“Until the Lion Learns to Write”

(Some observations on the trial and conviction of Mark Ridley-Thomas)

There’s a saying, “Until the lion learns to write, every story will glorify the hunter.”

Since Mark Ridley-Thomas (MRT to those who know him well) was indicted on 19 counts of federal corruption charges on October 13, 2021, he has been criminalized in the press, in the halls of city government and even by some in our community.

It has been said that when the Feds come for you, you can’t win because they have the goods, which is why 90% of the cases never get to court. Of those that do, most lose. But in a downtown L.A. courtroom last month, the picture painted of the work the Feds did to convict Mark Ridley-Thomas was a shoddy one—even given a subsequent conviction on seven of 19 counts. The lead FBI agent—and star witness— never interviewed anyone in the Supervisor’s office or sought to understand how the County Board of Supervisors operates. He also could not remember if he read files his office supplied and was tripped up by defense lawyers at every turn.

The prosecution said the MRT case was one of power, privilege and lies. Defense counsel Darralyn Durie agreed. But the power, she insisted, rested with the FBI.  Let’s pause for a moment there.

The L.A. Times recently reported that MRT raised over 1.5 million to fight this case and it still isn’t enough to cover the expense the trial will cost him. They estimated that his legal fees were likely to be anywhere from $3-5 million given his highly experienced team of lawyers. (And that my friends means that if the Feds come after us, we’re most likely guaranteed to lose everything we’ve worked a lifetime to earn and given the odds, could still possibly lose our cases in court).

Is it any wonder why people opt for plea deals?

Justice ain’t cheap. Perhaps that’s why 84-year-old former USC Dean Marilyn Flynn, who at first pleaded not guilty, would later take a guilty plea.

According to a Pew Research Center analysis of data collected by the federal judiciary in 2018, nearly 80,000 people were defendants in federal criminal cases, but just 2% went to trial. The overwhelming majority (90%) pleaded guilty. Translated into numbers, just 320 of 79,704 total federal defendants – fewer than 1% – went to trial and won their cases.

Here’s another harsh fact: over 60% of the people who sit in jail at any given time have not been convicted of crimes. They just can’t afford bail. Never mind the money it takes to go through a pre-trial or plea process and the expense of a trial.

As to privilege? Certainly, with the kind of power the Feds exert comes privilege. They have the privilege of making mistakes with very few repercussions and the privilege of a bottomless pit of resources thanks to our tax dollars. In short, they have nothing to lose and that is privilege at its best.

As to the lies. Well, Durie said she wouldn’t call the prosecution team liars, instead she pointed to the mountain of evidence they left out of their timeline in the case against Ridley-Thomas, and growing up in my household, not telling the whole story was tantamount to lying. But who’s arguing semantics.

So, forget power, privilege and lies. What the U.S.A. Vs. Mark Ridley-Thomas really boiled down to was optics. This was a case of nods, winks and emojis, accompanied by interpretation and suspicion.

Funny thing about optics is that you can twist them any way you want. For some, the optics of the case suggested a political hit. After all, the letter from USC initially referring the matter to the U.S. Attorney’s office back in 2018 was signed by Rick Caruso, followed by a story in the L.A. Times disclosing the investigation of Ridley-Thomas (as was USC’s documented “wishes” in the lead FBI agent’s publicized notes).

Ironically, it was never any secret that Caruso was going to run for Mayor since he’d been considering it as early as 2011. Of course, he would have had to beat MRT, who was also weighing a mayoral bid at the time. That said, Caruso would stand to gain a lot from an L.A. Times story meant to disparage the man he might one day run against. (Course, if you’re like me, you’re wondering how that angle got past the L.A. Times or if they allowed themselves to be part of some kind of political vendetta to bring the city’s most influential Black powerbroker down?)

Coincidence? Optics?

There are those—including me—who believe the Times coverage of the case has been slanted. Interestingly, a Times staff writer freely disclosed in his August 1, 2018 article—“Donation from prominent L.A. politician roils USC, which referred case to federal prosecutors”—that, “The newspaper provided USC a summary of its reporting; the university corrected minor points”.

(Minor note: the donation that so roiled USC was found in court to be lawful—a point even the jury agreed on).

Nevertheless, the consensus in journalism is that your source shouldn’t be the editor and that they shouldn’t be allowed to read and make edits to a story in advance. Surely not standard practice in highly regarded mainstream newspapers.

Just more optics?

I was recently on a panel addressing why local Black media is so important. Well, folks, it’s moments like these when the Black press can shed light on key parts of a story the mainstream press has decided to omit. (Check out our April feature—U.S.A. Vs. Mark Ridley-Thomas: “Political Takedown or Miscarriage of Justice”— for the other side of the story, including some of the jury foreperson’s curious statements).

And remember, “until the lion learns to write, every story will glorify the hunter”.

More on this story to come. In the meantime, keep the faith.

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