Was Kiera Wilmot the Victim of Racism or Did She 'Play the Race Card?'

from the FBI page on improvised explosive devices[/caption]

I saw a lot of accusations of racism in the incident where Kiera Wilmot got in trouble – appropriately so – for exploding a dangerous bottle bomb, containing ingredients that combine to create a thermite explosion.

From the FBI web site:

It was late on a recent Friday night when local authorities responded to a residential explosion. They found a middle-age man with serious injuries to his left hand and face—and they also found chemicals, fuses, and empty rifle shells in the home. The man later told our agents that out of boredom he was trying to make an explosive device from a “recipe” he found on the Internet.

As bizarre as the story might seem, our experts say that people experimenting with improvised (homemade) explosives is an all-too-common occurrence.

“Probably once a month I hear from law enforcement somewhere about someone blowing their hand off while experimenting in this manner,” said Kirk Yeager, an examiner in our Explosives Unit at the FBI Laboratory who is recognized as one of the foremost experts in the area of improvised explosives.

Yeager, a Ph.D chemist who joined the Bureau about 10 years ago, created the National Improvised Explosives Familiarization Initiative (NIEF) in 2007 to address the growing concern about terrorists—and others—who mix common household materials and over-the-counter products to make dangerous explosives.

That she did not harm herself or anyone else was more dumb luck, than any care or intellect on Kiera Wilmot’s part.  Her behavior was reckless.

I have a friend of some year, who was the victim of such an explosion when he was a few years younger than Kiera Wilmot.  He and some of his friends had stolen some blasting caps, used as the detonators for dynamite, from a local quarry.  They were what are referred to as ‘traditional’ caps, with a fuse that has to be lit by a match or lighter, not the electronic detonation variety.

As kids do, particularly boys typically more than girls (but some girls too), like caps, and firecrackers, etc., things that blew up, went bang, were explosive were exciting, a sort of attractive nuisance.  This particular quarry was lax in keeping such items secure.

The result of playing with these purloined caps was that my friend took some up into his tree house.  He lit it.  It appeared to be a dud, to have malfunctioned.  He waited, but it did not go off.  As he was leaning over to pick it up, to throw it out of his small tree house, it did, finally explode, at the worst possible moment.

The result was that he was badly injured, the tree house was destroyed, along with a good part of the tree.  He was found hours later, when he didn’t come home, by his father who had come looking for him.  He was laying on the ground, covered in blood, and covered as well by a layer of light snow that fell after the accident.  He lost both hands, his forearms were damaged, and he was badly disfigured and blinded.  He had extensive injuries to his torso, abdomen and legs, particularly his lower legs that were closer to the blast.

Like the blasting caps, aluminum foil and toilet bowl cleaner/draino pop bottle bombs are very unpredictable, very volatile,  in how they explode, and in particular, how long it takes for the explosive reaction to occur.  It can vary widely; some never work.  If you peruse the You Tube collection of videos of these events, you can overhear the impatience of those setting them off, and the uncertainty if it is a good idea to approach the bottle bomb or not.  It is PART of why these kinds of improvised explosives ARE so dangerous, not just their destructive potential.

Around the same time that Kiera Wilmot got in trouble for her small, and only partially successful bottle bomb, three boys in Baltimore were arrested as well for doing the same thing.  Their bottle bombs did not work.  They were also charged with felonies.  That this is classified as a felony is because, like the blasting caps, these bottle bombs ARE that dangerous.  It is not the success or failure that makes this a serious crime; it is the damage, actual and potential. In the Florida law under which Kiera Wilmot was originally charged, the law takes into account the mitigating circumstances of damage, and whether or not the bomb worked or did not work.  This does not reflect racism, over-reach, or any unfairness in the law or in the application.  Rather it appears to be pretty standard stuff, and well founded and researched as it is drafted.

