Jul
13

Vandalism, Yale and Black Lives Matter

Corey Menafee wants his job back at Yale University. He is also hoping he doesn’t face criminal charges for his on-the-job conduct. His hopes should be dashed, unless, of course, we are now prepared to recognize political correctness as a defense to criminal conduct.

On June 13, Menafee, 38, was employed by Yale as a dining hall worker in Calhoun College. Armed with a broomstick, he stood up on one of the tables, and shattered a stained glass window while muttering “the picture has to go.” The university estimates he caused $2,000 to $3,000 in damage. Shards of glass fell on a sidewalk outside the college, narrowly missing a pedestrian who happened to walk by.

Why this act of vandalism?

Menafee told a member of the Yale police department that earlier this year a visitor to the campus pointed out the window, and told Menafee it depicted slaves. Menafee told police he didn’t like the picture, showing, as he assumed it did, two people of color, enslaved, walking through a Confederate plantation.

So he decided to smash the window.

This is not a whodunit. Menafee was direct with the police when questioned. “I just got tired of looking at it,” he told officers.

Officers tried to reason with Menafee about whether destroying the property of others was really all that good an idea. What would he do the next time he saw something he thought was offensive? “I can’t predict the future,” Menafee said.

Menafee is African-American.

Initial press reports stated that Menafee was fired by Yale. Then the reports changed; he was permitted to resign. The case then went viral, and in no time flat, Menafee was pressing for his job back. He’d worked at Yale for eight years without incident, after all.

Yale also decided not to demand prosecution of Menafee, but that train had already left the station. His case is pending in the New Haven Superior Court, where he is expected next to appear on July 26. Prosecutors are mulling what to do with the case.

Menafee has been charged with criminal mischief and reckless endangerment. The first charge merely reflects his willful destruction of property; the second reflects his having sent shards of glass cascading down onto a sidewalk outside of Yale.

The case was limping along in relative obscurity until the latest round of police shootings in Louisiana and Minnesota, followed by the killing of five police officers in Texas. Suddenly, the color line was news again. Menafee decided to hop on the bandwagon to see how far it would take him.

Without doubt, Yale’s decision to name a college after John C. Calhoun, a former vice president of the United States and an arch supporter of slavery, has become a source of deep controversy. Just last year, the ivy campus reached the boiling point on the issue. The university may well rename the college.

That’s a choice the university has to make. The housekeeping staff doesn’t get the right to force the issue by voting with broomstick handles. Suppose, for example, Menafee is rehired, but asked to do custodial work in the library: When he is found destroying rare books because he doesn’t like their content, how will the university react?

Because it is Yale, there is no telling. Yale just might decide to promote Menafee to guest lecturer on diversity.

Let Yale be Yale, and if it decides not to play victim to let this storm pass, so be it. But state prosecutors ought not to be so generous.

There’s a new sheriff in town just now. After the retirement of Michael Dearington as New Haven’s top prosecutor, Patrick Griffin, formerly of the Chief State’s Attorney’s Office, has been tapped to lead the Elm City office.

I’ve known Pat for the better part of a decade, and I’ve tried cases against him. I know him to be honest, hardworking and principled. I can’t see him deciding to drape Menafee in the Black Lives Matter mantle and dismissing the charges just because the images destroyed were hateful. 

What would the new standard be? I disagree with an image I see, a viewpoint I hear, and I react with violence — even minor violence. Is the criminal justice system really supposed to blink because my hurt feelings were politically correct? That’s ridiculous. I doubt seriously the state would dismiss a case against a Ku Klux Klan member who destroyed a mural depicting racial harmony.

The criminal justice system recognizes that not every violation of the law requires punishment. That’s why there are diversionary programs.

One such program, accelerated rehabilitation, permits a person charged to obtain a dismissal of charges after completing a period of probation of up to two years. A benefit of the program is that once it is completed, a defendant’s criminal record is erased, permitting the person to state in the future not only that he has never been convicted of a crime, but also that he has never been arrested.

It’s one of the lies — dare I call it a “white” lie any longer? -— we tell in the name of justice.

Menafee might not be admitted to the program, however. That’s because a judge has to make two findings to permit entry. First, the crime was not serious. There’s no question this is not a serious offense.

More troubling for Menafee is the required finding that he is not likely to break the law again. Menafee didn’t give a judge a lot to work with on this front. When he told officers he couldn’t predict what he’d do in the future if he saw something else he didn’t like, he all but thumbed his nose at self-restraint. He just might do it again.

Yes, Black Lives Matter, but so does the law. Menafee doesn’t deserve a pass for being an angry black man. He shouldn’t go to jail, but he neither deserves his job back nor the extraordinary leniency of dropping the charges against him.

Menafee engaged in vandalism. That should matter to prosecutors even if it doesn’t matter to those who manage Yale’s endowment.

Related topics: Journal Register Columns
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About Norm Pattis

Norm Pattis is a Connecticut based trial lawyer focused on high stakes criminal cases and civil right violations. He is a veteran of more than 100 jury trials, many resulting in acquittals for people charged with serious crimes, multi-million dollar civil rights and discrimination verdicts, and scores of cases favorably settled.

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I believe that the state is a necessary fiction and that failing to combat it is the first step toward tyranny.
– Norm Pattis

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