Melissa Crawley, Woman Who Overturned “False Reporting” Law, Reveals Racist Justice System
Melissa Hill & Jaime Hokanson for TC Indymedia
Beyond the headlines, many stories from communities across Minnesota tell a different tale of the criminal justice system than what we usually hear. This September, Twin Cities Indymedia and other local media outlets reported that the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals overturned Minnesota’s “false reporting” of police misconduct law, deeming it a violation of First Amendment rights.
The law had been used to effectively intimidate survivors of police brutality into silence, even convicting a survivor of rape by Minneapolis police officers. But while the appellate court’s supporting opinion provides a thorough legal argument citing First Amendment protections, a recent interview with the person at the center of the case shows there is more at stake than just civil liberties issues.
Twin Cities Indymedia sat down with Melissa Crawley, a former student at Winona State University and current North Minneapolis resident, whose dramatic tale reveals that it’s not just urban areas which suffer from a systemically racist justice system. Her side of the story is ultimately an inspiring example of choosing to fight--and winning.
No Protection Under the Law
The story took many twists and turns before reaching the issue of “false reporting.”
Melissa, an African-American mother of four, moved to Winona in 2006 to attend the state university, studying criminal defense law. Along with her children, she became part of the less than 5% non-white minority in the southeastern Minnesota city along the Mississippi.
She didn’t know that soon, she would put the skills learned in her studies to use in her own defense.
Heading one of the few families of color in Winona, as well as being a recipient of Section 8 housing, it quickly became apparent to Crawley that she was not welcome in the city. Her children were often called racist names, she says, and school administrators ignored complaints.
“It was a struggle living there - not just myself but my children too,” she says. “I would get triple ID’d even though they [the bank] saw me everyday, and it was a hassle to do returns at the store.”
One night in the rain, Melissa became involved in a large argument with a neighbor. She flagged down a passing police officer, whom she characterizes as having a “so what” attitude. Exercising what she thought was a citizen’s right to police services, Melissa sought a misdemeanor disorderly conduct charge against the neighbor.
She was told that if she wanted action, she’d "have to write her own police report" and place the other person "under citizen’s arrest". After asking why, the officer said, “The other woman claimed you pulled a gun on her.” Melissa called the bluff, and called for a Sergeant. To him, she asked, “What are you guys for? What if I couldn’t write?”
Melissa did write the report herself. At the eventual court date, however, she requested the charges against her neighbor be dropped. In her own words, Melissa “would much rather not have charges brought against [the neighbor] or pay any fines, as she had small kids.”
The city prosecutor, Nancy Bostrack, was taken aback, but dropped all the charges against the neighbor after this request.
(Bostrack’s husband Paul, it should be noted, was a patrol officer at the time, and is currently Winona Chief of Police. Nancy has since become a judge.)
While this incident could have been small in retrospect, it was the first indication that the courts and police had their own agenda to not provide services to communities of color--and particularly not to people like Crawley who knew their rights.
The experience highlights a double bind for marginalized communities interacting with the police: seek police services with good will and be refused help or ridiculed, or exercise the right to remain silent, avoid police and become assumed to be a criminal.
A few months later, animosity with the same neighbors resulted in a second, escalated incident. The neighbors crowded outside her house and when Melissa refused to answer the door, began to damage her car - busting a back window, striking the bumper with a crowbar, and stuffing a chocolate bar in the gas tank.
“I saw a whole bunch of chocolate stuffed in my gas tank. Candy bars--it looked like Snickers,” Melissa remembered, shaking her head.
Despite the obvious damage and photos taken by police at the scene, including of the chocolatey, sugary mess, the officers downplayed the damage, and claimed the gas tank hadn’t been tampered--directly contradicting their own evidence.
Police stated they couldn't arrest anyone who was merely violating a misdemeanor, even though the damage may well have been over $1,000--a felony. To get around that fact, police filed one report for the damaged bumper, and another for the window.
“What they didn’t understand was that I was going to school for all of this,” Melissa recalled. She had to call the Sergeant over the phone: “I had over a thousand dollars of damage to my car and you have officers refusing to take a police report.”
