Activists Rally Outside D.A.'s Office
With two prominent racially sensitive cases dominating headlines in recent weeks, the Albany County District Attorney is hearing from an impatient community.
Coinciding with the one year anniversary of Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson at the hands of police, activists and members of various faith and community organizations rallied outside Albany County District Attorney David Soares’ downtown Albany office on Monday. They were there to launch the "Release Marquis Coalition" in support of Marquis Dixon, a 16-year-old who was sentenced to nine years in an adult, maximum security prison for stealing a pair of sneakers, and to call for indictments for the three Albany Police officers involved in the stungun-related death of Donald “Dontay” Ivy more than four months ago.
Dixon was convicted in November of stealing the sneakers at gunpoint from a victim he lured via Facebook. No weapon was ever recovered. He's serving time in the Coxsackie prison. Aisha Dixon concedes her son deserves punishment. As city hall's carillon chimed, she spoke outside Soares' office. "I do believe my son is guilty of a crime, stealing sneakers, but he's not guilty of a gun charge. So if justice is done correctly, my son will be proven innocent. I believe his time has been served. Just let my son home. You know, nine years is too long. Who's to say I'm gonna be here for nine years and be able to hug and touch my son again?"
Soares spoke about the case a few weeks ago on WAMC's Capitol Connection program. "I believe that there should be reform in criminal justice. But I don't believe that that reform starts with allowing young people with weapons to be robbing other people, and then making decisions about sentences based upon what the bounty of that robbery was."
Protestors are asking the D.A. to go on record and publicly state Dixon's sentence was excessive. They want his imprimatur on so-called "Raise The Age" legislation currently awaiting action by the state Legislature.
They also want closure to the Donald Ivy case, insisting Soares wrap up his investigation into the 39-year-old’s death. The mentally ill Albany man was unarmed when Tasered by police and later died. Police say he became aggressive when stopped on Lark Street in April. His family did not participate in the rally.
Cessie Alfonso is a board member of Citizen Action for the Capital District who is well-versed in criminal justice. "Locking up Mr. Dixon for nine years does nothing. Nothing for him. Nothing for our community. And ultimately does nothing to enhance the quality of life in the community for all of us. And then on top of that, it's costing us an enormous amount of money. It's one thing we all have in common here, is that we are taxpayers, and we are in a position in our society where we need and want the criminal justice system to respond in a manner that is effective, that enhances the community, and respects human life."
Again, District Attorney Soares. "If it wasn't a pair of sneakers but it was a thousand dollars, would the sentence be more appropriate? If a bank robber decides to go rob a bank on a Tuesday, and he finds 10 dollars there, should be lighter on the sentence than if he had robbed it on a Friday and found a million dollars?"
Alfonso addressed Soares directly. "We in the community who elected you, and you as a public servant, don't forget your pledge, your promise, and that was that you were going to try something that's effective. Something that works. Something that enhances the human life of individuals who are locked up, and also creates a community that is respectful of the police, of the criminal justice system, and ultimately of each other."
The D.A.'s office released a statement addressing Monday's protest, which echoes what Soares said here on the radio. The statement has no mention of the Donald Ivy case.
I want to take the opportunity to address the protests outside of the Judicial Center on Monday regarding Marquis Dixon, a young man convicted by a jury of his peers of an armed robbery.
First, let me be clear: Mr. Dixon did not simply “steal” or “take” a pair of sneakers; he mugged an innocent young man at gunpoint. Had he merely “stolen” or “taken” a pair of sneakers from a retailer and received a 9 year sentence, I too would be in line with protesters calling for justice. But the facts are the facts, and I don’t have the luxury of changing them.
Having said that, I understand the frustration of those taken aback by his sentence. My office, mindful of all the facts and circumstances of the case, offered Mr. Dixon a chance to plead guilty to a lesser charge for a far lesser sentence than he ultimately received. He rejected that chance. What’s more, after hearing all the facts at trial, including evidence that Mr. Dixon lured a young man to a parking lot at night and threatened him with a gun, a jury of 12 people found him guilty beyond a reasonable doubt and a judge thought a greater sentence was appropriate. I cannot criticize the judge’s decision. Sentencing is his right under the law. I will continue to respect the court’s decision.
Of course, advocates of Mr. Dixon are not under the same restrictions that I am. They have the right to voice their frustration. I support that right. I also believe that it’s vital for us to engage in this kind of dialogue in order to improve the lives of all members of our community, young or old, black or white, rich or poor. For my part, I will also continue to support the dozens of initiatives designed to curb violence in our communities.
My fervent hope is that those dedicated to criminal justice reform will join me in making our communities a safer and more hopeful place to live.