The bond between them
Jill Webb and Victoria Jabara fight for the poor and the dead
Jill Webb with Victoria and Rami Jabara
It is a story with too many beginnings.
In September 2016, about a month after her brother Khalid was shot to death on his front porch, Victoria Jabara and her sister-in-law Jenna talked to me about hate crimes, bail, and a legal system often incompetent and heartless.
I guess you could say, the system—failed us. Even the DA said we did everything right. We filed protective orders, we stayed on top of the district attorneys—[Stanley Vernon Majors] ran over my mom with a car, and he got out. I mean, why did he get out in the first place?
Almost a year later, in September 2017, Jill Webb, a former public defender—who, as it turns out, represented Majors immediately after he was charged—talked to me about her passion for the law, her client, and defending the indefensible:
There’s nothing I could say to alleviate her guilt or understand her pain. By the same token, I don’t think that Stanley getting good representation is an insult to her brother.
Jill and Victoria hug when they meet. I invited them to lunch because I want to see them together, see their energies in the same room, and see what common ground looks like. Rami Jabara, Victoria’s and Khalid’s brother, joins us as well.
I want to say this again: They hug.
Maybe this is the beginning
Maybe it’s the middle and the end.
Maybe this is the story.
Maybe it’s all you need to know.
We need to back up even further.
In August 2016, Majors shot Khalid Jabara dead outside his own home. Majors was jealous his husband had befriended Khalid. He was also an unhinged bigot who hated Muslims (which the Jabaras were not), as well as blacks, Latinos, and a dead Oral Roberts, whom he called a “fa—ot.” A year before that, the Jabaras filed (and received) protective orders against Majors after he sent emails in which he wrote “F—k you Arabs. F—k you, bastards” and broke into their cars. He ignored the orders, and the threats continued.
Majors then ran over Haifa Jabara, Victoria and Khalid’s mother, with his car, injuring her. He was arrested and denied bail. He stayed in jail for a month. When his case was kicked up to district court, as these cases usually are, Judge Bill LaFortune unconscionably, but not inexplicably, set bail—first at a tragically laughable $30,000, and then, after objections from almost everyone, an equally absurd $60,000, which Majors posted. He was allowed back to the house, next door to the Jabaras, next door to the home of the woman he allegedly ran over, next door to the people he had been threatening.
And then he murdered Khalid.
“How did it go when you first met each other,” I ask Jill.
“I think it was more difficult for you,” Jill says, motioning to Victoria, “because you were grieving.”
“Jill reached out,” says Victoria, returning the gesture.
Bail is the security posted by the court to ensure the accused will appear at trial. Bail can be posted in the form of cash or in the form of a bail bond, usually 10 percent of the bail. The jails are filled with people who can’t make bail: poor people, Jill’s clients, many of whom are there for misdemeanors. Majors tried to run over a woman with a car, but he had money.
He got out.
This is what brings them together.
The sums that families lose in the for-profit bail system is striking. Over a five-year period just in the state of Maryland, families of people who were accused of crimes and went on to be cleared of any wrongdoing parted with around $75 million in non-refundable bail-bond payments, according to the report. Looking at discrepancies by race makes the findings even bleaker. In 2015, fewer than 5,000 families in New Orleans together paid $4.7 million in non-refundable premiums, and black families paid 84 percent of bail premiums and fees city-wide that year.
“Right after my brother died, there’s a car with the license plate IOBJECT outside Majors’ home,” says Victoria. “Who dares visits him? Of course we’re shocked. Of course we’re indignant. I mean, what douchebag does that?”
It was Jill. It was her car. She was at the house because it was her job to be there, but also because Majors’ husband, Stephen Schmauss, was dying. (He eventually did in April 2017.) Jill went with an investigator to help take care of him. “We took him Ensure,” she says of Schmauss. “He had lost control of his bowels by this point.”
It’s how evil and kindness jockey for position.
