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Two Views On Justice
Posted 02/11/2015 12:10PM
Ellen Nachtigall Biben '83, a former prosecutor in the Manhattan District Attorney's Office

As part of the Upper School's continuing discussion about social justice, two speakers provided perspectives yesterday on how the criminal justice system works in New York.

The guests represented opposite sides of the process. A former prosecutor in the Manhattan District Attorney's Office, Ellen Nachtigall Biben '83, a Riverdale parent and trustee, is an adjunct professor at the New York University School of Law and the former head of the New York State Joint Commission on Public Integrity.

A defense lawyer, Samuel Roberts works for the Legal Aid Society. He represents people who cannot afford a lawyer; his clients overwhelmingly are people of color.

Upper School Head Kelley Nicholson-Flynn introduced the presentation with a review of the debate at Riverdale regarding the grand jury decision in the case of Eric Garner. She encouraged the students to maintain a "learning stance" on this subject, noting that there "are many truths about how race interacts with the criminal justice system."

Biben described the difference between civil courts and criminal courts, and said the processes are rooted in centuries-old practices and governed by federal and state laws. In criminal cases, she said, the purpose of the grand jury is to determine whether there is sufficient evidence to bring a case to trial. It is not a determination of guilt or a place to litigate evidence. In New York, grand jury proceedings are secret to protect the reputation of the accused and to encourage and protect witnesses.

She noted that some reactions to grand jury decisions in the Garner case, and the Michael Brown case in Ferguson, Missouri, did not reflect an understanding of the laws on which the process is based. But laws can be changed, affecting how justice is delivered. "Change is going to happen hopefully through some of your actions," she said.


Samuel Roberts, a defense attorney with the Legal Aid Society.


As an example of change, Roberts said that before 1963, people accused of crimes in some states did not have a right to an attorney. A landmark Supreme Court ruling held that states had to provide legal counsel to defendants who could not afford legal fees.

Roberts said that more than 90 percent of arrests involve the poor or indigent, and 95 percent involve people of color. Very few criminal cases go to trial. Roberts said that while his case load varies from petty violations to violent crimes, the system is packed with cases involving petty offenses and misdemeanors. These charges can lead to an overnight stay in jail even if the transgression is relatively minor.

Roberts said "good questions to have" involve how community policing is conducted in this country, whether grand jury secrecy is in the public's best interest, and whether race is a factor in achieving justice.

On Thursday, a member of the New York City Police Department is scheduled to visit the Upper School and speak with interested students and faculty about citizens' rights and responsibilities.

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