Column: Mark Ridley Thomas is going to jail. But do not expect him to lose popular support


What I didn’t expect were the tears.

Almost from the start of his sentencing hearing in downtown Los Angeles on Monday, it was clear that US District Judge Dale S. Fisher wanted to make an example of Mark Ridley Thomas, the once high-flying black politician who was brought down by the crowd. Corruption scandal.

I warned him again and again, relentlessly.

“There is simply no justification for monetizing an office,” Fischer declared from the bench at one point, echoing prosecutors’ claims that he masterminded the “extortion” operation.

Read more: Mark Ridley Thomas was sentenced to 42 months in prison

At another point, after Ridley Thomas again denied that he had “crossed this line into unlawful conduct,” she complained that the former member of the Los Angeles City Council and the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors “neither accepted responsibility nor showed any remorse.” “.

“No one is above the law,” Fisher said.

Ridley then ordered Thomas to serve three and a half years in prison, pay a $30,000 fine, and subject himself to three years’ supervised release, arguing that a significant sentence was needed to prove public corruption had serious consequences.

It was at the time when about a dozen people sitting in the courtroom, crowded with the politician’s supporters, started crying. I’m talking about passing the tissue box as kind of tearful, too.

They cried for a friend. They cried for a colleague. They wept for his family and for their community in South Los Angeles. Of the many people I spoke with after the sentencing hearing, “sad” was the word I heard used most often.

Defense attorney Galia Amram summed it up: “It’s a sad day for everyone.”

How did we get to the point in Los Angeles where an elected official was found guilty Seven felonies Is participating in a quid pro quo with USC’s dean a cause for tears for people who are lawyers and current and former government employees?

One reason is that we’re talking about Ridley Thomas, the California political titan who spent decades in elected office effectively advocating for and providing resources to neglected communities of color, from financing to health care to infrastructure.

This is especially true of Black Angelenos. as I did written in the pastthe absence of a person so strong that he was called a The One Man Foundation in Black Politics It will be felt in South Los Angeles

But this is not the only reason.

In fact, I suspect that the massive amount of support that we’ve seen for Ridley Thomas over the course of the trial, the appeals process, and now the sentencing hearing, is also a reflection of the continued erosion of trust in the criminal justice system. The broad power the courts once enjoyed — at least over shaping public opinion — is further divided along party lines and in separate social media bubbles.

Attorney Galia Amram, left, and Sinclair Ridley Thomas speak to the media outside the courtroom.

Mark Ridley Thomas’s attorney, Galia Imran, left, and his son, Sinclair Ridley Thomas, speak to members of the media outside the US Courthouse in downtown Los Angeles on Monday after the politician was sentenced in a corruption case. (Francine Orr/Los Angeles Times)

This follows a long-documented trend among many institutions in America, including the criminal justice system. For example, Gallup has been measuring trust in such institutions annually since 1973 and in their institutions latest surveyit reported another decrease.

We’ve seen many extreme examples of this lately, especially when it comes to the courts.

There is former President Trump and his various indictments, which his supporters baselessly insist he is the victim of a witch hunt.

There’s also rapper Tory Lanez, who was recently convicted and sentenced to prison for shooting fellow rapper Megan Thee Stallioneven though many of his fans still, for some reason, insist he’s innocent.

Of course, Ridley Thomas was neither of those men, and the case against him—on charges of bribery, conspiracy, honest services fraud, and honest services mail fraud—was very different. But his supporters are equally loyal, their devotion drawing from decades of friendships, an appreciation of his many good deeds, and a deep understanding of the often biased way in which the criminal justice system operates against black people.

And so, from the time Ridley Thomas was charged in a complex corruption scandal two years ago until his sentencing this week, there have been marches, informal rallies and vigils held in his name.

On a Sunday evening, Bishop Byron L. Smith Sr. praying as a few dozen people, many of them elderly people who had arrived by charter bus, gathered on the recently completed Mark Ridley Thomas Bridge that spans La Cienega Boulevard, stretching into the distance. Kenneth Hahn State Recreation Area.

