Aug 13, 2010

Mitrice Richardson's death leaves lingering questions
 
 
By Earl Ofari Hutchinson
 

For the past year, I have lived with the terrible case of Mitrice Richardson. The surface circumstances about the case are now well known. Mitrice, a 24-year-old African-American woman, with emotional challenges, was held and then released alone by Los Angeles County Sheriffs from a police station in the early morning hours of September 17, 2009. She then disappeared. Her disappearance touched a national nerve. It ignited loud and anguished pleas from her parents, friends and thousands of concerned citizens, a cover photo in People magazine, several searches of the area where she was last seen by sheriff's deputies and teams of volunteers, and countless reports of Richardson sightings in Los Angeles and various other cities.

Richardson's mother, Latice Suttton, appeared twice on my radio shows asking for the public's help in finding her daughter. But that wasn't enough. She then asked for my help in formally appealing to Attorney General Eric Holder to direct the FBI to enter the investigation. This was a more than reasonable request since Mitrice's disappearance had by then generated national publicity and outrage. There was great concern that she may have been the victim of foul play that may have involved the crossing of state lines. This made her disappearance and possible death a federal matter.

We knew that Richardson was by no means an aberration. More than 800,000 missing persons cases are on file with the FBI. Most of those are children. However, nearly 29,000 of them are adults and juveniles who are "missing under circumstances indicating that the disappearance was not voluntary; i.e., abduction or kidnapping. This made the case even more compelling. Latice and I jointly made the request in November, 2009 for Justice Department involvement. The response was the typical bureaucrat's duck and dodge. The FBI said it was sympathetic to the plight of Richardson and her family,and would keep a close watch on developments. There was no commitment to investigate, and no promise of a follow up.

This was a double blow. The L.A. County Sheriff's Department had vehemently disclaimed any responsibility for Richardson's disappearance. It exonerated itself in a lengthy report which insisted it followed proper rules and procedures. This Pontius Pilate hand wash came on the heels of the Justice Department's refusal to take action.

But now with Richardson's death, the questions are even more troubling. Why was she released alone? How did she die? When and how did she die? Were others involved in her disappearance and death? What and how the sheriff's department and with the renewed call for the FBI to get involved in the case, handle the investigation into her disappearance and death?

The FBI and sheriff's department's response to the Richardson case again raised ugly questions regarding how diligently officials investigate the deaths or disappearance of African-Americans, and whether the press report their murders or disappearances with the same intensity as white victims, especially when the victims are young black females.

The charge by Richardson's family and local civil rights leaders that the police are insensitive to the disappearance and possible murder of African-Americans such as Richardson is not new. Countless groups have marched, picketed and screamed loudly that law enforcement and judges impose a hard racial double standard when the victim is a young African American, whether a missing person as Richardson, or a murder victim, as Richardson may well turn out to be. Whatever the case, the implicit message is that black lives are expendable.

Police officials and judges vehemently deny that they are any less diligent in prosecuting the kidnapping or murder of blacks, or that they expend less time tracking down leads and mounting a full court investigation in the case of a missing person who is African-American. The tipping point is the willingness of the victim's family and friends to go public and keep pressure on authorities to take the murder or disappearance seriously. Richardson's family put constant public pressure on the sheriff's department to pursue every lead and possibility in trying to find Richardson. This made the media take note, especially mindful of the popularly dubbed "missing white woman syndrome." That is to deluge the public with story after story on missing white women such as Jennifer Wilbanks, Chelsea King, Susan Powell, and Natalee Holloway. No tidbit of news, rumor, or gossip about these cases was deemed to report while ignoring or barely mentioning the disappearance of black women. Richardson's family demanded the same headline treatment news for Mitrice.

But what if the Richardson family and friends hadn't turned Mitrice into a cause célèbre in the media and law enforcement? If not, we'll never know whether she would have been less than a bare footnote in the news. Fortunately, this was not the not the case.

Richardson's death now marks another chapter in the terrible saga of her disappearance. The questions about her death are just as endless as those of her disappearance. Richardson's family now more than ever needs those questions answered.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He hosts a nationally broadcast political affairs radio talk show on Pacifica and KTYM Radio Los Angeles. Follow Earl Ofari Hutchinson on Twitter: http://twitter.com/earlhutchinson

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