Unequal Justice: African Americans in the Virginia Criminal Justice System


The Virginia Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights began receiving allegations that African American males are more likely than others to face arrest because police target them as a group and that they receive harsher prison sentences because of racial bias by prosecutors and judges. The infamous “Hampton 4” episode of 1993 brought a highly publicized trial to the forefront that became a dividing line for community opinion about whether African Americans were mistreated in the justice system.

On Valentine’s Day in 1993, a verbal altercation among patrons became a brawl at a popular bowling alley in Hampton, Virginia.[1] There were three injuries resulting from the quarrel: a white male’s arm was broken, a white female’s thumb was broken, and another white female suffered a head laceration.[2] Responding to the complaints by the injured whites, Hampton police arrested only four African American youths,[3] who later asserted that they were provoked by a racial epithet or fighting words.[4] Supporters of the arrested youth referred to them as “The Hampton 4.”[5] Among the group was Allen Iverson, then a 16-year-old high school basketball star.[6] Later that year, Allen Iverson was tried as an adult, convicted of maiming by mob, and sentenced to 20 years in prison (15 years suspended).[7] A group called SWIS, an acronym for Michael Simmons, Samuel Wynn, Allen Iverson, and Melvin Stephens (Hampton 4), was largely responsible for turning the case into a cause célèbre.[8] National media, including Sports Illustrated magazine, the Washington Post and USA Today newspapers, and network television news anchor Tom Brokaw, covered the promising athletic career of Allen Iverson that appeared to be derailed by prison.[9] African Americans seemed to believe that Iverson was railroaded to jail because his accusers were white, a vestige of Old South racism.[10]

Amid the Hampton 4 controversy, the Virginia branch of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) asked the Commission to look into allegations that justice was miscarried in the case.[11] A team of three staff persons was dispatched to monitor and investigate the allegations.[12] The resulting staff memorandum summarized allegations made by community representatives and described unsettling issues in need of further investigation.[13] After various legal developments, the Hampton 4 were released and carried on with their lives.[14] Iverson was freed from jail in December 1993, after an extraordinary grant of conditional clemency by Governor Douglas Wilder, who became convinced that Iverson was treated unfairly.[15] Iverson’s legal battle ended in 1995 when the appellate court overturned the conviction, returned the case to local prosecutors, and prosecutors declared nol pros[16] or discontinuance of prosecution.[17]

The Committee continued to receive complaints from African Americans about the justice system although the Hampton 4 controversy subsided. In response to complaints, the Committee held factfinding meetings in Hampton on March 6, and Newport News on March 7, 1997. The 2-day meeting included 22 invited speakers who addressed issues of African Americans in the justice system.

In addition to the invited panelists, the Committee also set aside 2 evening hours each day for community comment on civil rights concerns. Because of an unexpectedly large number of persons wanting to participate in the community comment session, the Committee used nearly twice the 4 hours allotted for community input. A total of 37 persons spoke or lodged complaints about the justice system, equal opportunity in education and employment, environmental justice, free speech, land use and property tax, pay raises for elected city officials, voting rights, and credit discrimination against African American farmers. About half of the community speakers prepared written statements supported by copies of court filings, complaint letters to government agencies or civil rights organizations, and news clippings. Although the span of topics that citizens presented covered important issues, this report treats only those that apply to the administration of justice.

Based on the information gathered at the public meetings and supplemented by followup research, the report is organized into three chapters and concludes with findings and recommendations. The first chapter, Citizen Complaints, summarizes problems that the Committee heard under four topical subheadings and remarks by special invited guests, such as U.S. Representative Robert C. “Bobby” Scott, Jr. (D-Va., 3rd  Dist.). Chapter two, Racial Overrepresentation, covers the treatment of African Americans in arrests and sentencing, while chapter three, Law Enforcement Treatment of African Americans, covers responses by prosecutors and police officers to citizen complaints.

[1] Iverson v. Virginia, No. 1825-93-1, 1995 Va. App. LEXIS 526 (Va. Ct. App. June 20, 1995).