At sunset, he said, “The light we shed is the light that overcomes the darkness of this process.”

Like Smith Sr., who also attended Monday’s sentencing hearing, many of Ridley Thomas’ supporters have followed the case closely, regularly posting about the ins and outs of what happens in the courtroom on social media.

In those publications, theories abounded—some more grounded in fact than others—about whether the FBI was completely honest during the trial, whether mistakes were made in how the jury reached its verdict, and, most important of all, whether Racism was the trigger. Why was Ridley Thomas accused in the first place?

Read more: Column: Why Southern LA Remains Loyal to Ridley Thomas, Even When He Faces Federal Charges

With each passing month, doubts seemed to grow about the veracity of the charges Ridley Thomas was ultimately convicted of and the fairness of the legal process. By the time he was sentenced, many told me they had concluded that he should not be charged at all.

It wasn’t even about guilt or innocence.

“When he got up there and talked and said maybe it was unwise, but wasn’t it illegal? That’s what I’ve been saying all along,” said old friend Gwen Williams, as another old friend, Venetian activist Naomi Nightingale nodded in agreement. “I think he made a mistake. We all make mistakes. But do we end up in jail?”

Caroline Webb de Macias, who was once Ridley Thomas’s chief of staff, was equally appalled and disgusted.

Judge Fisher noted this on Monday when she spoke of “a portion of the population refusing to accept a guilty verdict.” Based on some conversations I’ve had in South Los Angeles, this part is probably much larger than you realize, but it’s impossible to know for sure.

Meanwhile, more than 130 people, including many current and former elected officials, have provided letters of support for Ridley Thomas before his sentencing.

Among them was Sheila Coyle, who retired from the county board of supervisors last year. She praised her former colleague, describing him as a “good and honorable man”. Jackie Goldberg, president of the Los Angeles Unified School District, called Ridley Thomas “a fighter for social justice.”

US Attorney General.  any.  Martin Estrada walks outside the Federal Courthouse in downtown Los Angeles on August 28, 2023.

US Attorney General. any. Martin Estrada walks outside the federal courthouse in downtown Los Angeles on Monday. (Francine Orr/Los Angeles Times)

Their words remind us of many Elected officials and civic leaders who have spoken out in support After the conviction of Ridley Thomas in March. They include State Senator Stephen Bradford (D-Gardena) and his longtime girlfriend, Mayor of Los Angeles Karen Bass.

Rev. William D. Smart Jr., president and CEO of the Southern California Southern Christian Leadership Conference, lamented that “it wasn’t supposed to go like this. Everyone thought he was going to be vindicated, because he’s a hero.”

Indeed, federal prosecutors never had the full public opinion on their side with Ridley Thomas as they did after the guilty pleas of former city councilors. Jose Huizar And mitchell Englander, Beside David WrightThe former head of the Ministry of Water and Electricity.

On Monday, Fischer insisted, “the entire community has fallen victim to the defendant’s crimes.” The judge went on to say that this is why she needed to impose a severe sentence as a supposed “deterrent” to any other politician who thinks about corruption.

But what happens when the guilty verdict on which that judgment is based is not taken seriously? When it is dismissed in the court of public opinion and rejected by countless people? What kind of “deterrent” is this?

Amram, an attorney for Ridley Thomas, said her client intends to pursue the appeal. Meanwhile, the veteran politician is expected to come to prison in mid-November, shortly after his 69th birthday.

Read more: Column: The fight for Ridley Thomas is a fight for voting rights? Call it the MLK strategy

“While we respect the jury’s decision at trial and the court’s decision today, there are important legal issues that need to be addressed on appeal,” Amram told reporters.

On Monday, Ridley told Thomas Fisher that although he regretted his actions, he did not break the law.

“This case is somewhere between what is clearly legal behavior on the one hand, and clearly illegal behavior on the other,” he said. “…I clearly acknowledge that the place to which I belonged was at the end of the spectrum where there would be few, if any, questions about the appearance of illegality.”

Ridley Thomas will probably go to jail thinking he didn’t commit any crimes. Many of his supporters will continue to believe the same.

No wonder there are tears.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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