September 4, 1998


Devaluing Black Life: The Murder of Sherrice Iverson

By Earl Ofari Hutchinson

Q. "Did you ask him why he killed her?"

A. "No, I did not."

Q. "The only thing you were curious about was [an explicit sexual reference]."

A. "That was the only question I asked."

"Her" refers to Sherrice Iverson, a 7 year-old, African-American girl who was kidnapped, raped, and murdered in a bathroom stall at a casino near Las Vegas, Nevada on May 25, 1997.

The words expressing such callous insensitivity about the victim were not spoken by Jeremy Strohmeyer, the 19 year old white scheduled to go on trial for the murder. They were spoken by his friend during testimony to the Clark County Grand Jury in Las Vegas over a year ago. He was in the bathroom with Strohmeyer, and witnessed at least part of the attack, but was not charged.

The evident indifference to the brutal murder of an African-American child brought to mind the horrific courtroom photos of whites charged with murdering blacks in the South — laughing and mugging for the cameras, confident that they would be acquitted by all-white juries. Murders of Emmett Till, Vernon Dahmer, Medgar Evers, and the three civil rights workers in Mississippi during the 1950s and 1960s quickly come to mind.

The case presents glaring contrasts that go beyond the issue of race. Strohmeyer was considered an extremely bright kid from a comfortable, middle-class home, who had traveled widely. The defense offers a view of Strohmeyer's life that suggests a troubled background.

But the prosecution argues that Strohmeyer — like so many of today's teens — seemed restless, frustrated and dissatisfied with life. He sought escape in alcohol, drugs and the bizarre world of kiddie sexual porn.

Indeed, according to reports in the Los Angeles Times and the Las Vegas Review Journal, his sexual fetish for children was the major motive for the crime. Prosecutors have stated that they will introduce evidence that Strohmeyer used Iverson to act out his sexual fantasies. His deep alienation was evident when he told authorities that he killed Iverson because he "wanted to experience death."

By contrast, Iverson lived in South Central Los Angeles. Her parents, low income workers, were estranged at the time of her murder. In fact, she was in Las Vegas that fateful morning with her father who regularly goes to Nevada on gambling junkets.

The Iverson murder, though heinous and shocking, has created none of the hyper-charged media frenzy of the cases of JonBenet Ramsey, age 6, presumed kidnapped and murdered in Colorado, Louise Woodward, the au pair convicted of manslaughter in a baby's death in Massachusetts, or Melissa Drexler, an 18 year old in New Jersey, who abandoned her baby at a prom.

Nor has the Iverson murder evoked the national outpouring of rage, grief and sympathy for the victim and her relatives such as we saw with the families of Ron Goldman and Nicole Brown Simpson. It has not sparked angry demands from elected officials for tougher laws — only a brief public debate immediately after the murder on the propriety of leaving children unattended at gambling casinos. The casinos denied any responsibility, claiming they provide full security, and video cameras at the arcade areas and do not encourage parents to leave their children.

Strohmeyer is being held without bail, and prosecutors are seeking the death penalty. But the effects of race, class, and social standing appear in the way law enforcement, and the media have treated the case.

Strohmeyer's friend, who did nothing to stop the attack on Iverson, was not charged, nor were friends and acquaintances of Strohmeyer whom he later told about the murder and did not report it to police. They are all young, middle-class white men.

Lengthy news features detailed the "fractured" life of the defendant, and his friends, but there were no sympathetic, human interest stories on Iverson's parents and their pain. Coverage was so sparse that Sherrice Iverson's mother, Yolanda Manuel, called a press conference in August, 1998 in Los Angeles, to ask the press to pay more attention to the suffering of her family.

There is no indication that authorities have maintained contact with Iverson's parents, advising them of developments in the case, as with the Goldmans and the Browns, and other crime victims in high profile cases.

The presiding judge will not admit statements of Strohmeyer's saying he used racist epithets to describe the murder. Prosecutors contend that surveillance videos show Strohmeyer ignoring non-black children at the arcade and chasing Iverson suggesting that Iverson was targeted in part because she was an African-American.

The murder of Sherrice Iverson is a near textbook example of indifference, insensitivity, and disdain toward black victims, no matter how young and innocent. (The rare exception comes with cases like that of Ennis Cosby, whose celebrity father's status guarantees swift justice and global coverage.) It is a highly charged case in which race, income, and public attitudes may do as much if not more than hard evidence to determine legal fairness.

The message once more for far too many is that black life is cheap, or worse expendable.

PNS commentator Earl Ofari Hutchinson is the author of "The Assassination of the Black Male Image" and "The Crisis in Black and Black."

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