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We’re all in this together

Jill Webb on justice, the poor, and Oklahoma’s prosperity gospel

Attorney and former Tulsa Public Defender Jill Webb

Greg Bollinger

Last September, Jill Webb—then with the Tulsa Public Defender’s office—sent me a message about Stanley Majors, one of her clients. If the name sounds familiar, Majors allegedly shot his neighbor, Khalid Jabara, on Jabara’s front porch in a hate crime. When Webb wrote, I had just finished my column “The Killing of Khalid Jabara” for TTV with Victoria Jabara, Khalid’s sister, and Jenna Carl Jabara, Khalid’s sister-in-law.

It was a brutal time; still Webb wondered if I wanted to get together with her and Rob Nigh, the chief public defender, to talk more about the case, the process. We never did meet back then, but I was intrigued.

Webb received the President’s Award for Extraordinary Advocacy on Behalf of Citizens Accused in 2014 from the Oklahoma Criminal Defense Lawyer’s Association, she ran for judge—and lost—in the 14th District in 2014, did a stint with Peace Corps, and teaches law at the University of Tulsa. Someone this passionate about justice, the law, and America—even when involving the most horrific of cases and crimes—is why the system, when it works, works.

She also has a great Ben Franklin story.

Barry Friedman: And “justice for all”? Go.

Jill Webb: I was in a TED Talk the other day and the speaker said the opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice. So, in Tulsa County, for example, 80 percent of the felonies filed are filed against people who are indigent who have to get public defenders because they can’t bond out of jail.

Friedman: Let’s pursue this. Explain the bond process. I get arrested and what happens?

Webb: Okay, so you get arrested for beating your wife, you're brought downtown, you’re booked. So, the bond schedule says your bail is set at $25,000. If you go to a bondsman and you have $2,500, you’ll get out that night. But everybody else, they’re going to stay in there until they raise the money or until their court date, and their court date will be any where from three to six weeks away.

Friedman: And if they can’t afford the $2,500, they stay in jail?

Webb: Yes. At which time, at their court date, they’ll be offered probation, which they can take and get out of jail, or they can fight, say they didn’t beat their wife, then they’ll have to stay in jail until trial—and that’ll be a year. So what are you going to do? It puts a poor person in a position of whether to fight their case and stay in jail, lose their job, their house, if they’re the breadwinner, or they can stay on probation and do everything the court tells them to do, lose their Fourth Amendment rights and have to pay an enormous amount of fines.

Friedman: So we do away with it?

Webb: Yes. The Feds do. The Feds say whether or not you stay in jail before your court case depends on two things: 1) Whether or not you’re flight risk, and 2) Whether or not you’re charged with something that can hurt somebody. So, under the federal system, if you’re charged with murder, you’re not going to get out. It doesn’t matter how much money you have. And if you’re charge with a white-collar crime and you don’t have a record, whether you’re rich or poor, you’re getting out. The whole idea if somebody has money, they’re less dangerous is obscene. And the fact there are people sitting in Tulsa County Jail because they stole something from Walmart and, yet, someone who has been tried for murder, and has been tried three times, gets out because he can make a million dollar bond, he’s out for two years—tell me how that makes sense?

Friedman: But isn’t the problem with doing away with the system is that nobody wants to be perceived as being soft on crime?

Webb: Ultimately, I think judges—and maybe the public—are afraid, if they let more people out on bond, they’ll commit another crime, so let’s keep everybody in. But you can’t keep everyone in—the constitution won’t allow you—so we just keep the poor ones in. Here’s the frustrating part. I did a study with an assistant district attorney and we agreed to let out 100 people on a personal recognizant bond. As it turns out 80 people came back, no problem, about the same if they got out on a money bond, 10% are AWOL, and 10% were picked up on minor crimes before their court date. We also saved the county $85 thousand dollars in court and jail costs. The data was solid. The judges would not believe it was true. That lead me to believe there’s a motive other than—it’s more nefarious.

Friedman: And that is?

Webb: They hate poor people. I know that’s an indictment, but I’ve racked my brain and I can’t come up with another motivation about why you’d keep the system the way it is unless you really had a problem with people who are poor, because those are the people who are arrested the most, pulled over the most, followed and frisked the most, people who stay in jail the longest, and get sent to prison the most. And the problem is, our clients can’t come up with $500 … even $100… and by the time you get out, you’ve lost your car, apartment, your kids are God knows where. And for a hundred dollars? It’s unconscionable. And justice for all—it starts there.

Friedman: As a public defender, how does it work?

