Let me start by admitting that I am a fierce advocate for inclusion. I have served as the vice president of a Macomb County advocacy organization that is a chapter of a century-old national civil rights organization. I relish the experience and insight gained into racism in Macomb County and Michigan. However, that experienced led me to believe that a person should be judged by their individual actions, and not be stereotype based solely on their personal beliefs.
So I have caught hell last week for supporting the reversal of the murder conviction of Jimmie Nelson…a white guy who had no love for black people. That attitude contributed to the ruling of a judge that Nelson had murdered Cherita Thomas, a black woman who disappeared after having car problems up in Tawas City, Michigan back in 1980. That attitude alone is not enough to put someone in jail for 32 years.
Nelson had a bad attitude and drove a blue truck, the color and vehicle type described by witnesses as the type of vehicle Thomas was last seen in in the vicinity of where Thomas’ car broke down back.. A panel of three court of appeals judges just this past week ruled that Nelson’s attitude was not sufficient enough “evidence” to convict Nelson of Thomas’ murder. I agree with their assessment.
The problem with Nelson’s prosecution is that aside from having a blue truck, and being an outright avowed racist, there was absolutely no physical evidence to connect Nelson to Thomas’ disappearance. Her body has never been found, and there was no other evidence presented that physically connected Nelson to Thomas. Simply put, he was in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Nelson was tried before a judge. It is called a bench trial. In these instances, a judge is the only arbiter deciding the truth of the information presented by the prosecutor. No one is suggesting that the judge ruled based on his sensitivity to Thomas’ family, the black community, or the times (1980), nearly 32 years ago. However, sometimes, bench trials with no jury can be as problematic as jury trials, especially when you have one person trying to juggle all aspects of complex and competing circumstances.