Congresswoman, Legal Advisor Discuss Williams Torture Case
MICHEL MARTIN, host:
I'm Michel Martin. And this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.
Coming up, the next big thing - it's granny ball. And we will tell you what that is.
But first, I'm going to continue my conversation about the case of Megan Williams, the 20-year-old African-American woman who was allegedly held captive and tortured by six whites in West Virginia.
She came to Washington this week to meet with Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee, a Democrat and a member of the Congressional Black Caucus. She also attended a fundraiser that they hope will cover her medical expenses.
We attempted to reach Brian Abraham, the Logan County, West Virginia prosecutor in the case but we were unsuccessful.
I'm joined now by Congresswoman Lee as well as Malik Shabazz. He is the Williams family's legal adviser. He's with me in the studio. Welcome. Thank you both so much for speaking with us.
Mr. MALIK SHABAZZ (Lawyer; Co-Founder, Black Lawyers for Justice): Thank you for having me.
Representative SHEILA JACKSON LEE (Texas, Democrat): Thank you. It's a pleasure to be with you today.
MARTIN: Malik Shabazz, first of all, how is Megan Williams doing - mentally and physically?
Mr. SHABAZZ: Megan Williams is still, of course, challenged in this hour. She is boosted in a way by the support and the love that she is receiving. But it will take her many, many years to recover from this traumatic ordeal. And we're doing the best we can to help her.
MARTIN: Why does she need money for medical expenses?
Mr. SHABAZZ: Because there's not a lot of resources available in this hour. And I want to be clear that the funds that Black Lawyers for Justice has raised for Megan has not just been for medical expenses, although we're helping to get her in counseling.
MARTIN: Black Lawyers for Justice is an organization you founded…
Mr. SHABAZZ: Absolutely.
MARTIN: …and that you lead.
Mr. SHABAZZ: Absolutely. We just wanted to make a caring effort for our sister by being able to provide some funds, for food, clothing and shelter because, you know, our people in West Virginia are poor.
MARTIN: And just briefly before I get to the congresswoman. Mrs. Williams, Megan's mother was very outspoken at first. But we've heard very little of her lately. Can you shed some light on that? Has she felt a need to withdraw from public discussion or attention?
Mr. SHABAZZ: There's a lot of pressure - that's why I'm here for. Now, I'm here as an advocate and a spokesperson. There's a lot of pressure in West Virginia, unfair pressure, I believe, on the family and for Megan, then, to keep the case out of the spotlight and to keep national attention away from this case.
And we are here to ensure that the national spotlight and our national representatives, such as our honorable congresswoman - and also, Reverend Sharpton and I will be in Charleston Tuesday rallying on her behalf. November 3rd, we held a national march in West Virginia because we have a duty to keep a national spotlight and national and international eye on this most horrific hate crime. All these pressure, you know, being applied in the West Virginia, even pressure from the prosecutor to make everybody be quiet and everybody sit down. But we know as a people, with our history, we cannot afford to let that happen.
MARTIN: But it's been reported that his concern is two-fold. One is that he's concerned that public statements may jeopardize the case because what really matters is what happens in the courtroom.
Mr. SHABAZZ: Best - in terms of Megan Williams giving interviews. And that's signed. But no prosecutor, no authorities in that state should say that someone should not have a support rally for Megan Williams, that somebody - that the community and a congresswoman should not be able to intervene on our behalf and ask the critical questions of why have these federal hate crimes or federal charges been charged in this case. Why has the U.S. Justice Department failed? Why has the state failed to prosecute what is obviously a hate crime and failed to fulfill what's even in the legislative intent in that state?
MARTIN: Well, let's ask the congresswoman about it. Congresswoman, first of all, how was your meeting with Ms. Williams? How did that go?
Rep. JACKSON LEE: Well, certainly, it was full of emotions. It was eye-opener. It was affirming that she had such a wide range of support - counselors, advisers came. Her mother who truly loves her daughter and are deeply concerned about what her daughter has gone through and the life-long scars that this young woman will experienced.
MARTIN: Congresswoman, what do you feel that - do you feel that federal involvement is warranted here? It does appear that the local authorities are taking this seriously.
Rep. JACKSON LEE: Absolutely. In fact, I serve as a member of the House Judiciary Committee, sub-committee on crime, as well as a member of the Human Rights Caucus. We go around the world to address the question of enormous human abuses that we see in the continent and other places. It is interesting that we go around the world as Americans to denounce that kind of violence and hatefulness, and yet, we cannot find, if you will, the right kind of legal address of these issues right here in our country.
