By LaKeshia N. Myers
On June 5, 2018, Chrystul Kizer shot and killed Randall Volar. Kizer, who was then seventeen years old, alleged that Volar began trafficking her using the website Backpage. Volar was previously arrested in 2017 after a fifteen year-old girl reported him to police for giving her drugs and threatening to kill her. He was charged with child enticement, using a computer to facilitate a child sex crime, and second-degree sexual assault of a child. Chrystul Kizer remained in prison until national media attention shone a spotlight on her case as a victim of human trafficking.
Like others before her, Kizer’s case was an example of judicial silence of abused women. The 1945 case of Lena Baker, the only woman ever sentenced to death by electrocution in the state of Georgia. Baker was a maid, who was kidnapped by her employer, beaten, and raped repeatedly. She killed her aggressor in self-defense, after he had locked her in a mill office and attacked her with an iron pipe. She was charged with capital murder, by an all-male, all white jury, after a one day trial.
There was also the 1921 case of Mayellen Kirby, a woman who was taken to court by her husband of seven years. Instead of petitioning the court for a divorce, Mr. Kirby sought an annulment of his marriage on the grounds that his wife was part Negro—and that according to Arizona law, miscegenation was illegal, and therefore his entire marriage had been illegal. Cross-examination later revealed that while Mr. Kirby’s racial identity was “white,” he was of Mexican ethnicity. While this case is most often referenced to discuss and illustrate the fragmented construct of racial identity in the United States, I look at the case as an illustration of gender antipathy as well. Mr. Kirby clearly used the auspices of the judicial system to humiliate his wife and evade any responsibility he may have had in granting support to her by presenting this information to the court. Mrs. Kirby did not speak at her trial, therefore, again being silenced by a male dominated judicial system.
One unnerving aspect of my research has been the consistent themes of all-male juries, all white juries, and uncovered sexual violence against women of color. In each of these cases, women have knowingly been abused, but it was seen as socially acceptable behavior by the men involved. The women in these cases have been convicted (and in some cases killed) for their actions, and their stories suppressed by the community at large. From this perspective, I appreciate the impact of jury selection in during the trial process. I highly doubt that these cases would have been tried or had the same outcome had Black women served on the jury in either the McCollum or the Baker trials.
The theme of silence is indeed an interesting one. Tammy Evans states, “silence in the south is like a shimmering mirage that hovers in the distance over a blacktop country road; it is always there, yet at the same time it is impervious to close inspection” (Evans, 2006). In covering the McCollum trial, Zora Neale Hurston said, “I had the feeling that the trial was a conspiracy of silence. The real story took place behind a curtain if secrecy” (Hurston, 1952).
While silence and secrecy have been pervasive, truth has almost always been the end result. For Ruby McCollum, her silence did not end at the trial; she was sentenced to the Florida State Mental Hospital at Chattahooche.
She would remain there for twenty years, until she was released in 1974 (by virtue of the Baker Act).
As for Lena Baker, she was electrocuted by the State of Georgia in 1945. Her grandnephew began a campaign for her to receive a pardon, and this pardon was granted by the state in 2005—sixty years after she was executed. I am reminded of a quote from Winston Churchill, “a lie gets halfway around the world before the truth can get its pants on;” this is my reminder that truth takes time, but it always comes.
Truth, in its purest form, is undeniable justice. That is also the crux of the #MeToo campaign, speaking truth to power. I am very happy that jurisprudence has shifted in such a way that (for the most part) equity is at the forefront of our justice system. There are now systems in place to aid individuals so they don’t have to suffer in silence.