One is a district attorney. The other is a retired judge.
But on a fall day 20 years ago, one was just a student at Millsaps College and the other just a mom helping her son move into his apartment.
Scott Colom, district attorney for Lowndes, Oktibbeha, Clay and Noxubee counties, and his mother, Dorothy Colom, a retired Chancery Court judge, were the featured speakers in Mississippi University for Women’s “Common Reading Initiative” Thursday at Rent Auditorium.
As part of the Forum Series hosted by the Gordy Honors College, the Coloms discussed Bryan Stevenson’s New York Times bestseller “Just Mercy,” which recounts how he founded the Equal Justice Initiative, a legal practice dedicated to defending the poor, the incarcerated and the wrongly condemned. The Coloms drew on their own experiences to connect to Stevenson’s story and suggest smart ways the criminal justice system can be improved.
One of those experiences happened on that fall day, leaving an indelible impression on both about how law enforcement sometimes interacts with Black citizens.
“Scott was moving into Millsaps and I was following along behind him,” Dorothy recalled. “He’s (driving) just ahead of me, and all the sudden he gets pulled over. I didn’t understand why. He wasn’t doing anything wrong. He just got pulled over for no reason.”
Dorothy got out of her car and approached the officer. Her presence as a witness, she believes, changed the nature of the encounter.
The officer admitted that he had no reason to stop her son and apologized.
“The fact of the matter is, this is not something that just happens to African Americans,” Dorothy said. “It happens to poor people. It happens to women. And for the Black community, these kinds of things have an impact on how they think about law enforcement.”
As district attorney, Scott said one of the difficulties in prosecuting crime in Black communities is that lack of trust.
“A lot of times, if you have a person who feels they have been abused by police, they may be reluctant to testify or cooperate with investigations,” he said. “Something I think we all should be able to admit is that we are human and we have biases, based on what we see or hear in the media or our own personal experiences. Those biases can affect our judgment of people in a way that is unfair.”
In “Just Mercy,” the story begins with the wrongful conviction and death sentence of an innocent man. For the Coloms, the story touched on some failings of the judicial system they said are still prevalent today.
“It was a very brutal murder in a small town, and there was a lot of public pressure on the police and the prosecutor to solve the crime,” Scott said. “People expected the crime to be solved right away, and I think that created a situation that allowed this to happen. Our system is supposed to be set up in a way where it’s more difficult to prosecute an innocent person than a guilty person. Sometimes, the evidence just isn’t there.”
Dorothy said the pressure to solve crimes quickly can be an obstacle to justice.
“It often takes time to collect sufficient evidence to prosecute a case,” she said.
Scott noted that in the book, the prosecutor relied heavily on the testimony of a “jailhouse informant.” He said those testimonies are almost always unreliable.
“In those cases, that person is looking for something,” he said. “I’ve heard of cases where a jailhouse informant just asked the prosecutor, ‘What do you want me to say?’ So I don’t use jailhouse informants. If your case relies so heavily on that kind of testimony, what it tells me is you have a weak case. I made the decision I would not use that kind of testimony.”
The Coloms called for more funding for prison programs, alternative sentencing to reduce prison populations and an emphasis on restorative justice, which allows the victims of crimes and their families to be a part of the process.
Rehabilitation, Scott said, comes with honest self-evaluation.
“It comes from brokenness,” he said. “And that means admitting that you did something wrong. That’s where rehabilitation starts.”
Those in the judicial system — police, investigators, prosecutors and defense attorneys — should be guided by a scripture Dorothy adopted as her credo when she became a judge 25 years ago.
“It’s from Micah,” she said, “Seek justice. Love mercy. Walk humbly.”
Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is [email protected]