’s criminal justice system.
“The problem we have is that the leading law enforcement official in Forsyth County goes into court predisposed to believing that black people are six to eight times more violent — that is the problem,” Eversley said.
During their first press conference on Sept. 8, the ministers gathered on the steps of Wait Chapel on the Wake Forest University campus and called upon Keith to resign. The group also requested the Winston-Salem City Council petition the court for a full and immediate release of Silk Plant Forest Citizens Review Committee report, and for the city to file a “friend of the court” brief with the NC Court of Appeals supporting Smith’s request for a new trial.
“We gather here to say that our confidence in the administration of justice in our county has, once again, been severely shaken,” said Susan Parker, minister of Wake Forest Baptist Church, during the press conference.
Parker pointed out that six years ago, a similar group of clergy had gathered to call upon Keith to drop his defense of the state’s case against Darryl Hunt and pursue the investigation of Willard Brown. Hunt was exonerated by DNA evidence in 2004 after Willard Brown confessed to the rape and murder of newspaper editor Deborah Sykes. Hunt spent nearly 19 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit.
Parker also referred to the Sept. 2 exoneration of Joseph Lamont Abbitt, who was wrongfully imprisoned more than 14 years for the rape of two teenage girls.
“While we are glad that Darryl Hunt and Joseph Abbitt have been freed, their convictions demonstrate that for 18 years and 14 years respectively, the perpetrators of these heinous attacks were at large, free to prey on women and girls in our community,” Parker said. “By his decisions to defend previous convictions, rather than to consider new evidence in a fairminded way, Mr. Keith has shown a callous disregard for the safety of our citizens.”
Upon hearing of YES! Weekly’s correction, Parker, along with the Rev. Kelly Carpenter and the Rev. Steve Boyd issued a statement that read, in part, “the accurate statement with the word ‘statistics’ is still cause for concern for some. We do not believe that African Americans are more violent than white people and we remain concerned about racial disparities in the criminal justice system generally, and Forsyth County specifically.”
On Sept. 9, Keith issued a statement responding to the clergy press conference the previous day and YES! Weekly’s correction, stating, “We do not serve our community well when we react without first reaching out to better understand or when we respond in ways that continue to polarize or create wider divisions. I am hopeful that this experience will open more doors for discussion, and that when we disagree, which we will on occasion, we do not allow the discussion to escalate into this type of situation again.”
During a press conference at the YES! Weekly offices, Keith said he would not seek a sixth term as district attorney. He also defended the actions of his office, stating, “The men and women at the Forsyth County District Attorney’s Office first and foremost serve the public to the best of their abilities according to the laws of this state without malice or prejudice to any one.”
Eversley said a local journalist asked him if he would be open to having a dialogue with Keith regarding the ministers’ concerns.
“I said, ‘Fine. Resign, and then we’ll have a dialogue,’” Eversley said. “We don’t need obfuscation and obstruction of justice from the district attorney. We need transparency, we need professionalism, we need justice and we can’t get that from Tom J. Keith.”
Duke law professor James Coleman, who heads up the university’s Innocence Project, has worked on the Kalvin Michael Smith case for the past five years. Coleman said Keith’s statement to YES! Weekly “has no place in a public debate about the Racial Justice Act and racial discrimination in the death penalty.”
Coleman said focusing on Keith’s views on race is a “waste of time.” “The real issue is what are they doing,” he said. “[Keith] ought to defend what he’s doing rather than throw around statistics that have nothing to do with what the Racial Justice Act is trying to get at. Is the death penalty being used in a way to under protect the black community and over punish black defendants who kill white victims? That’s what the Racial Justice Act addresses.”
Talk of racial prejudice in the DA’s office has overshadowed the Winston-Salem City Council’s responsibility to release the entire Silk Plant Forest Citizen Review Committee report immediately, Coleman said.
“I think it should be released, period,” Coleman said. “[Smith] has been in prison for 14 years now. They had a conscientious group of citizens who did the investigation and they were assisted by two conscientious police officers. Why are they trying to protect people who by the manner in which they investigated the case put an innocent person in prison?” Winston-Salem City Manager Lee Garrity said the city is attempting to obtain releases from two former Winston-Salem police detectives — Donald R. Williams and Randy Weavil — to avoid having to file a motion in superior court to have the entire report released. Garrity said his goal is to have the entire report released as soon as possible.
Mayor Allen Joines said he expects Garrity to present the full report to the city council sometime next month. Coleman said the city shouldn’t waste precious time waiting for Williams and Weavil to give their consent.
“After 18 months that they’ve investigated this thing, they ought to release the results of this investigation and let the chips fall where they fall,” Coleman said.
The Rev. Willard Bass said that in both the Darryl Hunt case and the Kalvin Michael Smith case, Keith has shown an unwillingness to look at new evidence that calls into question the prosecutions of his office.
“We’re looking at something that’s deeper than Tom Keith himself,” Bass said. “We believe that the DA’s office and the criminal justice system does in fact operate under what we call internalized racism superiority. We’re saying that he’s living out of an old construct, which is institutional racism.”
Coleman said whether Keith resigns or not is of no consequence. What matters is the full disclosure of the citizen committee report on the Silk Plant Forest case.
“I don’t think it’s necessary to make Tom Keith the issue,” he said. “I have no view of whether Keith should resign or not resign. I could care less. My only concern is if he is promoting fairness in the criminal justice system.”
‘We don’t need obfuscation and obstruction of justice from the district attorney. We need transparency, we need professionalism, we need justice and we can’t get that from Tom J. Keith.’ — The Rev. Carlton AG Eversley, who is among a group of pastors calling for the DA’s resignation
The Rev. John Mendez (left) and the Rev. Carlton Eversley called for the resignation of Forsyth County District Attorney Tom Keith in response to a quote by Keith in YES! Weekly. The revelation that part of the quote was inaccurate did not change their position. (photo by Keith T. Barber) by Keith T. Barber / firstname.lastname@example.org