Travesty of Justice

What else can you call it when a man gets away with shooting another man in the back, killing him?

Caleb Walsh illustration

Bang! Bang! With that, 45-year-old William Poindexter was dead. In 2015, Spokane was scandalized by the scenario that led to his death. Trained soldier Edward Bushnell had intervened as a bystander in a domestic dispute, fighting Poindexter with two knives while Poindexter fought back with a bat. As Poindexter and his girlfriend were clearly leaving the scene, Bushnell retrieved a firearm from his backpack and fatally shot Poindexter in the back from about 30 feet away.

With the jury exonerating Bushnell of any wrongdoing, we've been scandalized twice. Once by the tragic death of a troubled black man, now by the legal disregard for the value of this man's life in our own city at the hands of a white killer, overseen by a white judge and all-white jury.

"But race had nothing to do with it!" insist people clinging to colorblindness. While more visible and easier to decry, acts of overt interpersonal racism (such as name calling or graffiti) are actually some of the more infrequent forms of racism. Bias typically operates at subconscious and institutional levels. Tools such as the Implicit Association Test predict unfair treatment, and show how flash judgments toward people of different racial backgrounds can have devastating effects.

How would one prove that Bushnell or the members of this jury were not part of the 48 percent of white Americans found by the Pew Research Center to "prefer white over black" in a 2015 study? Such subconscious perceptions likely underpinned Bushnell's case for "self-defense" in two ways: First, in the sense that his actions were deemed not premeditated, and second, his snap assessment of the degree of threat posed to himself and Poindexter's partner.

Even a transcript of court proceedings, requested by Spokane's Black Lens newspaper at a cost of more than $3,000, may be unable to pinpoint these dynamics. Just because such biases are subconscious does not mean they are inevitable, or right. Just because Washington state laws sometimes allow killing with impunity in "self-defense" on the part of third parties does not make those laws' application fair in this or similar cases. One can justify sheltering those who intervene from full liability for their actions, but no one should ever be judge, jury and executioner under such questionable circumstances. Poindexter's girlfriend told police after his death, "That's what we do, we beat each other up. That doesn't give someone the right to shoot him."

Even if there was not actual racial bias in this case, the fact remains that this decision has racial implications, given the unresolved history of the institutionally sanctioned murder of black people in this country just a few generations ago. The black community in Spokane knows all too well the negative reinforcing outcomes of our current criminal injustice system. What we need now is restorative justice, which focuses on the rehabilitation of offenders through reconciliation with the community.

Barring that, what is left when a man gets away with killing? Pain. Sometimes all you can do is weep and pray, steeling your heart for the truth-telling journey toward justice that lies ahead. ♦

Mariah McKay is a fourth-generation daughter of Spokane and a community organizer campaigning for racial, social and economic justice.

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