Today, October 2, 2020, marks the 7th annual Wrongful Conviction Day. This is a day that doesn’t get the attention it deserves.
Wrongful Conviction Day began as an effort of the Innocence Network, an affiliation of organizations dedicated to providing pro-bono legal and investigative services to individuals seeking to prove innocence of crimes for which they have been convicted, working to redress the causes of wrongful convictions, and supporting the exonerated after they are freed.WrongfulConvictionDay.org
On July 6, 2016, Philando Castile’s girlfriend live-streamed his death. He’d been shot five times, point blank, at a traffic stop. Supposedly, he was pulled over for having a broken tail light. He didn’t.
This happened in Minnesota, four years before George Floyd would be live-streamed being murdered by police in a prone restraint.
But a senseless traffic stop was not unique for Philando.
Philando Castile was pulled over 49 times before he was killed by police. None of those stops were for any serious moving violation, including the stop that would result in his death. There were no DUIs, no reckless driving tickets, and no accidents.
In Virginia Beach, Courtlon “Champ” Turner was one of the most gentle, loving, benevolent, altruistic, hard-working members of the community. He was a barber who had won competitions for his skill. If you don’t know, a Black barber is an integral person in the Black community.
The Black barbershop is a therapeutic place for us. Black people don’t trust anyone touching our hair, so we normally find a bond with the barber as one of the only places where we can be touched in a non-threatening way. For Black people, even our hair is a political issue.
The Black barber gets to know each client, giving them a deep understanding of the social and political issues that are national and systemic, plus local issues. So, people are able to talk about what is going on in the world and in their personal lives, whether is marital, work-related, health, education, or something else– and the barber develops a multi-dimensional view of how Blackness and all of these institutions intersect.
There are not many therapists, social workers, educators, lawyers, or other people who are Black and have that same level of understanding, and so it is a burden to try to explain to people who don’t understand how being Black means that their experience is not the same as a white person in similar circumstances.Champ Turner
Like Philando Castile, Champ Had a Record for Driving-While-Black
Much like– almost exactly like– Philando Castile, he has had a history of financial barriers for outrageous traffic stops and citations for not having a license or insurance. Much like Castile, this is how he entered adulthood– in a racist merry-go-round of barriers that make it impossible to be self-sufficient.
His traffic offenses have blocked him from obtaining insurance or being able to afford to resolve all his finances. Note that none of his offenses are for reckless driving, accidents, substance abuse, or anything that ever caused any danger or harm to anyone. They are for not being able to financially afford the oppression of being Black in the racist silo of Virginia Beach.
He has worked seven days a week for most of his adult life, and it has never been enough. He has spent some of his life sleeping in his car while still working seven days a week.
Champ Called the Police One Day
On July 24, 2015, Champ Turner called 911. Moments earlier, he had been attacked by a 400 pound white man with a butcher knife who appeared to be experiencing paranoid delusions.
This is the man who attacked Champ. We’ll call him “Dale.”
Dale and Champ were best friends, and Champ had spent the day helping Dale move his counterfeit purses, watches, shoes, and headphones he sold at local flea markets. Dale had a shipment from China withheld at customs, and he believed the FBI was going to raid his inventory of knock-offs.
When Champ took a call from his girlfriend. Dale used the 8” butcher knife he’d been using to open boxes of bootleg CDs to threaten Champ, insisting Champ was on the phone with the FBI, being a snitch.
Champ, who’d been a corrections officer, had a little training in defensive martial arts. A great struggle ensued, and the two struggled for control of the knife for approximately 8 minutes. At some point, Dale sustained a bad cut on the side of his neck.
Eventually, Champ, who’d been pinned against the door, was able to get enough space to allow the door to open. He stumbled outside, winded and exhausted, and called 911.
He sat there, waiting on the curb, until police arrived. The entire time, Dale stormed around in front of his apartment, yelling at Champ. When police arrived, they arrested Champ. Dale was transported to the hospital and treated as the victim. The charge was malicious wounding.
Bad to Worse
Later, his charge was increased to aggravated malicious wounding, which has a mandatory 20 year sentence. This charge was legally ridiculous. To commit malicious wounding, someone must have intent to permanently disfigure, maim, or kill another person. For that charge to be aggravated, there must be some mitigating circumstance that makes the attack “extra,” like a hate crime.
Dale, a white man, attacked Champ, a Black man. If a hate crime happened, it was not by Champ’s hand. Champ was sentenced to 20 years in prison, with 10 suspended.
Justice for Breonna Taylor is Justice for Champ
One day, I wrote to Champ about some hopeful changes in Virginia Beach: a new police chief was coming who has a history of supporting BLM protestors and working with them, a new Black city manager, and civilian review boards with subpoena power.
