Black lawyer, white killer, and the principles of US justice

Why We Wrote This

Theresa Jean-Pierre Coy might have been an unlikely attorney for Michael Drejka, a white man accused of killing an unarmed black man. The lawyer says she did it to uphold the principle that justice for all makes the system fairer for all.

Courtesy of Theresa Jean-Pierre Coy
Defense attorney Theresa Jean-Pierre Coy defends Michael Drejka in Florida's Pinellas County. Police initially declined to arrest Mr. Drejka after he killed an unarmed black man in an argument over a parking space. Forcing the state to prove its case protects all Americans, especially those in heavily policed minority communities, says Ms. Jean-Pierre Coy, who received some criticism for her decision to defend Mr. Drejka.

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Tampa attorney Theresa Jean-Pierre Coy knew she’d get criticized for helping defend Michael Drejka. She is an African American, and her client was a white man accused of fatally shooting a black man in a parking lot argument.

She did it anyway, she says, on grounds of principle: Upholding equal treatment for all is the only way to advance the rule of law for all.

“It’s about making sure the government makes their case,” says Ms. Jean-Pierre Coy.

The government did. Last week a Florida jury found Mr. Drejka guilty of manslaughter in the killing of Markeis McGlockton outside a convenience store in Clearwater, Florida.

The case was racially fraught from the beginning. But the guilty verdict, and the recent firing of the New York policeman whose chokehold contributed to the death of Eric Garner, are signs of hope in the fight against racial disparities in the legal system, say experts.

Should Ms. Jean-Pierre Coy have helped Mr. Drejka? She was surprised by critical pushback from some African American attorneys, who she felt should know better. Some legal ethicists sided with her.

“We always want to win a fair fight [rather] than an unfair one,” says Louis Virelli III, a Stetson University law professor.

Tampa attorney Theresa Jean-Pierre Coy marched into America’s identity wars knowing she risked being called an opportunist, and perhaps even a traitor to her race.

After all, prosecutors described her client Michael Drejka as a “parking lot vigilante” – an angry white man who shot and killed an unarmed black man during an argument over a handicapped-reserved parking spot.

But for Ms. Jean-Pierre Coy, who is black, upholding the core value of the United States justice system – equal treatment for all – is the only way to advance the rule of law for all. So she volunteered as co-counsel for the defense in a case where the invocation of Florida’s “stand your ground” law, as well as the races of defendant and victim, reminded many of the fatal shooting of unarmed black teen Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida, in 2012.

The politics of race, guns, and “stand your ground” did indeed get mixed up in Mr. Drejka’s case.

But she says she kept pushing for the trial to focus on the facts and the law, not surrounding distractions. In her view, a defense lawyer who challenges the system is not condoning a crime or a defendant’s actions, but trying to make that system fairer for those it seeks to imprison.

“It’s about making sure the government makes their case, which only benefits the community in the long run, since our [African American and other minorities] community makes up most of the people that the system tries to convict,” Ms. Jean-Pierre Coy says.

Ms. Jean-Pierre Coy was indeed criticized by some African Americans – including, she says, members of the bar – for her representation. But legal experts, begging to differ, reiterated her point that the system works best when the accused have vigorous, competent defenders – especially in cases where they are ultimately convicted, as Mr. Drejka was last week when a jury found him guilty of manslaughter.

“It’s a great thing that a defense lawyer was willing to put on a quality, honest representation of a defendant who then the system judged guilty,” says Louis Virelli III, an expert on constitutional law at Stetson University Law School in Gulfport, Florida. “Then we have more reason to believe beyond the outcome that this was a just result that benefits the victim. We always want to win a fair fight [rather] than an unfair one.”

Fatal confrontation

The shooting of Markeis McGlockton by Mr. Drejka last summer outside a Circle A convenience store in north Clearwater, Florida, resonated far beyond Tampa Bay. It was yet another entry in the list of unarmed black men slain by a gun-carrying white man with either a badge or vigilante leanings.

The incident occurred on a literal racial fault line, along a street that divides a black neighborhood from a white one. It came at a time of racial unease, with white supremacy apparently rising and America’s political parties increasingly racially polarized.

Witness testimony and grainy video footage showed Mr. Drejka confronting Mr. McGlockton’s girlfriend over a handicapped-accessible parking space. As tensions rose, Mr. McGlockton emerged from the store and shoved Mr. Drejka away, knocking him over.

Immediately, experts noted similarities to the Martin shooting in 2012, where a self-appointed neighborhood watchman pursued an unarmed teenager and killed him when the teenager turned on his pursuer.

As with the Martin case, despite evidence that the gunman started the conflict, police refused to immediately arrest Mr. Drejka, citing the state’s pioneering “stand your ground” law. Under such statutes, a person has no duty to retreat to avoid confrontation if threatened with force.

The state attorney brought charges nearly a month later after a black truck driver told investigators that Mr. Drejka had threatened him, too, over the same parking space.

At trial, the defense argued that Mr. McGlockton’s body became his weapon and that the young father “caused his own death” by pushing Mr. Drejka away from his family. Mr. McGlockton’s size, appearance, and attitude presented an imminent deadly threat, defense attorneys said.