MARTIN: But how do you know that since the case hasn't gone forward yet?
Rep. LEE: Well…
MARTIN: I guess what I'm just asking is why do you feel that the federal involvement is warranted? I think - usually people call for federal involvement when they feel that the local authorities aren't doing their job on matters of - because these are, you know, assault, murder, those kinds of crimes are generally considered state crimes in this - under this country's system. So why do you feel the federal - extra federal involvement is needed here?
Rep. JACKSON LEE: Well, thank you for the question. It is very clear why federal involvement needs to be engaged. As I read the West Virginia hate crime statuette, it is clearly a hate crime act occurred, and the district attorney in this instance as the district attorney in Jena, Louisiana, local jurisdictions, state jurisdictions refused to forward on the hate crimes indictment and, frankly, are making the decision of being the prosecutor and the grand jury at the same time.
What the prosecutor can do is submit all the facts to the grand jury, along with kidnapping charges, assault charges and other charges. Let the grand jury be the decision maker not this prosecutor. If he is fearful of poisoning the jury pool because people are using their First Amendment rights, then he can ask for a venue change himself or he can ask for the state's attorney of West Virginia to participate or he can ask himself for the U.S. attorney to act or he can ask the Department of Justice to act. He's done none of those and he is required of the legal counsel Mr. Shabazz, who applaud greatly for his involvement. And he has asked the members of the community to stand down, to be silenced and not to engage the federal government of which I intend to do along with my colleague, Congressman Al Mollohan, to send letters to press forward in the justice department because it is a place where you are to go when you feel your rights have been - have not been completely addressed and that you feel your civil rights have been violated.
MARTIN: Malik Shabazz, can I just ask you this question that the reporter from the Charleston Gazette raised, his understanding is that the prosecutors was reluctant because the hate crime law is untested, number one - the state hate crime statute is untested - and number two, that he's already seeking charges with more severe penalties than would be commanded by the hate crime statute. What's your response to that?
Mr. SHABAZZ: The constant train of excuses of why they won't fulfill the legislative intent of the legislator of West Virginia or why they enacted the hate crime statute. It does not take away from kidnapping, from sexual assault from the malicious wounding and the battery charges if the hate crime charge is added.
MARTIN: But why does that serve Megan Williams' interests?
Mr. SHABAZZ: Well, it serves her interests because if, for example, all of those charges, a judge may come up with, say, a 20-year conviction for one of the defendants with - for the penalty for any of those charges that are charged are convicted, then those 10 years would matter because that defendant would then serve 30 instead of 20. Also, we here, and I'm sure the congresswoman understands, there are larger public policy considerations here. Hate crimes are especially heinous, they have a particularly nasty effect on our history and future relations in this country. And this case is about Megan Williams but it's bigger. We're here to say and make a call that there has to be a national and international effort to stop the hate crimes and the hate crime acts of intimidation against our people. And it must start with this obvious hate crime of Megan Williams. If this is not a hate crime that has occurred against Megan Williams, then we don't know what is, so I don't see what the problem is.
MARTIN: Congresswoman, the final question to you. What further role do you think you will play in this and also other members of the - interested members - of Congress?
Rep. JACKSON LEE: Well, certainly, I'm going to bring this to the attention of other members of Congress, other members of the House Judiciary Committee. Our chairman, John Conyers, who's been enormously effective on these issues of abuse of one's civil rights. But I'm going to ask the attorney general to assess this case and indicate and give us the reason why the U.S. attorney could not be involved. The West Virginia hate statute is very, very clear; I think it's a good statute. It's broad enough to cover the issues of sex and race and ethnicity, and I don't feel that the prosecution will be hampered by pressing forward with that charge. If not, I would ask the U.S. attorney to engage and collaborate with the local authorities in bringing federal hate crimes charges…
MARTIN: All right.
Rep. LEE: …on this question.
MARTIN: Well, thank you. We're going to have to leave it there.
Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee joined us from Capitol Hill. Megan Williams' legal advisor and advisor to the family, he's also the founder of Black Lawyers for Justice, Malik Shabazz, joined us here in our studios in Washington.
Congresswoman and Attorney Shabazz, thank you both so much for joining us today.
Mr. SHABAZZ: Thanks, Michel.
Rep. LEE: Thank you for having us.
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