Illustration depicting a Black individual linked by chains to a revolving door labeled "Justice System" while on the other side of the doors a Black individual in an orange prison jumpsuit is led away to bars by a separate set of chains.

OPINION | Yes, Mercy Can Coexist With Accountability in Our Justice System

by Marcus Harrison Green

(This article is copublished with The Seattle Times.)

I still recall the humanity in William Tolliver even as he’ll soon stand trial accused of the inhumane.

Tolliver, along with Marquise Tolbert, is charged with first-degree murder in a January 2020 downtown Seattle shooting that left Tanya Jackson dead and six others wounded. Some are still healing from the gunshot wounds suffered that day. 

Tolbert’s trial is underway. Tolliver’s will follow shortly after. 

Both 24 when arrested, they have pleaded not guilty and no verdict has been reached. But the carnage captured on video, the eyewitness testimony, and the zeal in our city for a crime crackdown has stirred a public zest for punishment. 

I’ve already heard Tolliver called a murderer, a gang member, and a monster. I don’t know if he is any of those things, but I do know that he is human.

He is the cousin of my youngest brother. 

I previously wrote about my memories of Tolliver, a child at the time my family always thought was more deserving than the environment provided him. I remember his nasally laugh and dreams of basketball stardom against a backdrop of an upbringing unsheltered from violence and drugs. 

However, I’m not interested in debating his innocence or guilt. I want to speak of humanity. Ours. 

Tolliver’s potential incarceration coincides with the ending of Kimonti Carter’s.

The 43-year-old Carter was released last month after serving 25 years of what he thought would be a life sentence for aggravated first-degree murder. 

At 18 he killed Corey Pittman during a drive-by shooting, mistaking the former Lincoln High homecoming king and aspiring lawyer for a rival gang member. 

In the years since, Carter became president of the Black Prisoners’ Caucus (BPC); founded T.E.A.C.H., a prisoner-led higher education program at Clallam Bay Corrections Center; and appeared in a documentary examining the toll of our criminal justice system on Black and Brown communities. 

On a visit to Clallam Bay in 2018 for a BPC event, I saw firsthand a man who’d been incarcerated alongside Carter return and thank him for the example Carter had set. An example of how to find meaning and purpose in life when neither existed in your life previously. 

Carter became a role model for those returning to communities, with the message that you are not defined forever by your worst mistake. 

He never once blamed anyone but himself for his predicament. 

A predicament he’d still be in if not for last year’s 5-to-4 Washington State Supreme Court ruling that sentences of life without parole given to those younger than 21 were unconstitutional.

Carter was released after a resentencing hearing sent him home with time served. His supporters were happy. Others, including Pittman’s family, were not.

Pittman’s family has every right to their feelings. There is no timetable for victim or survivor forgiveness.

It is not their job to assess the complex web of circumstance, upbringing, social environment, and generational traumas people spin out of. 

It is not their job to address cycles of violence that ravage communities — taking away mentors, teachers, fathers, mothers, friends, brothers, and sisters either by death or incarceration.

No, it is not their job to look at a human being and a racist criminal justice system in context.

It is our job. 

We should stop pitting their individual pain against the systemic pain doled out by society.

Black prisoners make up more than a quarter of the prison population serving life without the possibility of parole, while making up less than 5% of the total population. In this state, that same population is nearly six times as likely to be imprisoned as white Washingtonians. 

Washington effectively got rid of parole in 1984 and was the first state in the nation to enact the three-strikes law, handing a mandatory life sentence to anyone convicted of three felonies. At a time when pundits belligerently wail against the “cancellations” of people, we have a four-decade streak of canceling all possibilities of human growth. 

Perhaps it’s one of the reasons E2SSB 5036 has been stalled in the legislature the past two sessions. The bill would allow those with long sentences to request parole review from a board consisting of representatives from multiple walks of life, including survivors of violence, after serving 15, 20, and 25 years of time served. 

“Life without parole may seem fair on the surface, and there are people who need to remain removed from society. But we cannot be motivated in our search for justice by emotion,” said Waldo Waldren-Ramsey of racial-justice advocacy nonprofit Washington CAN, who has advocated for the bill. 

Not every incarcerated person will be Carter. Not every person will demonstrate the worthiness of a second chance. 

That isn’t the point. For the skeptical, I am not asking for the guarantee of a second chance, simply the consideration of it. I look at Tolliver and ask, “Why restrict hope from someone’s life, especially if they’ve rarely experienced it?” 

Our state, much like our country, does punishment well. It does redemption quite poorly.

For those embracing punishment, I ask you this:

At what moment does someone stop being worthy of consideration as a human being?

At what moment do we stop factoring in all that has made someone what they are?

At what moment do we allow an act of inhumanity to lead us to enact inhumane policies?

And in enacting and tolerating them, how do we ourselves not erode our humanity? 

Whatever your answer, I hope you can live with it.

Others must.

The South Seattle Emerald is committed to holding space for a variety of viewpoints within our community, with the understanding that differing perspectives do not negate mutual respect amongst community members.

The opinions, beliefs, and viewpoints expressed by the contributors on this website do not necessarily reflect the opinions, beliefs, and viewpoints of the Emerald or official policies of the Emerald.

Marcus Harrison Green

Marcus Harrison Green is the publisher of the South Seattle Emerald. Growing up in South Seattle, he experienced first-hand the impact of one-dimensional stories on marginalized communities, which taught him the value of authentic narratives. After an unfulfilling stint in the investment world during his twenties, Marcus returned to his community with a newfound purpose of telling stories with nuance, complexity, and multidimensionality with the hope of advancing social change. This led him to become a writer and found the South Seattle Emerald. He was named one of Seattle’s most influential people by Seattle Magazine in 2016 and was awarded 2020 Individual Human Rights Leader by the Seattle Human Rights Commission.

📸 Featured Image: Illustration by Vladimir Verano.

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