Prosecutors said those arguments drew on old racist tropes.

“He was a human being in our world,” prosecutor Fred Schaub shot back during closing arguments. “What have we come to in this country?”

Floridians “wanted to take this seriously”

The quest for empathy in the justice system amid shifting self-defense laws has engrossed the U.S. for nearly a decade. That tension has been particularly evident in Florida, which pioneered the expansion of the “castle doctrine” to public areas in 2005. Nearly all states now have similar laws. (Under the castle doctrine, people have certain rights to use force, including deadly force, to defend themselves against intruders into their space.)

The problem is that the castle doctrine and “stand your ground” laws don’t exist in a perfect, neutral context. Racial prejudice, other biases, and subjective fears of injury on the part of police officers and other shooters make it more difficult to interpret such statutes in real-world situations.

The bottom line: Evidence suggests that black men are still being shot and killed by police at higher rates than white men, and use of force rules often disfavor black individuals, especially men. This has led minorities to have less trust than white people in the legal system. Black individuals are only about half as likely as white people to have a positive view of the job their local police are doing, according to Pew Research statistics.

However, there seems to be movement toward greater awareness of possible institutional biases, experts say. The officer who contributed to the death of Eric Garner by putting the man into an illegal chokehold was just fired from the New York Police Department. The last year saw two U.S. police offers tried for and convicted of murder – compared with only one over the span of nearly 20 years before that.

The Drejka verdict was further evidence that at least Floridians, often the “butt of jokes nationally ... wanted to take this seriously and be taken seriously,” says Kenneth Nunn, an expert on race relations and the law at the University of Florida in Gainesville.

Racial overtones

To some, Ms. Jean-Pierre Coy’s presence on Mr. Drejka’s defense team suggested a ploy to defuse the racial overtones of the case in front of a majority-white jury.

Mr. Nunn recalled a similar image during the trial of George Zimmerman for the Martin shooting: a young black law clerk who sat at Mr. Zimmerman’s defense table.

“I’m not mad at [Ms. Jean-Pierre Coy], because I have defended some unsavory characters in my career,” says Mr. Nunn. “What I do think is wrong is to look at these cases, and because your own ideology is that we live in a post-racial society, think that race should not matter. You have to be aware that the optics and theatrics that impact race are significant in cases of this type.”

Clearwater defense attorney Roger Futerman, who in 2017 oversaw another landmark “stand your ground” case, knows Ms. Jean-Pierre Coy. He calls her “a very talented attorney” and deems her response to the criticism she’s received about the Drejka case as “classy.”

But he also says he wouldn’t have taken the case, noting that some defense attorneys in a competitive market take tough-to-win cases for publicity as much as principle.

“This was an easy case for the prosecution to win,” says Mr. Futerman, noting that he doesn’t take cases he doesn’t think he can win. “Once he pulls the gun out and the man is backing away, unarmed, ... [now] you’re looking at the man, you’ve got the gun aimed at him, the threat is over, you don’t need to kill.”

No regrets

Ms. Jean-Pierre Coy has received awards for trial advocacy from Stetson University and served as an assistant public defender in Florida’s Pinellas County, according to her law firm bio. Her own brother was convicted of a crime in 1998 and sentenced to 21 years in state prison.

She approached the Drejka defense team about joining it pro bono. Before final agreement, she consulted well-regarded African American defense attorneys, including Delano Stewart, the first black public defender in Florida’s Hillsborough County.

“I talked to them about what it would look like,” she says.

Having been away from trial work for several years, Ms. Jean-Pierre Coy decided she would love to try the case in a courtroom.

“It’s not really about whether Drejka was right,” she says. “I felt like there were a lot of other outside things that could impact this man’s constitutional right [to a fair trial] ... and would affect him when the jury was picked, given all the media.”

She knew there would be pushback about her participating in a prominent case where a white man shot and killed a black man. Still, she was taken by some of the criticism – particularly, she says, criticism from some African American attorneys. She spoke up about this in a public manner, posting a response on her public Facebook page after Mr. Drejka was found guilty.

“I thought that my almost 15-year career of defending faces that look like me and those of my two sons, as well as some of the worst types of crimes known to man, would cast [away] any doubt about my firm commitment to the rule of law,” she wrote on Facebook. 

“I would be lying if I said that I was not hurt [by the pushback],” she continued. “But with all things this too shall pass. I have overcome much greater and more important challenges in life and this is no different.”

She responded publicly in part because she wanted to emphasize that it does not matter whom she represents, she says.

“This was an atypical case. I have no regrets of being involved in this case, though I will say it was the weirdest case ever,” says Ms. Jean-Pierre Coy.

Her presence at Mr. Drejka’s table struck some experts as an example of lawyerly courage.

“In this day and age, appearances of our institutions are as important as the actual machinations of them,” says Mr. Virelli at Stetson University. By providing both solid lawyering and a racial contrast on the defense team, he says, Ms. Jean-Pierre Coy’s decision to defend Mr. Drejka “provides an opportunity to move the law forward in a way that we can all trust and understand.”

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