Two Latino youth, David Moreno and Justin Pacheco, were freed from a California jail on February 10 after being wrongly convicted of murdering a friend. They’d spent two years behind bars while the murderer, a white youth who had confessed to police immediately after the killing, went free.
The nightmare journey of Moreno and Pacheco was a disturbing reminder that racism remains entrenched in the U.S. criminal justice system. But the media campaign that ultimately won their freedom offers a lesson on the power of talking about race and a primer on using the media to challenge racism.
On the evening of November 2, 1997, Moreno and Pacheco were embroiled in a street fight in Vacaville, CA, a largely white, rural town that is becoming a bedroom community for the San Francisco Bay Area and is home to a growing population of color. The fight began when another Latino teenager, Jeremiah Alvarez English, confronted six white youth who had attacked him the previous night.
As the fight began, Moreno and Pacheco went to the aid of Alvarez English. Six against three made for long odds, and Alvarez English was slain by Chad O’Connell, who repeatedly knifed him in the back with an 11-inch hunting knife, according to police reports.
District Attorney David Paulson refused to prosecute O’Connell, holding that the murder was committed in self-defense. Then, in an outrageous legal maneuver, Paulson charged Moreno and Pacheco with murder, arguing that they committed a "provocative act" by aiding their friend in the fight.
The provocative-act doctrine is an obscure and little-used law. The crime for which it was originally developed is classically represented by a convenience store robbery in which the robber fires a gun at a store clerk who shoots back and accidentally kills a bystander. The doctrine holds that the robber can be held responsible for the bystander’s death by creating the deadly situation.
What allowed Paulson to stretch this law to apply to the Moreno-Pacheco case and, in fact, what powered his entire prosecution was the deep current of racism in our society and criminal justice system. As Van Jones of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights explained, "The prosecutor decided who the criminals were based upon the color of their skin and then came up with a charge."
Prosecutors propped up their case by accusing the 18-year-olds of being gang members, despite a severe lack of evidence to support the charge. Nevertheless, the allegation was a powerful lie because it was fueled by the potent stereotype that poses young Latino men as gangbangers.
On November 5, 1998, the jury found Moreno and Pacheco guilty of murder, surprising even the most cynical observers.
In the face of this discouraging climate, human rights organizers from two organizations, the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights and We Interrupt This Message, set out to free Moreno and Pacheco.
Organizers first mounted a community organizing campaign to support a legal motion for a new trial. When the motion was granted, they began a media campaign to change the terms of debate surrounding the case.
CHANGING THE DEBATE
The campaign won extensive news coverage that highlighted the racist nature of the criminal justice system, the criminalization of youth through anti-gang laws, and the abuse of prosecutorial discretion. ABC World News Tonight, 60 Minutes, the BBC, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Los Angeles Times, La Opinion, and the London Independent, among others, covered the story. Ultimately this successful media campaign paved the way for Moreno and Pacheco’s freedom.
News media outlets are often dominated by the same racist values and institutional practices that afflict all large mainstream institutions in this country. Organizers often find that racism is the last explanation journalists will accept for even the most glaring of racial disparities. The key to overcoming this barrier is careful documentation of racism for news reporters.
Although the local news coverage had been severely biased against Moreno and Pacheco, organizers were able to piece together all the facts of the case by carefully combing through those reports. The organizers constructed a complete story and presented it to journalists from major news outlets, citing a news source for each of the facts presented. As a result, journalists received a fully documented case of racism that not only was undeniable, but in fact made for a compelling and attractive news story. In an ironic after-note, subsequent local news coverage changed to reflect the more balanced perspective offered by major outlets.
FRAMING THE BIG PICTURE
News media prefer to tell stories about individuals, with the larger questions about social structures lost in the background. As a result, activists who want to generate news articles that speak to the roots of racism must present journalists with stories that are framed around racism’s institutional aspects. Otherwise news outlets will, at best, offer only stories about individual "bad egg" racists, leaving the larger questions about institutional racism untouched.
One way to frame stories around institutional racism is to script them to include characters who represent institutions and policies. The Moreno-Pacheco case was prosecuted in the courtroom by a deputy district attorney, but organizers targeted the district attorney in their media campaign. In this way, activists delivered to the media a story character, the district attorney, who represented the whole institution of criminal prosecution in Solano County.
The Moreno-Pacheco community organizing campaign also provided activists with a tool to reframe news coverage. When reporters have only a courtroom trial to cover, their stories will often feature only those players who dominate the courtroom, the lawyers. And the stories will often focus solely on the course of the trial.
In the Moreno-Pacheco campaign, the community events and protests outside the courtroom produced news stories that offered the voices of human rights activists who addressed the larger issue of racism. Eventually the defense lawyers also publicly discussed the racist nature of the case. Moreover, the events organized by activists and the Moreno and Pacheco families produced news stories before court proceedings even began. As a result, the media were already at a boil when the trial started.
Racial stereotypes in the media are potent, and lies fueled by racism must be directly addressed and challenged. In the Moreno-Pacheco case, the prosecutor framed how the jury and the public saw the youths by accusing them of belonging to a gang. In response, Moreno-Pacheco activists immediately approached reporters and exposed the utter lack of evidence for the prosecutor’s claim. By preempting the district attorney and directly addressing a racist lie, the activists were able to prevent a stereotype from dominating the minds of reporters.
Even though it may not always be immediately apparent, racial fairness and civil rights are values held close to heart by many Americans. The power of talking about race lies in highlighting those values. By constructing media messages about race that speak to shared values, activists can claim the moral high ground and control the terms of debate. Talking about race requires certain care, effort, and strategy, but the payoff can be enormous. In the Moreno-Pacheco campaign, activists talked about race loud and clear, winning the hearts and minds of the media, the public, and ultimately the jury.