'Because they can get away with it': Why African Americans are blamed for crimes they didn't commit: Experts

African Americans make up 49% of wrongful convictions since 1989.

May 31, 2020, 6:50 AM

A panicked white woman in New York City's Central Park calls 911 to say that a black man threatened her and her dog.

A Florida mom claims two black men abducted her son, who had autism, and was later found dead.

But the harrowing story from Manhattan was just that -- a tall tale about about a potential assailant, but a bird watcher. And the supposedly terrified mother, police say, was never confronted by two abductors, but instead has been charged with killing her son.

Both the phony 911 call and the alleged kidnapping story follow, experts say, the stereotypical notion of black men as criminals and the ingrained racism that has existed in American society for generations. Although some may find it shocking that people are still resorting to these tropes, experts say that a culture of relative impunity has allowed it.

"It's because they can get away with it. They do it because the criminal justice system is not going to give them consequences," said Gloria Browne-Marshall, professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

Patricia Ripley, the Florida mom, was charged with first-degree premeditated murder on May 23 after Miami, Florida, police said that in her initial report her son, who was non-verbal, was abducted by "two black men" during a carjacking was a farce.

During the manhunt for the two vaguely described alleged abductors, police say they found surveillance video that allegedly showed 45-year-old Ripley attempting to drown her son in a canal. Police say neighbors heard screams and rescued the boy, but an hour later, Ripley allegedly drowned the child in another canal, police said. Ripley is expected to be arraigned on June 12 and it was not clear if she had an attorney. "We don't agree about what they said about my wife," said Aldo Ripley, the father of Alejandro Ripley, after Patricia Ripley's bond hearing on May 23.

This photo provided by Miami-Dade Corrections and Rehabilitation shows Patricia Ripley. | Susan Smith is shown in this Oct 2, 1994, file photo.
Miami-Dade Corrections and Rehabilitation via AP | Bob Leverone/KRT via Newscom

The allegations surrounding Ripley were reminiscent of Susan Smith's October 1994 story to South Carolina police that her two sons, aged 1 and 3, were kidnapped by an African American man during a carjacking. Smith, now 48 and serving 30 years to life prison sentence, confessed that she actually let her car roll into a lake with the boys inside, drowning them.

Smith, a white woman, and Ripley, who described herself in a police report as a "white Hispanic," were not charged with filing a false police report.

Susan Smith is escorted into the Union County Courthouse in Union, SC., on July 27, 1995.
Lou Krasky/AP

In the second recent incident, Amy Cooper was seen on a now-viral cellphone video on May 26 frantically telling a 911 operator that the African American man recording her, Christian Cooper, was threatening her life after asking her to put her dog on a leash (she earlier told him, on camera that she would do exactly that). Dogs are permitted off-leash during certain hours, but not in the section of Central Park they were in.

Amy Cooper has since been fired from her investment firm job and apologized for her actions, saying "I am not a racist." The New York City Commission on Human Rights launched an investigation into the incident.

This image made from a May 25, 2020, video provided by Christian Cooper shows Amy Cooper with her dog talking to Christian Cooper at Central Park in New York.
Christian Cooper via AP

Tim Wise, an anti-racism activist and author of the 2004 book "White Like Me: Reflection on Race from a Privileged Son," compared Amy Cooper's actions to "a white woman in the Antebellum South lying about a black man raping her and then maybe getting exposed." Wise said the woman's thoughts would likely be "oh, my life is ruined now. Everybody's going to think I'm a liar."

Instead, she should have been thinking about the potentially dire consequences of her claims, Wise said. "Gee, maybe you shouldn't have tried to get this man killed," he said. Nearly 3,500 black people were lynched in the United States from 1882-1968, according to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

Browne-Marshall maintained that white people jump to blaming African Americans, specifically African American men, for crimes in some cases because they don't want to believe they themselves are "the Boogeyman."

"They do it because in their minds, they are the victims no matter what they have done to every group of color, they still see themselves as victims," said Browne-Marshall. "That brother [Chris Cooper] could have been killed based on that white woman's lies. How many black people generally, and black men in particular, have been murdered on the lie of a white woman?"

In an infamous case from 1955, 14-year-old Emmett Till was beaten and lynched after a white woman falsely accused him of touching and whistling at her. The woman admitted she lied about the incident in 2017. Six years prior to Till's murder, four African American men were falsely accused of raping a 17-year-old white woman in Florida. Labeled the "Groveland Four," three were arrested and several beaten as the fourth escaped. The fourth man was later found by a mob, which shot him to death. The accuser maintained she was telling the truth, but the men were pardoned in 2019.

In this Oct. 26, 2019, file photo, Tim Wise speaks onstage during the 2019 Politicon at Music City Center in Nashville.
Ed Rode/Getty Images for Politicon, FILE

Falsely reporting African Americans for crimes has happened on a number of other occasions and is not exclusive to white women.

--In 1989, Charles Stuart reported to police that this pregnant wife was shot to death by an African American man during a carjacking in a predominately African American community in Boston. He then pointed out an innocent African American man in a police lineup.

It wasn't until Stuart's brother told police that he helped with the murder in an alleged insurance fraud scheme that the truth surfaced. Stuart died by suicide the following year.

--In 1992, Jesse Anderson falsely reported that two African American men attacked him and his wife in Milwaukee. His wife was stabbed dozens of times to death. Anderson went as far to give police a hat that one of the alleged assailants were wearing. The investigation found that Anderson bought the hat and the knife used to kill his wife. He was convicted of her murder and in 1994 died after a prison beating.