But just an hour later, the verdict about Breonna Taylor’s killers being exonerated would be televised. This is what Champ wrote back to me:
I want to believe Virginia is changing, and especially Virginia Beach, but sometimes it’s almost like Virginia is fighting to stay the same. I will say that I’m changing from meeting individuals like yourself who have proven to me that there is hope and to continue my faith.
You know, just to share something with you. As I see the news and see all the senseless killings by police that go unpunished, or all the different stories of wrongful convictions and incarcerations that make headlines, all I can do is shake my head.
It happens so much people start to rationalize– like maybe the individual should’ve complied better or the person had no business doing whatever it was that they were doing or they wouldn’t have been in the situation.
Like with the Breonna Taylor’s story. They try to excuse it saying that the boyfriend shot first, and somehow that excuses what happened to her? Meanwhile, I’m like, did they take into account that the police tried to lie in the police report, did they take into account the time of morning they were executing this warrant?
Also police are trained to shoot to kill to stop a threat when posed with one, but you have to ask, Did they even know what or who they were shooting at when they shot into the apartment? Because I find it interesting that out of all those shots fired by police officers, trained police officers, none of them hit the boyfriend who quote “posed the threat.”
Instead, bullets rattled the apartment and neighbors’ apartments. What if children were all throughout the house? I would think they would’ve backed away or set up some kind of communications to see what was going on, but instead they unloaded like a western and killed this innocent young lady.
Sounds like police negligence. I mean it was enough to pay the family, change the law, but not enough to bring charges?
A person died as a result of this, and if it was a civilian and someone died innocently in the commission of a crime, they would’ve been held accountable for the death, also.
But back to my case. You tell me. What would’ve happened if I didn’t fight back when [Dale] attacked me? I would’ve been dead and gone, and they wouldn’t have thought twice about my death. But when I fight to protect myself, and then call the police like we’re taught to do when we’re in trouble or need assistance, I was immediately classified as the suspect.
Although I called 911, I complied, my story remained consistent and honest, and the only expert witness in the entire case that testified in regards to the evidence submitted said that it all corroborated my testimony. And here I am, still in prison.
How can this happen? Then, in order to be exonerated, there is a long, drawn-out process designed to take years away from you fighting the legal system.
So by the time I get justice, the majority of my sentence will be served. And it’s not about money, because you can always rebuild, but I will never get time back or moments as a father taken away from my children, or to see love ones who passed away one last time. I’m grateful for you, though, because there is still hope.Champ Turner
How can officers shoot Breonna Taylor so many times and be found not guilty? But Champ, who was unarmed and trying to help a friend through a mental health crisis, can get 20 years (10 suspended) when a man several times his size came at him with an 8″ knife?
More than Just Years
Champ, who was raised by his grandparents, has already lost both of them while incarcerated. He also has a congenital heart condition that requires a loop recording device, but he’s not been given medical care.
In fact, in the summer, in his prison with no air conditioning, the heat in his cell can remain over 100 degrees for days, sometimes reaching 120 degrees. His heart condition puts him at high risk should he contract COVID-19.
Right before he was incarcerated, Champ inherited a humble house that belonged to his grandparents. This was a blessing because his felony (for three strikes of not having insurance, aka driving-while-Black) charge had prevented him from finding safe and affordable housing.
He has since lost the house due to having his life stolen from him for being attacked while Black… by a man three times his size.
His children will have aged ten years, and they are losing the father who loved them unconditionally. Champ’s Black children are growing up learning that fathers get framed, and that they are never safe.
Champ’s Community Is Losing Out
Most weeks, I would be backed up and booked. To be honest with you, though, the most rewarding work I would do is when I would cut hair for the less fortunate or homeless.
They are often seen as a burden and they don’t have the resources to do the self-care they would like to do. For a lot of people, it’s been a long time since anyone has shown them kindness or respect or has touched them without treating them like they are dirty.
Sometimes, charities or other places would offer buzz cut all over to people who couldn’t afford a haircut, but I never did that. I have a great body of work and have even competed and won shows.
Whenever I had the privilege and opportunity to cut their hair, I would show off my best skills on their hair. The most rewarding part of the job was seeing the look on their faces when they got a look in the mirror. Their eyes would light up, or fill up with tears, and they would be so appreciative.Champ Turner, from The Importance of Black Barbers as Staples of the Community
Back to Philando and Breonna
The officers who shot Breonna Taylor were not charged with a crime for her death. One was fired for shooting a wall. Jeronimo Yanez, who shot Philando Castile, was fired but acquitted of committing a crime.
There should be justice in this country, but there isn’t. Whatever legal footwork was used to exonerate the officers who killed Breonna and Philando needs to be practiced where Champ is concerned.