Juvenile Injustice in a Philly Suburb

When Violet Phiri looks at the unjust criminal charges confronting her daughter Tianna, she sees the ‘Old South’ all over again – an era of rigid racial disparities she thought she left long ago.

That ‘Old South’ Phiri sees is not the awful segregation of Jim Crow America but the atrocious apartheid of South Africa – the homeland Phiri fled two decades ago to avoid arrest for her anti-apartheid activism.

Phiri’s daughter is now on trial in a Philadelphia, Pa suburb for aggravated assault and three other felony charges arising from a brief fight near her old high school earlier this year where Tianna was not a participant.

If convicted on these specious charges, Tianna, currently attending a Philadelphia area university on an academic scholarship, will have a criminal record that could cripple her dream of attending law school and becoming a lawyer.

Both Phiri’s apartheid South Africa and America’s Ole South shared many racially discriminatory similarities – one being authorities quickly accepting the word of a white as positive proof of wrongdoing by a black.

Police and prosecutors in Delaware County, Pa – acting solely on the word of white students – charged Tianna with recruiting a few black male friends to assault a white male student at Archbishop Carroll High School in upscale Radnor, Pa whom Tianna had argued with about a racially insensitive classroom remark.

Tianna “took it upon herself to seek revenge for a comment,” said Delco prosecutor Thomas Laurie, who defends Tianna being the only person charged in relation to that March 17, 2009 fight that produced a bruised ego but no serious injuries.

She “arranged” the assault, Laurie said, curtly casting Tianna’s actions as remotely comparable to hiring hit men.

The petite Tianna said that larger white male student – Steven Farley – had verbally harassed and physically menaced her during the 24-hours before that off-campus fight where tormentor Farley was quickly knocked down by Tianna’s former boyfriend who is smaller than Farley.

Tianna, an honor roll student involved in extra-curricular activities throughout her career at Carroll, readily acknowledges contacting her ex-boyfriend Jamar Cann on March 17th asking him to come to Carroll for her personal protection – not to fight Farley.

“Jamar came up to the school to protect me, not fight with Steven. I was afraid of Steven. He’s big,” said Tianna Drummond-Phiri, a college freshman fearful of a conviction when her trial resumes on December 18th.

Tianna and Jamar both acknowledge that Jamar punched Farley after Farley and his friends surrounded Jamar in the parking lot a train station near Carroll High. Tianna commuted to Carroll by train from her home in Philadelphia.

The arrest report prepared, by a Radnor police detective, quotes Cann saying that he came to Carroll to “ride the train home with Phiri to make her feel comfortable.”

The bulk of the arrest report, seemingly reflecting an apartheid white-is-right dynamic, consists of claims against Tianna from Farley backed by female classmates of Farley.

That report prepared by 13-year-veteran Radnor Detective Jim Santoliquito boasts of an investigation where he “identified and interviewed” those female classmates who advised him “that Phiri was sending text messages” to arrange the fight.

Yet, Santoliquito’s report does not explain how those classmates knew that the content of those text messages specifically was Tianna setting up a beat-down of Farley.

Santoliquito’s report includes the names of two female students who were with Tianna at the train station. But Santoliquito’s allegedly thorough investigation apparently did not include interviewing those two students because his report includes no statements from either about events before, during and after that fight.

“The detective kept badgering me,” Tianna said of her interview with Santoliquito inside Carroll two days after that fight. “I felt he had his mind made up about me. He never asked me if I was involved in the fight…which I wasn’t.”

Santoliquito declined to comment on his investigation and arrest report, referring questions to prosecutor Laurie.

The arrest report claims Tianna made at least four violent threats against Farley in the 24-hours before the fight – threats Tianna denies making.

Farley testified at the preliminary hearing that those threats scared him yet he admitted that he and a group of his friends appeared at the train station where Tianna allegedly told Farley her friends would “shoot and stab” him.

Farley went to the station to fight, said Tianna’s lawyer William Cincaglini.

Prosecutor Laurie contends Farley showed up at the train station unaware of the planned assault, an assertion contradicted by Santoliquito’s arrest report and Farley’s own testimony.

While the criminal case against Violet Phiri’s daughter admittedly is small in the larger scheme of things, it symbolizes disparities in how authorities approach infractions by youths differently based along racial lines.

Santoliquito’s arrest report, for example, casually notes how Carroll students frequent that train station after school to “smoke cigarettes” – an arguably innocuous act yet an illegal one for teens.

Farley spent the St. Patrick’s Day evening after that fight drinking with friends at a bonfire according to Facebook postings and court testimony. Yet Delco prosecutors and police ignored that underage drinking and the law enforcement issue of how those teens acquired the alcohol they photographed themselves consuming.