If you search bottle bomb arrests, state by state, you will find a mix of teens and occasionally younger children being arrested and charged with felonies for this activity; you will also find a mix of adults so charged too.  While it can be difficult to track the racial differences, my survey of these crimes indicated there were more white kids arrested than black or other minority or bi/multi-racial individuals, and that boys were far more frequently involved than girls.  This followed a similar pattern with adults, more white than minority, more men than women.

Of all the crimes for which we see prosecutions in this country, it appears that states are relatively uniform when it comes to defining this activity as a dangerous felony, and in prosecuting those who do so for it without any apparent racial disparity that we see in other kinds of crimes.  This does not appear to be remotely like drug crimes for example, especially marijuana prosecutions, convictions, or penalties (especially incarceration).

If anything, it appears to be that prosecution of these crimes are one of the few areas we DO NOT have racial disparity in the outcomes.

Can I say that there is never a racial disparity in how these crimes are treated individually by our judicial system? NO.  But there is no pattern, no statistical disparity the way there is in other categories of criminal offenses.  So while there might be some mean old racist prosecutor, or bigot judge sitting on a bench somewhere that behaves this way, it does not appear to be a pattern, or a common problem in frequency.

Was the prosecutor who originally was going to charge Kiera Wilmot a racist?  There were certainly angry accusations she was.  HuffPo posted this:

Would a White Girl Be Prosecuted for a Botched Science Experiment?

Kiera is, as one might expect, black. The notion of a white girl getting hauled off to jail for a harmless expression of intellectual curiosity is dubious, to say the least. And though the rise of “zero tolerance” policies in American schools should theoretically be race-neutral, that’s not the reality. According to the Dignity in Schools campaign, “students of color… are more likely to be suspended and expelled than their peers for the same behavior” and “African American students [are] 3.5 times as likely to be expelled” as whites. What happened to Kiera Wilmot is part of a broader story about racial disparities in our criminal justice system.

The answer to the rhetorical question is YES, a white girl WOULD be highly likely to be prosecuted, NOT for what is incorrectly identified as a ‘botched science project’, but she would be highly likely to be prosecuted for an illegal bottle bomb.  MOST people, male or female, who are prosecuted for this are white.  So while there unarguably IS a larger problem of students and racially based difference in treatment, this is NOT ONE OF THEM.  This does NOT fit that racist anti-minority pattern.  I would argue that if we are to successfully oppose racism, we have to first correctly and accurately define those things which demonstrate racial disparity or unfairness in the treatment of any minority group in comparison and contrast to majority demographics, from those which do not.  In defining this prosecution as some kind of racism, we fail to do that.

Did ANYONE who made the racist charges look at the statistics for pop bottle or other related crimes? Apparently not — for which I blame the media.  Shame on them for taking these accusations at face value and not verifying if they were correct or not.  That is sloppy, that is lazy, that is not fulfilling the duty of the Fourth Estate.

Another way in which this was alleged to be a miscarriage of justice, and therefore somehow part of the pattern of judicial racial disparity – a bit of a reach at best – is that Kiera Wilmot was being treated wrongly or differently because she did not demonstrate malicious intent.

A simple reading of the actual law shows that malice is not a criteria, except possibly in the facet of the law with which she was NOT charged, where the explosive device is INTENDED as a weapon.  Rather she was charged, quite fairly, for WILLFUL POSSESSION, which requires ONLY that it was done deliberately, not accidentally.  No one is claiming here that this was an instance of accidentally combining of the ingredients, for example.  So again, this is not some over-zealous prosecutor out to improperly charge a black girl.

And let’s look closer at this notion that because she was a good student, and black, that somehow the law should apply differently to HER.  I don’t have any problem with say, preferential car insurance rates for students who are regularly on the honor roll.  Statistically, they have fewer accidents; it makes sense, there is a valid correlation for that preferential treatment.   But as a white female former honor student, I don’t see why the law should apply any more OR ANY LESS, OR ANY DIFFERENTLY, because of my IQ, my grades, or if I’m popular or any other superficial or unrelated characteristic.