[2] Hampton Circuit Court’s trial records in the Iverson case have been expunged as a result of a 1995 Virginia Court of Appeals decision to reverse the conviction and remand the case to the lower court where it was not retried. Hampton Police Department files in the case are confidential. The Committee relies on primary sources for verification of certain facts, using interviews it conducted in 1993. For example, Pat G. Minetti, chief of Hampton Police, and J.D. Spencer, investigator, Hampton Police, provided information about the complaints filed against the four black youths by the injured victims of the incident, which triggered the Hampton police’s investigation and arrests of the black youth. U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, memorandum “Status of the Hampton Four (a.k.a. Allen Iverson Report),” Jan. 12, 1994, from Ki-Taek Chun, deputy director, Eastern Regional Office to Stuart J. Ishimaru, acting staff director, p. 5 (hereafter cited as Iverson Memo).

[3] Ibid.

[4] Mark J. Moore, “The Allen Iverson verdict: Was justice really served?” New Journal & Guide  (Hampton, VA), July 16, 1993.

[5] Bryan Smith and Matt Murray, “200 rally in Hampton to show support for Iverson,” Daily Press (Hampton, VA), Sept. 26, 1993.

[6] Ned Zeman, “Southern Discomfort,” Sports Illustrated,  Oct. 12, 1993, p. 46.  For opposing viewpoint, see Ken Armstrong, “Errors fill magazine story on Iverson,” Daily Press, Oct. 26, 1993, p. 1. Sports Illustrated  published corrections to Zeman’s article on Feb, 21, 1994, citing errors in courtroom testimony as the source of mistaken facts.

[7] Iverson Memo.

[8] Using leaflets to announce weekly meetings and protest marches in support of the Hampton 4, SWIS successfully brought public attention and sympathy for the defendants.

[9] Ned Zeman, “Courted and Convicted,” Sports Illustrated, July 26, 1993, p. 26.

[10] Zeman, “Southern Discomfort,” pp. 46–47.

[11] Iverson Memo.

[12] Shaun Brown, coordinator of the legal team, public and press relations of SWIS, recalled the circumstances surrounding the Hampton 4 controversy and the reaction caused by the Commission’s investigation. She believed that the involvement of Federal officials looking into SWIS’s allegations affected the way Allen Iverson was treated while in police custody. For example, Iverson expected to be transferred to a prison following conviction, but that was delayed while his appeal continued, allowing him to remain at a minimum security farm where he had been held during trial. SWIS was certain that prison confinement would expose Iverson to dangerous criminals and was grateful to the Commission for helping create a climate in which he could remain at a less threatening facility. Shaun Brown, telephone interview, Feb. 19, 1997.

[13] These issues included: (a) Why were only African Americans arrested and tried? (b) Why were the minors tried as adults? (c) Why were complaints of bias by the prosecutor and judge not investigated?

[14] Virginia Governor Douglas Wilder granted clemency in the form of furloughs to Allen Iverson in December 1993. Similar clemency was granted when applied for by Michael Simmons and Samuel Wynn in the next month. The fourth man in the case, Melvin Stevens, who was convicted of misdemeanor charges, had already been released and was attending school. Frank Green, “2 Iverson co-defendants also get partial clemency,” Richmond Times-Dispatch, Jan. 16, 1994, p. C7.

[15] Ken Armstrong and Bob Kemper, “Wilder frees Iverson, grants conditional clemency to athlete,”  Daily Press, Dec. 31, 1993, p. 1.

[16] Common term for nolle prosequi. Lat. A formal entry upon the record by the plaintiff in a civil suit or, more commonly, by the prosecuting attorney in a criminal action, by which he declares that he “will not further prosecute” the case, either as to some of the defendants or all together. Henry Campbell Black, Black’s Law Dictionary, sixth ed. (West Publishing Co., 1990), p. 1048.

[17] Bob Evans, “Hampton will not prosecute Iverson,” Daily Press, July 27, 1995.