Once again, Melissa had to file a citizen’s arrest to move the case forward. In April of 2007, the prosecutor’s office declined to take this case.
After this incident, Melissa spoke to the Chief of Police. The issues on her block had escalated enough to also warrant a community meeting called by police, which Melissa willingly attended--finding herself one of only two black community members in attendance. She says she ran into a “lynch mob mentality” in both meetings, in which she and the black community were harshly criticized for a perceived reliance on Section 8.
Some of her only support, she remembers, was in her classes at the university.
Attacked & Fighting Back
On a hot July night in 2007, Melissa was brutally beaten with a bat. She could name the attackers, familiar from previous feuds, but no one was arrested.
Melissa recalls that as she was interrogated by police after this attack, their questioning “just didn’t make sense.” She was asked the same questions over and over by different officers, she remembers, as if they were trying to trap her--a common police tactic. It was then that she began to suspect something might be seriously wrong.
Between 2-3am the same night, Melissa went to the hospital, where she was shown the bat prints on her body for the first time. Police refused to come to see this new evidence, telling her instead to go to police station to make a report.
Oddly enough, a year later she would be charged with assault in this same attack that left her beaten.
Meanwhile, her rent assistance was threatened. She got a letter from the housing authority saying it would be terminated due to alleged criminal activity; the letter was also illegally sent to her landlord. Melissa challenged that, and a retraction letter was sent.
Even the local human rights department in Winona failed to look into this case. Melissa filed a nine-page report against officer Paul Bostrack; it was never discussed by this organization in their public hearings. They took it and that was it.
As in dealing with most bullies, Melissa felt that her only option was to stand up for herself if the police were not going to take seriously the constant harassment, harm and threats towards her family.
Her neighbor’s house was the target. “I picked up a brick and I busted her window out. I know that was wrong but at that point I didn’t feel any recourse. I knew that if I kept calling the police, I would keep being the victim and the police would keep coming out and doing the same,” Melissa recalls.
The incident made the front page of the Winona Daily News, with inaccurate information from a police liaison being the only source. (A partial retraction was later published inside the paper. Another Daily News story about Melissa was loaded with inaccuracies and required a retraction as well, although Melissa says the original stories without correction still show on a web search for her name.)
She was charged with felony criminal damage to property for breaking a small window; the repair estimates varied wildly, but prosecutors persisted until selecting one in the felony range.
By this point, Melissa had enough of Winona, and despite being a honor student, decided to end her studies at WSU and move back to Minneapolis. As happens often in the courts, she opted to plead to a misdemeanor in hopes that her ordeal would be over. Her plea agreement waived the right to a restitution hearing, preventing a challenge on the amount of damage.
Not over yet
One year later, she googled her name - and what she found was astonishing.
Prosecutors in Winona had been looking for her - but instead, she found them.
She found that she was now facing charges from the bat attack in which she was the one to land in the hospital. Eight felonies, in fact. Facing seven years in prison, Melissa was advised to take another plea deal by her lawyer.
Instead, learning from her previous experience with the justice system, she plead not guilty eight times and took it to trial.
At the trial, the prosecution’s witnesses seemed fishy to her. “They all answered their questions in the exact same manner, with the exact same words: ‘I don’t recall’.”
In the end, Melissa was acquitted of all charges. Prosecutor Nancy Bostrack, who wasn’t assigned to the case, attended the reading of the verdict anyway. Melissa remembers Bostrack was visibly angry at the result..
But she and the other prosecutors weren’t finished. Now, they sought to convict Melissa of filing a false police misconduct report.
Reviewing her discovery, Melissa had noted that her medical record release form seemed forged. In particular, the signature was unlike her own, and in general “the handwriting didn’t look like mine,” she recalled. Combining this evidence with her previous negative interactions with the Winona police, she believed the form may have been forged by them to gain access to her records--and she said so.
“If everyday you walked out the door and I saw you punch me in face,” Melissa states about why she thought police were responsible, “who do you think I am going to blame the next time it happens?”
A nurse later claimed that she witnessed Crawley sign the release, but hospitals are frequently known to cooperate with police demands over the desires of patients.