In eradicating racism, we seek to have equality, not just a different kind of preferential treatment.  In eradicating sexism, we seek to treat people equally in the law, regardless of gender.  This appears to be a case where Kiera Wilmot was seeking preferential treatment on the basis of gender, and on the basis of her grades – which should not matter at all.  Fairness should mean that a person is held accountable for what they did or did not do, and that they did or did not mean to do it.

Further, in comparing this event to a completely different incident, where charges were dropped against  a white teen, was wrong.  Rather, given that so far as I can see, there has been no prior complaint of discrimination by this prosecutor, the correct thing for the press to do was to compare how this crime of a pop bottle bomb was treated, compared to OTHER POP BOTTLE BOMB ARRESTS.  The disparity is too great, the events too dissimilar, for a valid comparison between an accidental shooting and an intentional bomb incident.  Again, the point is, we cannot effectively oppose racism, if we do not fairly and objectively define it.

IS some form of racism in prosecution even the greater problem in our criminal justice system disparity?  Take a look at those in jail, those convicted, and ask yourself how many of them also reflect an economic and resource disparity.  How much does that inequity reflect a disparity in how our judicial system, which is intended to be an adversarial system, operates — or fails to operate?  In particular, in Florida, this is significant, because the State Supreme Court of Florida just last month, ruled that Florida public defenders could withdraw or decline a case based on excessive workload and being underfunded.

-2-So. 3d 798 (Fla. 3d DCA 2009), and State v. Bowens, 39 So. 3d 479 (Fla. 3d DCA 2010).
1 Whether section 27.5303(1)(d), Florida Statutes (2007), which prohibits a trial court from granting a motion for withdrawal by a public defender based on “conflicts arising from underfunding, excessive caseload or the prospective inability to adequately represent a client,” is unconstitutional as a violation of an indigent client’s right to effective assistance of counsel and access to the courts, and a violation of the separation of powers mandated by Article II, section 3 of the Florida Constitution as legislative interference with the judiciary’s inherent authority to provide counsel and the Supreme Court’s exclusive control over the ethical rules governing lawyer conflicts of interest?

While I would not suggest that defining and understanding our problem with the criminal justice system and racial disparity is ONLY one of funding, and adequate defense of those charged, in looking at a prosecutor who does NOT appear to have acted from racism, and the larger context of problems with defense of criminals where racial distribution parallels financial disadvantage, it is only logical to look at the issue of underfunding our judicial system, an adversarial system, on behalf of those who find themselves defendants.  That this decision acknowledging the problems of providing adequate defense came out on May 13, 2013, certainly should have been raised in discussing racial disparity in our judicial system MORE than making poorly founded accusations of racism.

That THIS was not even remotely raised in a single source on the topic of Kiera Wilmot’s bottle bomb seems to me to be a further confusion of the issue of racism, including the subset of racism for minors or students.  Rather it appears to me that what conservatives tend to refer to as ‘playing the race card’ by which they mean gaining a racial preference by incorrectly and dishonestly claiming discrimination appears to have occurred.  And this time it was the ACLU which appears to have directed the playing of the race card, because I see no indication that either Kiera Wilmot or her parents had that kind of expertise; however they do seem to have gone along with the tactic.

I am sad that a person who claims to be so unjustifiably accused would instead even more unjustifiably accuse others.  I am beyond disappointed that the ACLU would misrepresent a dangerous stunt as a common science experiment – it is not – and would so calculatingly trade on the very concerns about the real problem of racism where there doesn’t appear to be a valid case of it. And the greatest shame is on our media, for botching the job of asking the question “Is this true?” in the coverage of Kiera Wilmot and her bottle bomb (NOT science experiment).  People – we, the readers, as well as authors – MUST ask and answer this question, but we should also be challenging our media when they fail to do so, because it is their essential duty.