This undated photo made available by the Georgia Department of Corrections shows former police officer, Sherry Hall.
Georgia Department of Corrections via AP

--Sherry Hall, a Georgia rookie police officer, falsely claimed in 2016 that an African American man shot her. According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Hall described her assailant as a 6-foot, 230-pound African-American man wearing a green shirt and black jogging pants. The Georgia Bureau of Investigation got involved and found her story to be a lie. She was charged, convicted and sentenced to 15 years in prison on a range of charges including making false statements.

Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum and former Boston police officer, told ABC News on Friday he remembers the Stuart investigation as "a nightmare."

"With a serious crime like that, police have to believe the victim, but they also have to check the information," said Wexler, who did not work on the Stuart case. "What it did was create racial issues in the city. Police stopped a number of African American men and police got criticized for racial profiling."

The man who Stuart identified in the lineup, Willie Bennett, stood accused of the crime until Stuart's brother came forward. Bennett spent 12 years in prison on an unrelated robbery charge.

In this Oct 23, 1989, file photo, police investigate Charles Stuart's car at the shooting scene on St. Alphonsus Street in Mission Hill in Boston.
Tom Herde/The Boston Globe via Getty Images, FILE

Dr. Rheeda Walker, a licensed clinical psychologist, told ABC News on Thursday that the consequences of African Americans being falsely blamed for crimes can transition to "internalized racism."

"Over the course of generations, some, not all, but some black people start to internalize this notion that 'I don't matter, my life doesn't matter' because the messaging is so pervasive...these narratives gets warped into not only are you not human, you're a violent person," said Walker.

Walker said that African Americans are sometimes seen as potentially violent simply because of their skin tone.

"It is out of our control and I think that's the part of what gets to be really, just hurtful because skin is something that you are born with, yet is perceived as a weapon or by your inherent birth, somehow you're dangerous," said Walker, the author of "The Unapologetic Guide to Black Mental Health."

Dr. Rheeda Walker, a licensed clinical psychologist and author of "The Unapologetic Guide to Black Mental Health."
Brandi Ali Photography

According to Walker, African Americans find themselves making daily efforts to avoid triggering a potential racist.

"You always have to live your life with these calculations, with these limitations, because you have to navigate other peoples' racist insanity," said Walker. "So, often black people do things in society to look less threatening that way other people don't have to feel threatened. It's a calculation."

Browne-Marshall, the author of "Race, Law, and American Society: 1607-Present," said that white people have "the privilege of escape, of never looking inward to determine why they have a fear of black people in the first place."

People, Wise said, are "trained" to believe negative things about African American people and "even if you're a decent person, 99.9% of the time, you are still being conditioned to react in that way."

"And so if you live in a society where you have been told to fear black folks, not just to fear, but to have contempt for black and brown bodies, to actually view them as less deserving of consideration of humanity as you, or to believe that they ought not be in your space when you're in that space or that they should have to defer to you," said Wise.

According to Walker, there's enough "misunderstanding" about who African Americans are in every level of the government, healthcare, criminal justice and education systems racial biases are passed from generation to generation.

How to deter from falsely accusing African Americans for crimes

African Americans make up 49% of wrongful convictions since 1989, according to data collected by The National Registry of Exonerations (NRE). By contrast, 37% of whites and 12% of Hispanics were exonerated during the same time period.

According to a 2017 report from the NRE, black people were seven times more likely to be falsely convicted of murder than white people, three and a half times more likely to be innocent when accused of sexual assault because of misidentification (happened in half the cases) and 12 times more likely to be wrongfully convicted in drug cases.

Like in Amy Cooper's case, the moments when a 911 dispatcher receives a call that a crime is being committed are the most crucial, experts say. Wexler says that dispatchers are trained to ask several questions before deploying officers to a possible crime scene.

"If someone says there's a suspicious man in the neighborhood and a police officer stops someone who is doing nothing it becomes a nightmare for everyone, for the person stopped and the officer who is now being accused of racial profiling," said Wexler.

Wexler said it's "frustrating" when people use the police for racial profiling, but you "cannot control citizen's discretion" on when to call the police.

According to Wexler, training police officers on how to detect implicit bias and recognize that there are citizens who want to draw police into their biases can prevent responses to calls like Amy Cooper's.

Professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice Gloria Browne-Marshall.
Courtesy Gloria Browne-Marshall

Browne-Marshall suggested that laws be created or amended "to protect, laws to give criminal consequences to people who abuse law enforcement for their own racial harassment and reform the prosecutorial system."

"So when these people are using police officers for harassment, that should be a crime and someone should pass legislation that if police officers are used for racial harassment that it should be a crime punishable of a fine...now that's action," said Browne-Marshall. "We need to put the burden on the white people to prove that it is not racism."

New York State Assistant Assemblyman Felix W. Ortiz sponsored a bill in January 2019 to amend the statute for falsely reporting an incident to include hate crimes. Ortiz posted on Twitter that if the bill passes it would make falsely reported incidents, like Amy Cooper's, a hate crime.

In this Feb. 8, 2020, file photo, NY State Assembly Member Felix Ortiz attends a rally in Foley Square in New York.
Gabriele Holtermann-Gorden/Sipa USA via AP, FILE

Ortiz's bill is still pending votes with the committee.

"If they can come up with a fine this fast for social distancing then they can come up with this," said Browne-Marshall.

Walker says, for now, it's more important to resist internal racism and be responsible for the mental health of the community "because we have that in our control."