BY ERIKA D. SMITH | COLUMNIST
AUG. 29, 2023 10:44 AM PT
What I didn’t expect were the tears.
Almost from the start of the sentencing hearing in downtown Los Angeles on Monday, it was clear that U.S. District Judge Dale S. Fischer wanted to make an example out of Mark Ridley-Thomas, the once high-flying Black politician brought down by a public corruption scandal.
She admonished him repeatedly and unsparingly.
“There is simply no justification for monetizing one’s office,” Fischer declared from the bench at one point, echoing prosecutors’ claim that he was the mastermind of a “shakedown.”
At another point, after Ridley-Thomas had again denied that he “crossed that line into illegal conduct,” she complained that the former member of the L.A. City Council and the L.A. County Board of Supervisors had “not accepted responsibility and has shown no remorse.”
“No one,” Fischer said, “is above the law.”
Then she ordered Ridley-Thomas to spend 3½ years in prison, pay a $30,000 fine and subject himself to three years of supervised release, arguing that a significant punishment was needed to demonstrate that public corruption has serious consequences.
This was about the time that around a dozen people seated in the courtroom, packed to capacity with the politician’s supporters, began to cry. I’m talking pass the box of Kleenex kind of tears, too.
They cried for a friend. They cried for a colleague. They cried for his family and for his — and for their — South Los Angeles community. Among the many people I spoke with after the sentencing hearing, “sad” was the word I heard used most often.
“It is a sad day for everyone,” defense attorney Galia Amram summed up.
How did we get to a point in Los Angeles where the sentencing of an elected official convicted of seven felonies for participating in a quid pro quo with a USC dean is a cause for tears from people who are attorneys and current and former government employees?
One reason is that we’re talking about Ridley-Thomas, a giant in California politics who spent decades in elected office advocating for neglected communities of color and effectively delivering resources for them, from funding to healthcare to infrastructure.
But that’s not the only reason.
Indeed, I suspect the tremendous amount of support we’ve seen for Ridley-Thomas over the course of a trial, an appeals process and now a sentencing hearing is also a reflection of the steady erosion of trust in the criminal justice system. A further fracturing of the broad authority the courts once had — at least in terms of shaping public opinion — along partisan lines and into separate social media bubbles.
This follows a long-documented trend among many institutions in America, including the criminal justice system. Gallup, for example, has been measuring confidence in such institutions annually since 1973 and, in its most recent survey, it reported yet another decline.
We’ve seen several extreme examples of this lately, particularly when it comes to the courts.
There’s former President Trump — and his various indictments — whose supporters baselessly insist he’s the victim of a witch hunt.
There’s also rapper Tory Lanez, who was convicted and recently sentenced to prison for shooting fellow rapper Megan Thee Stallion, though his many fans continue, for some reason, to insist that he’s innocent.
Ridley-Thomas is, of course, neither of these men and the case against him — with its charges of bribery, conspiracy, honest services wire fraud and honest services mail fraud — was very different. But his supporters are just as loyal, their dedication drawn from decades-long friendships, an appreciation for his many good deeds, and a deep understanding of the often biased way the criminal justice system works against Black people.
And so, from the time Ridley-Thomas was charged in the complicated corruption scandal two years ago until his sentencing this week, there have been rallies, informal gatherings and vigils held in his name.
At one on Sunday evening, Bishop Byron L. Smith Sr. offered a prayer as a few dozen people, many of them elderly and arriving by chartered bus, gathered on the recently completed Mark Ridley-Thomas Bridge that spans La Cienega Boulevard, jutting away from the Kenneth Hahn State Recreation Area.
“The light that we’re shining,” he said as the sun set, “is the light overshadowing the darkness of this process.”
Like Smith Sr., who also attended the sentencing hearing on Monday, many supporters of Ridley-Thomas have followed the case closely, regularly posting about the ins and outs of the courtroom happenings on social media.
In those posts, theories — some with more basis in reality than others — abounded about whether the FBI was being completely honest during the trial, whether mistakes were made in how the jury reached its verdict and, most of all, whether racism was a motive in why Ridley-Thomas was charged in the first place.
With each passing month, skepticism seemed to harden about the veracity of the charges Ridley-Thomas was ultimately found guilty of and the fairness of the legal process. By the time he was sentenced, many told me they had concluded he never should have been charged at all.
It wasn’t even a guilt or innocence thing.
“When he got up there and he spoke and he said it might have been ill-advised, but it wasn’t illegal? That’s what I’ve been saying all along,” said longtime friend Gwen Williams, as another longtime friend, Venice activist Naomi Nightingale, nodded in agreement. “I think he made a mistake. We all make mistakes. But do we end up in prison?”
Caroline Webb De Macias, who once served as Ridley-Thomas’ chief of staff, was equally dismayed and disgusted.
Judge Fischer alluded to this on Monday when she spoke of a “portion of population that refuses to accept a guilty verdict.” Based on some of the conversations I’ve had out and about in South L.A., it’s a portion that’s probably a lot bigger than she realizes, but it’s impossible to know for sure.
Meanwhile, more than 130 people, including several current and former elected officials, submitted letters of support for Ridley-Thomas ahead of his sentencing.
Among them was Sheila Kuehl, who retired from the county Board of Supervisors last year. She commended her former colleague as “a good and honorable man.” Jackie Goldberg, president of the board of Los Angeles Unified School District, called Ridley-Thomas “a warrior for social justice.”
Their words are reminiscent of the many elected officials and civic leaders who spoke up in support after Ridley-Thomas was convicted in March. That includes state Sen. Steven Bradford (D-Gardena) and longtime friend L.A. Mayor Karen Bass.
Pastor William D. Smart Jr., president and chief executive of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Southern California, lamented that “it wasn’t supposed to go down like this. Everyone just thought he was going to get exonerated, because he’s a hero.”
Indeed, federal prosecutors have never had the whole of public opinion on their side with Ridley-Thomas the way they did following the guilty pleas of former City Councilmembers Jose Huizar and Mitchell Englander, as well as David Wright, the former head of the Department of Water and Power.
On Monday, Fischer insisted that “the entire community has been victimized by the defendant’s crimes.” That, the judge went on, is why she needed to impose a stiff sentence as a supposed “deterrent” for any other politicians considering corruption.
But what happens when the guilty verdict that undergirds that sentence isn’t taken seriously? When it’s picked apart in the court of public opinion and dismissed by an untold number of people? What kind of “deterrent” is that?
Amram, Ridley-Thomas’ attorney, said her client plans to pursue an appeal. In the meantime, the longtime politician is expected to report to prison in mid-November, not long after his 69th birthday.
“While we respect the jury’s decision at trial and the court’s decision today,” Amram told reporters, “there are significant legal issues that need to be addressed on appeal.”
On Monday, Ridley-Thomas told Fischer that while he regretted his actions, he did not break the law.
“This case exists somewhere between what is clearly legal conduct on one end, and clearly illegal conduct on the other,” he said. “... I acknowledge with clarity where I belonged was at the end of the spectrum where there would be little, if any, question of even the appearance of unlawfulness.”
Chances are, Ridley-Thomas will go to prison continuing to believe he committed no crimes. And many of his supporters will continue to believe the same.
No wonder there were tears.