Pennsylvania leads the nation in the number of persons serving life sentences for crimes committed as teens – nearly 500 – the overwhelming majority being black.

Further, blacks in Pa are ten times more likely than whites to face adult adjudication for crimes committed as juveniles according to an examination by Human Rights Watch.

The case of a former Carroll High student is an example of disparities in handling crimes by teens.

In 2006, that student, Sean O’Neill Jr., fatally shot his Catholic school classmate in the driveway of his parent’s posh estate while playing with a pistol during a night of heavy drinking and vandalism.

Although authorities initially charged O’Neill as an adult, a judge ordered a wrist-slap juvenile adjudication of nine months ‘treatment’ for that drunken fatal shooting despite a drug arrest of O’Neill months before that shooting and two violent assaults by O’Neill following the shooting but before his trial.

When O’Neill violated parole just weeks after his release from treatment, the judge didn’t incarcerate him until age 21 as the law recommends but committed him to a forest work camp for six months.

Racist practices are “often not even recognized as such” because racism is so deeply infused in the “DNA of almost every institution in society” writer William Gumede noted in a perceptive article published in mid-November.

While Gumede’s assessment actually centered on the racially impacted nation of his birth – South Africa – his observations initially published in the famous Sowetan newspaper are applicable to America.

Philadelphia area Catholic school authorities had permitted Sean O’Neill to transfer into Carroll from another parochial high school following his arrest for that drunken fatal shooting.

That accommodation for O’Neill contracts sharply to authorities quickly suspending Tianna Drummond-Phiri weeks before police formally lodged any charges against her.

Following that suspension two days after the fight, Carroll authorities barred Tianna from participating in the prom and graduation ceremonies.

“I was a wreck over not being able to go to the prom and graduation,” Tianna said. “Seeing the pictures of the prom and graduation on Facebook…I felt robbed…I worked so hard for four years and it was all gone…”

Violet Phiri faults authorities at Carroll for quickly suspending her daughter – seeing an apartheid-like reaction of differing treatment of white O’Neill and her black daughter.

“I guess murder charges are not serious enough for the Archdiocese as Tianna’s charges are,” Phiri said. “This leaves me to conclude in my mind that the seriousness of offense to cause expulsion from catholic school is determined by the color of your skin not the seriousness of the crime itself.”

Violet Phiri had to fight with Carroll authorities to arrange for Tianna to complete her school work at home – an arrangement that cost Phiri and her husband additional fees beyond Tianna’s tuition payments.

Carroll authorities mailed Tianna her high school diploma.

A spokesperson for Archdiocesan of Philadelphia schools said Carroll authorities suspended Tianna because they felt her actions were “very serious.” But this spokesperson wouldn’t comment on specifics saying it was a police matter.

“She was eligible for expulsion, but the school did not expel her based on her previous good behavior and her cooperation with police,” said Archdiocesan spokesperson Donna Farrell.

Farrell declined to comment on the differing dispositions accorded O’Neill and Drummond-Phiri, referring inquires to Delco prosecutors.

A source who investigated Tianna’s case feels authorities at Carroll, the Radnor Police Department and the Delaware County DA’s Office all overreacted, inflating things way out of proportion and context.

Police and prosecutors contend that an unidentified friend of Jamar Cann sucker-punched Farley during the fight causing him to “fall to the ground” according to the arrest report.

But this source said that contention defies common sense and court testimony. “If it wasn’t a one-on-one fair fight Steven’s friends would have jumped in and they didn’t.”

The fact that Delco prosecutors are pressing felony charges against Tianna doesn’t surprise Linda Osinupedi, president of the Yeadon, Pa NAACP branch in Delaware County.

“There is definite racial overtone out here in Delaware County with the DA’s Office,” said Osinupedi who called the prosecution of Tianna ridiculous and sickening.

Violet Phiri, like South African writer William Gumede, believes that shouting racism to deflect attention from wrong-doing is wrong.

“It hurts to have experienced what we did in our country and to come here and experience it again. This is so sad,” said Phiri, who husband spent time in a South African prison facing execution for his anti-apartheid activism.

“It’s not right that in 2009 these things are happening here in America and you have to worry about being in a white neighborhood,” Phiri said – seeing reflections of apartheid.

LINN WASHINGTON JR. is a columnist for the Philadelphia Tribune who writes frequently about inequities in the US justice system.

Linn Washington, Jr. is a founder of This Can’t Be Happening and a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, (AK Press). He lives in Philadelphia.