In Death, Mitrice Richardson Leaves Many Questions Unanswered

In Death, Mitrice Richardson Leaves Many Questions Unanswered

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For the past year, I have lived with the terrible case of Mitrice Richardson.

The superficial circumstances about the case are now well known. Richardson, a 24-year-old emotionally-challenged African-American woman, was held, and then released alone, by the Los Angeles County Sheriff in the early morning hours of September 17, 2009. She then disappeared.

Her disappearance touched a national nerve. It ignited loud and anguished pleas from her parents, friends and thousands of concerned citizens, a cover photo in People Magazine, several searches of the area where she was last seen by sheriff’s deputies and teams of volunteers, and countless reports of Richardson sightings in Los Angeles and various other cities. Her remains were found in Malibu Canyon on Monday by park rangers.

Richardson’s mother, Latice Suttton, appeared twice on my radio shows asking for the public’s help to find her daughter. She then asked for my help in formally appealing to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to direct the FBI to enter the investigation. This was a more than reasonable request since Richardson’s disappearance had by then generated national publicity and outrage. There was great concern that she may have been the victim of foul play that may have involved the crossing of state lines. This made her disappearance and possible death a federal matter.

We knew that Richardson was by no means an aberration. More than 800,000 missing persons cases are on file with the FBI. Most of those are children. However, nearly 29,000 of them are adults and juveniles who are “missing under circumstances indicating that the disappearance was not voluntary," that is, by abduction or kidnapping. This made the case even more compelling. Sutton and I jointly made the request in November 2009 for Justice Department involvement. The response was the typical bureaucrat’s duck and dodge. The FBI said it was sympathetic to the plight of Richardson and her family, and would keep a close watch on developments. There was no commitment to investigate, and no promise of a follow up.

This was a double blow. The L.A. County Sheriff’s Department had vehemently denied any responsibility for Richardson’s disappearance. It exonerated itself in a lengthy report which insisted it followed proper rules and procedures. This Pontius Pilate hand wash came on the heels of the Justice Department’s refusal to take action.

But now with Richardson’s death, the questions are even more troubling. Why was she released alone? How did she die? When and how did she die? Were others involved in her disappearance and death?

The FBI and sheriff’s department’s response to the Richardson case again raised ugly questions regarding how diligently officials investigate the deaths or disappearances of African Americans, and does the press report their murders or disappearances with the same intensity as they report those of white victims.

The charge by Richardson’s family and local civil rights leaders that the police are insensitive to the disappearance and possible murder of African Americans such as Richardson is not new. Countless groups have marched, picketed and screamed loudly that law enforcement and judges impose a hard racial double standard when the victim is a young African American. The implicit message is that black lives are expendable.

Police officials and judges vehemently deny that they are any less diligent in prosecuting the kidnapping or murder of blacks, or that they expend less time tracking down leads and mounting a full-court investigation in the case of a missing person who is African American.

The tipping point is the willingness of the victim’s family and friends to go public and keep pressure on authorities to take the murder or disappearance seriously. Richardson’s family put constant public pressure on the sheriff’s department to pursue every lead in trying to find her. This made the media take note, especially mindful of the popularly dubbed “missing white woman syndrome.” After all, the public was deluged with stories about missing white women such as Jennifer Wilbanks, Chelsea King, Susan Powell, and Natalee Holloway. No tidbit of news, rumor, or gossip about these cases was deemed to insignificant to report. Richardson’s family demanded the same headline news treatment for their daughter.

But what if Richardson's family and friends hadn’t turned her case  into a cause célèbre in the media and law enforcement? Would she have been less than a mere footnote in the news?

Richardson’s death now marks another chapter in the terrible saga of her disappearance. The questions about her death are just as many as those surrounding her disappearance. Her family now more than ever needs those questions answered.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He hosts a nationally broadcast political affairs radio talk show on Pacifica and KTYM Radio Los Angeles.

Follow Earl Ofari Hutchinson on Twitter: http://twitter.com/earlhutchinson