Thus, while acquitted of the assault charges, her victory turned into yet another ordeal. She spent 10 days in jail and lost her collection agency job back in the Twin Cities. She hasn’t worked since.
“This has been hell on me and my family.”
At the false reporting trial, Melissa had to leave Minneapolis, and her kids, at 6am to be in Winona for court in the morning before “openly racist” Judge Jeffrey Thompson.
Melissa found a marked difference from Thompson’s demeanor toward white defendants versus toward her. Besides simply berating her in court, she noticed that Thompson patiently explained defendants’ trial rights to whites, while to Melissa, he used a roundabout reference to the movie “Shrek 2,” as if she wouldn’t be able to understand her rights in plain English.
She also found little support from her attorney. “My public defender was a public pretender. He wasn’t fighting for me. I researched these laws. I took the time to find the case laws.” When it came to Thompson’s racist attitude, the defender dismissed it as simply the Judge’s “personality.”
They lost the original case--but Melissa was determined to succeed at the Minnesota appellate court.
She contacted Jill Clark, the well-known Twin Cities police brutality lawyer, and learned about Communities United Against Police Brutality’s legal challenge to the false reporting law. CUAPB had been fighting the statute for years.
“I was heart-broke when I heard the challenge wasn’t going well,” Melissa said. When the court dismissed CUAPB’s case, she read the ruling and made sure CUAPB’s “unproved” points were solidly addressed in her own motions.
She also found a similar case in California, where in 2005 the 9th Circuit overturned a statute nearly identical to Minnesota's law. "Because [the law] targets only knowingly false speech critical of peace officer conduct," wrote a 9th Circuit judge in the majority opinion, "we conclude that the statute impermissibly regulates speech on the basis of the speaker's viewpoint.
Combining her research with some attorneys who helped file it, and “friend of the court” (amicus curiae) briefs by the ACLU, the case went to the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals where the decision was issued this September in favor of overturning the law on First Amendment grounds.
“Because the statute singles out a limited category of otherwise unprotected statements for criminalization and the limited category does not meet the exceptions to content-based discrimination established by the United States Supreme Court” - that is, false statements against cops are deemed criminal while, for example, cops’ false statements against citizens are not - the court reversed the original decision.
It also wrote, “The state cannot allow pro-police witnesses to “fight freestyle” by tolerating them making knowingly false statements that cover up police misdeeds but impose “Queensberry rules” on complainants asserting police misconduct by exposing them to the risk of criminal sanctions if their complaints are later determined to be misrepresentations.”
Ironically, the court looked to a 1992 U.S. Supreme Court decision written by right-wing justice Antonin Scalia, which overturned a St. Paul city ordinance against cross burning on similar grounds.
"I wouldn't wish this on my worst enemy"
Despite the long fight that cost her a job, financial support, and emotional strain, Melissa feels that fighting was worthwhile.. “No one should be afraid to tell what happened to them for fear of prosecution. No one should be given that much authority over someone,” Melissa said. “This is one for the underdog.”
The case is now going to the Minnesota Supreme Court sometime in the spring of 2011 as the prosecution filed an appeal on the appellate court decision.
Melissa's advice to those in similar situations: “Research those laws yourself. Don’t take just the public defender’s word. Don’t just start pleading guilty to things you didn’t do,” she suggests.
That advice would likely resonate with activists who found themselves in a similar situation after the 2008 RNC in St. Paul, and who, before their own court dates, watched defendants--mostly of color--railroaded into pleas by mostly white prosecutors, defense attorneys and judges.
There is a little more support in Minneapolis versus Winona, Melissa says, since in a small town everyone knows each other - including juries and prosecutors. This makes fair interactions with the justice system impossible in a structurally racist society--witness, for example, the husband/wife, cop/prosecutor turned police chief/judge pair in Winona.
Here in the city, Crowley’s kids attend Sojourner Truth Academy, Prestige Academy, and North High, all on the city’s north side. She knows police brutality and misconduct is a problem everywhere.
“I’ve also been a victim of police brutality and know many others who have as well - the climate is that they won’t do anything, so [many people think] why report it?,” she says. “How come we never hear good cops turning in bad cops?”