Racial justice advocates hope for pardon of George Floyd’s past drug charges

Erasing his two-decades-old record would require the rightwing Texas governor’s goodwill

Criminal justice reform experts are hopeful that if Texas governor Greg Abbott approves a pardon request for George Floyd’s drug-related charges, which are almost two decades old, it will send a strong message about the prejudices of a justice system that disproportionately incarcerates Black and Latino people.

Floyd was killed by a white Minneapolis police officer and his death triggered a wave of outrage over police violence and systemic racism that spread across America and to the rest of the world. At the trial of his killer, Derek Chauvin, defense lawyers attempted to portray Floyd’s history of drug use as somehow a cause of his death.

On Monday, members of the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles unanimously issued a recommendation that Floyd be granted pardon for a 2004 drug arrest that has since come under scrutiny for its questionable process.

In 2004, Floyd was arrested in Houston for being in possession of .03g of crack cocaine, by officer Gerald Goines, an undercover agent communicating with Floyd. Floyd spent 10 months in jail for that arrest, after he pleaded guilty.

Goines has since been charged with murder and drug trafficking in Houston. Since he was charged, Goines was exposed as having made a number of arrests under questionable circumstances. Approximately 160 convictions that he was involved in have now been dismissed – something that the Houston public defender’s office cited in their clemency application for Floyd.

The decision to pardon Floyd lies entirely with Abbott, a hardline Republican. But some experts believe he might grant the pardon.

“I am cautiously optimistic,” Dr Whitney Threadcraft-Walker, an assistant professor of criminal justice at University of Houston Downtown, told the Guardian. “I don’t think it’s that likely or probable but I do think [Abbott] has an opportunity to display some good will and some acknowledgment of the harm that Black and Latinx communities have faced, particularly in their relationship with law enforcement.”

The pardon is of significance in part given that Chauvin’s defense attorneys tried to use Floyd’s drug use to portray his character negatively during the trial.

“Like many other Black people who are killed by police, George Floyd’s character was tarnished by rightwing media, who used his past conviction record as a way to indict him for his own murder,” said Scott Roberts, senior director of criminal justice campaigns for Color of Change.

The parole board’s recommendation came a day after a statue of Floyd was vandalized at a street installation in New York. Floyd’s statue was displayed alongside those of Breonna Taylor and Georgia congressman John Lewis.

A nearby surveillance camera showed a man on a skateboard riding up to Floyd’s statue and throwing gray paint on it on Sunday morning.

The defacing of Floyd’s statue is yet another testament to the often polarizing sentiment that his legacy triggers, with some conservative Americans opposing statues and other artworks memorializing him. Threadcraft-Walker said this rightwing backlash could play a role in what the pardon would mean.

“With this amount of attention and notoriety, this is definitely going to be a decision that’s not going to be made quietly or stay in the corridors of power,” she said. “It’s going to have a reverberating impact.”

She added that she believes this could be a moment for Abbott to set an example.

“This is an opportunity to lead by example to acknowledge past harm and display accountability on the part of the system,” she said.

Roberts of Color of Change said a pardon would shed light on how Black and Latino communities are disproportionately targeted by law enforcement.

“One case for one individual does not solve the issue of mass incarceration or the harassment of Black and Latinx people, but it will hopefully bring more attention and scrutiny to the miscarriages of justice that play out daily in our communities, police stations, and court rooms,” he said.

Samira Sadeque

The GuardianTramp

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