Sacramento Bee: Woman’s ‘lynching’ charge sparks call for change

March 18, 2015

State and local officials will try to remove the term “lynching” from California law after the statute, originally created to protect black detainees from angry white mobs, has been used to prosecute a woman of color in what her lawyer calls an “incredibly ironic” turn of events.

Maile Hampton, 20, will stand before a judge on April 9 and answer to a felony charge of lynching. Hampton, of Sacramento, appeared Monday in Sacramento Superior Court surrounded by more than 30 supporters.

“It’s ironic that this code section was designed and passed to protect, primarily, African Americans from vigilante justice,” said Linda Parisi, Hampton’s attorney. “But that’s not how it’s being used.”

This disconnect between the images the word “lynching” conjures – violent attacks and hangings of men and women by angry mobs – inspired local and state lawmakers to propose changing the language used in the law.

The term “lynching” in California law is associated with the crime of trying to free a prisoner from police custody in the midst of a “riot,” or two or more people threatening to disturb the peace.

It was drafted in 1933 and intended to protect suspects in police custody, particularly black suspects, from being apprehended by violent vigilante mobs.

More than 80 years later, protesters packed City Hall and called for Hampton’s release from custody in January. They held signs that said “FREE MAILE!!” and caught the attention of Mayor Kevin Johnson, who later spoke out about the law’s “painful” moniker.

“I was shocked to learn that in California, removing someone from police custody is defined as ‘lynching,’ ” Johnson said in a statement to The Sacramento Bee on Tuesday. “This word has a long and painful history in our nation and it needed to be immediately removed from California law.”

Johnson hopes that by May 1, it will be. He was expected to address the City Council about the statute’s proposed change Tuesday night.

After the January City Council meeting, Johnson called Sen. Holly Mitchell, D-Los Angeles, seeking to change the language of the law. Mitchell agreed.

“The fact that the term ‘lynching’ appears in California Penal Code in a manner contrary to what most citizens would define it is not just an anomaly; it is a racially loaded term that evokes strong reactions,” Mitchell said Tuesday in a statement to The Bee. “The current ‘lynching’ definition in code is an affront to the estimated 3,500 African Americans and 1,300 whites who were lynched in the United States between 1882 and 1962 as a means to threaten and intimidate African Americans from exercising their freedoms and their right to vote.”

Hampton was arrested following a Jan. 18 counterprotest near the Capitol during a pro-law enforcement rally. She and others were protesting police use of force in response to the deaths of several black men at the hands of law enforcement agencies around the country, including the deaths of Mike Brown in Ferguson, Mo., and Eric Garner in New York.

“(Hampton) was at a public protest to call attention to improper police practices,” Parisi said. “Now, I think we need to have an open discussion about the nature of the charges. Is this lynching law what most appropriately describes what happened if there was any illegal conduct?”

Sacramento police spokesman Doug Morse has said that Hampton’s group was walking on Capitol Mall and was told by officers to move to the sidewalk. Officers detained marchers who resisted, but as they arrested protesters, other marchers tried to pull their friends out of custody.

Morse said Hampton was later identified as one of those who had tried to free marchers and a warrant was issued for her arrest. She spent one day in jail after police arrested her at home. She has also been charged with resisting arrest.

Hampton is not the first protester to be slapped with the decades-old crime. According to media reports, several protesters involved in the Occupy movement had been charged with “lynching” from Oakland to Los Angeles over the past five years. Most of these cases resulted in prosecutors dropping the charges.

Parisi said it’s too soon to say whether that’s a possibility in Hampton’s case. She said the state should examine how the law is being used to prosecute people outside of its original intent.