Sonia Joseph. That is a name I want you all to know.
Sonia Joseph is the mother of the late 20-year-old Giovonn Joseph-McDade, who was shot to death by police officers in Kent, Washington last June.
Like any mother who loses a child, especially so unexpectedly, she was shattered.
Today, January 29th, 2018, Sonia’s quiet but brave voice was heard.
In King County, Washington (the largest of the State’s counties), it is now required by law to provide free legal representation to the families of victims killed by the police.
Members of families who have lost loved ones at the hands of the police came together today to share emotional testimony about their experiences and the injustices they felt by being unable to obtain counsel. After hearing such harrowing stories, including the heart-wrenching testimony of Ms. Joseph, the council voted 9-0 to approve free legal counsel to family members who find themselves in these unfortunate circumstances. “I’m grateful and hopeful that moving forward, families don’t have to be at an inquest alone like I was,” Joseph said after the unanimous decision was made. “And hopefully Giovonn’s case will be the last one without an attorney representing them.”
The new law is being called, “Sonia’s Law.”
On December 12, Joseph appeared in a courtroom, asking to have an opportunity to speak to the judge, Susan Mahoney, but her motherly plea was denied. A saddened Joseph quietly said, “Well, it looks like I’ve been denied everything in this court.” The judge then threatened to have her removed from the courtroom. Joseph calmly and politely shared her concerns about her inability to have legal counsel represent her son, despite her greatest efforts. However, after seemingly zero compassion from the judge, Joseph boldly, but again politely, stated that she felt the process was unfair and subsequently left he room while telling the judge she was “protesting and boycotting” her child’s inquest.
While the inquest went on without her, and naturally no culpability was found on the part of the police, Joseph’s bravery did make waves in the local justice process. While unfortunately the news doesn’t extend to her own son’s case, her actions helped lead to the suspension of all upcoming King County inquests while a task force studies the process and its efficiency. This includes the suspension of the inquest for Charleena Lyles, the pregnant mother who was gunned down by police in Seattle just six days before Giovonn’s death.
Today, the news that free legal counsel will be provided to the family of future victims comes as a huge step in the right direction. However, it is no personal conciliation for Joseph or the other countless families whose cases came through the system only as a standard process for brushing the stories under the rug and removing accountability. Unfortunately, it took the death of Joseph’s son, along with a determined mother’s courage, bravery, and insurmountable strength before lawmakers chose to care, let alone pay attention.
It is also important to take note of the families of folks who were able to obtain an attorney, but even so, whose legal representative clearly wasn’t treated as a valued, respected, or even relevant part of the process. Take, for example, the family of Tommy Le, a young man of Vietnamese descent with no criminal record or history of mental illness. Also in June of last year, Le was just hours away from attending his high school graduation when he was gunned down by police who were told he had a knife. That “knife” turned out to be an ink pen. Two shots to the back later, the kid was dead.
Fortunately Tommy’s family was able to hire a lawyer to represent him. However, when Le’s counsel asked the courts for permission to bring forth their own evidence and to call its own witnesses prior to the inquest, the request was denied. Rather, Le’s counsel was told that only the County’s own prosecuting attorney had the right to do so. Le’s family spoke openly about the unfair structure of the inquest process, implying their belief that it is meant as a tool to remove accountability from the police and to avoid any future charges being filed. Many families in these circumstances have expressed that, in no way do these hearings provide justice, closure, or even answers to the families. Thankfully Le’s case was also among the inquests suspended, and hopefully significant changes will be made to the process before his case resumes. Meanwhile, Le’s family has filed a lawsuit, stating their belief that there was discrimination in the officers actions, that the officers should have been trained in deescalation tactics, and that Tommy’s death was certainly preventable.
For many families, the news about “Sonia’s Law” or the suspension and reevaluation of the inquest process comes too late. Nonetheless, there is new hope in knowing that, due to the brave battle fought by Joseph, the families of Le and Lyles, and the voices of others who have lost loved ones under similar terms, all future inquests will include fair representation and will provide an actual, legitimate opportunity for families to get answers, provide evidence, and to, at the very least, feel respected by the courts.
The real battle still remains outside of the courtrooms, however. While these steps have been small victories in the fight for justice, affected families know all too well that true justice would only be possible if their loved ones were still alive. True justice would be if the officers involved in their deaths had been given the training and resources they needed to overcome their biases and to deescalate the supposed “dangerous” situations rather than to have used deadly force. While true justice is not possible, despite their inconceivable amount of pain, these families are fighting selflessly for you and for your children and grandchildren, who one day may find themselves in similar circumstances.
These brave men and women have fought for legal representation at inquests and for the process to be re-examined. They have spent countless hours retelling their heart-wrenching stories and encouraging lawmakers and community members to sign and pass the Deescalate Washington initiative, or I-940, providing officers with the resources and training they need to deescalate situations with the hope that no more people die unnecessarily. And sadly, if they do, these families–who know the heartache it causes all too well–are simply requesting independent investigations so an unbiased conclusion can be made.
These folks, Sonia Joseph included, continue reopening inconceivably painful wounds so that we can sleep a little easier at night knowing our family members may be a bit safer. They are forging a path towards a more just system, and frankly, they deserve not just applause but a standing ovation.