Webb: Clients are there for six days before we get appointed. We meet at the jail. I’ve got a laptop between us, I take down some information. I don’t know anything about your case, except what you’re charged with. I tell you I’ll fight like hell for you, but I probably won’t see you for another month.

Friedman: I see you after six days and then not for a month?

Webb: Yes. It’s not the PD’s don’t care. It’s because they try 350 felony cases a year when the American Bar Association says you should max out at 150. It’s catching raindrops. It’s impossible.

Friedman: Let’s talk about Stanley Majors. You represented him. First off, why was he released on bond?

Webb: It doesn’t make any sense why he was out on bond, given his history—he had allegedly run over Haifa Jabara [Khalid’s mother] before—well, it makes sense under the current system. If you have enough money, you get out—whether you are Stanley Majors, Shannon Kepler, or Robert Bates. And the poor charged with non-violent crimes sit in jail. But you want to keep people safe, so, no, he shouldn’t have had bond. I’m not criticizing the judge who lowered the bond—

Friedman: —You’re not criticizing Judge LaFortune. Because many people did.

Webb: I’m not.

Friedman: Couldn’t he have revoked bail, or raised it, after the alleged attack on Jabara’s mother?

Webb: He could have and in retrospect I’m sure he wished he would have. But what he did is standard practice. That’s why bond should be based on safety rather than money.

Friedman: Stanley Majors is in a same-sex marriage and his husband was a good friend of Khalid’s. Have you ever in your career seen such a thing?

Webb: No. I asked to be on the case because I thought if I investigated it, I would come up with a narrative that made sense.

Friedman: Did you come up with one?

Webb: Uh … no.

Friedman: Have to ask: what do you say to the Jabara family about defending Majors?

Webb: 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. Look, people say they’re glad I do this work because we shouldn’t put innocent people in prison. Yes, fabulous, no, you shouldn’t. We all agree with that. But it’s more courageous to fight for someone everyone hates.

Friedman: But you know what that sounds like?

Webb: How does it sound?

Friedman: Pretty cold. Not cold—detached.

Webb: For me, to not defend him because his crime is too horrible, is what’s cold. I have to hold the state to its burden. And if it doesn’t have enough evidence, the jury should find the defendant not guilty.

Friedman: You left the Public Defender’s office? Exhausted?

Webb: Yeah. I started a mitigation company because I wanted to show the life of the person before they committed the crime to put it into context because our system should demand that. The judge ought to know something about you besides the police report.

Friedman: Why did you become a lawyer?

Webb: I, and a friend of mine, were in this church in Chicago, an African American church—and I had never been in one—and the minister was talking about redemption and she said, ‘Raise your hand if you love someone who’s in prison.’ And every hand went up, except mine and my friend’s. And, at that moment, I realized their experience with government, authority, police was radically different than mine. And then the pastor said, ‘Keep your hand up if they have a good lawyer,’ and every hand went down. And I was in law school within a week. I got called.

Friedman: You’re kidding me with that story.

Webb: I know (laughs). But mass incarceration is the most important civil rights issue of our time.

Friedman: Because?

Webb: Lives lost, the racial disparity that goes with it, and it springs from a history of oppression. Okay, I want to ask a question.

Friedman: Go ahead.

Webb: Why is crime so much worse here in Oklahoma than other places?

Friedman: I don’t know. Poverty?

Webb: I have a theory. It’s theological. I think it’s because of the proliferation of the prosperity gospel here. If you really believe if you’re right with God, you will prosper, then the thing that’s wrong with people who aren’t prospering—who are addicted, suffering from mental illness—is they just haven’t asked Christ into their lives. And if that’s your solution to these problems, then, of course it’s their fault, and of course you don’t have to worry about them in prison. And while I think that Christianity, spirituality can lead people to do wonderful things … in this case, I think it makes us awful to each other because if it’s between you and God, I don’t have to worry about it, you and me. But we lost the body out of Christ, the notion we’re all in this together, our shared experience. The reality is that neighborhoods of color or poor neighborhoods are patrolled much differently than wealthy ones, so those people’s relationship with elected officials and police are much different than in other parts of town. As trite as it sounds, we are products of the garden in which we grow.

Friedman: Tell me about Ben Franklin.

Webb: (Laughs) So I’m dreaming and Franklin shows up and I just know he is God in the form of Ben. He says, “Jill, it’s your job to map every river and tributary in the United States.” I say, “No way. I can’t do it. There are too many and besides, every river has to be mapped 3 times—the river and both banks. It’s too much for one person.” Ben said, “The banks of the river have already been mapped. You just stay in the center and the current will take you where you need to go.”

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