Schmauss, in a story that makes no sense no matter how deep you go, said his husband, in shooting Khalid Jabara, “killed my best friend.”
“You should not be getting along,” I say to the people around me.
“That’s why this is so palatable. We come at this from every side,” Rami says.
“That’s the beautiful thing. We’re all coming at it through love,” Jill says. “There’s no way this should have happened to this family. And they recognize there’s no way this ever should have happened to other families. Both are unjust, and our experiences aren’t going to negate our sympathies.”
This is the human connection.
“This isn’t the first time I’ve reached out to families,” Jill says. “But I’m always hesitant because I don’t want to encroach. At the same time I don’t want to not acknowledge what happened because very often I’m defending someone who is guilty—like this case. It’s not a whodunit. There is a tragedy. I was really grateful to be welcomed,” said Jill of the Jabaras. “And that we might
make the system more just for everyone.”
The wrong people are getting out; the wrong people are being kept in.
Of the car incident, Jill says, “I should have parked it down the street.”
For the Jabaras, the grief has settled to some extent. Life has insisted upon it. Rami and Jenna are having a baby.
Jill stopped defending Majors when she left the public defender’s office.
You hear their anger, though.
“After [Majors] ran over our mom, and he was sitting in custody with no bond [meaning he could not get out], and then bond was set eight months later,” Rami says. “I mean, why does one judge set it one level and then it goes to district court, which is LaFortune—he’s not familiar with the case—and he sets bond? How does that happen?”
Jill, who does not want to criticize LaFortune, tries to give some context.
“It’s rare for someone to be held without bond—we want that to be the case—and LaFortune was working off of a bond schedule. What he did is commonly done by every judge.”
Rami is nonplussed.
“I emailed everybody on the damn list,” he says. “‘Are you guys crazy? How could you do this? How could you not communicate this?’”
Is it protocol, I ask Jill, to alert the families when bail guidelines are changed?
“They don’t have to,” she says.
During the hearing when it was determined Majors would get bail, Victoria said, “I should have stood up and yelled something. That’s my biggest regret.”
“It might not have helped. They might have just asked you to sit down, to leave,” says Jill, sounding more like a friend than a lawyer.
There was a gun available when Majors got home—of course there was a gun available. It probably belonged to Schmauss, who was not a felon. Should police have swept the house before allowing him to return?
But again, Jill cautions painting with too broad a brush.
“Not sweeping a house for guns is normal,” she says. On the other hand, she concedes the cops had been out to the house before. They were told Schmauss had a gun.
“They could have gone the extra mile and done more,” Jill says, “but it's not like they broke protocol, that I know of.”
Rami isn’t buying it.
“It’s like setting out the keys to a drunk driver,” Rami says.
We keep coming back to bail reform. Khalid Jabara is dead because Stanley Majors had $6,000.
How many others don’t?
“It brought awareness to me,” says Victoria, “how we could help, and how f—ed up the system really is.”
So what happens now? The three want to work together to fight the power of the bail/bond lobby in Oklahoma.
A lot of money is made on people who can least afford it.
“Who’s in [jail]? Poor people. It’s bullshit,” Jill says.
“Trying to explain this to my parents was difficult,” Victoria says. “They’re educated but don’t know the system, so they see it more black and white. ‘Why didn’t he stay in jail? Why didn’t they kill him since he killed someone?’”
There will always be more questions than answers.
“They started a library in my brother’s honor,” says Victoria of The Khalid Jabara Tikkun Olam Memorial Library at Congregation B’nail Emunah Synagogue. “They do a monthly social justice story hour. And it’s our way of honoring my brother. We don’t go to the gravesite. We go to the story hour. That’s where we feel his presence.”
Then she stops herself.
“But I don’t want a library. I mean—I do, you know . . .”
The You know hangs in the air.
In Hebrew, Tikkin Olam means “Repair of the World.”
Maybe this is the story, too.
“You look for the helpers,” Victoria says, quoting Fred Rogers. “You have to look for the good. You don’t get through it otherwise.”