Lessons From Wright's Life

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Judge Bruce Wright countered his critics by explaining that the 8th Amendment forbade excessive bail, and that overzealous prosecutors had a history of resorting to setting exorbitant bail to detain African American defendants. He wrote "Black Robes, White Justice," a searing expose' indicting the entire criminal justice system as racist.

The late Justice Bruce Wright lived a life that offers great lessons to our youngsters. An outstanding student, he applied to Princeton University where his application was rejected by the admissions office in a letter which claimed that the school did not have an exclusionary policy. Yet, the same note went on to say that the school had no "colored" students and ended by suggesting that he apply elsewhere.

Although Princeton would belatedly confer an honorary degree on him in 2001, Wright actually graduated in 1942 from Lincoln University, a predominantly Black college in Pennsylvania. He then enlisted in the Army and was awarded two Bronze Stars and two Purple Hearts for his heroic exploits and wounds suffered during the invasion of Normandy Beach on D-Day. After the war, he attended New York Law School before embarking on an enviable legal career in which he represented the likes of Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Max Roach and Billie Holiday. In 1970, he was appointed to the New York Criminal Court by New York City Mayor John Lindsay, and just two years later, he was already unfairly saddled with the nickname "Turn 'Em Loose Bruce" after he released an accused cop killer on $500 bail.

Wright countered his critics by explaining that the 8th Amendment forbade excessive bail, and that overzealous prosecutors had a history of resorting to setting exorbitant bail to detain African American defendants un-Constitutionally thereby often coercing confessions out of otherwise innocent people. Thus, Wright was an unapologetically activist judge who never forgot his roots, or the lifelong discrimination he had faced, first in Princeton's segregated public schools, then at the college level, while serving in the segregated armed forces, and while practicing law before the bar.

The author of several books, in 1987, he wrote "Black Robes, White Justice," a searing expose' indicting the entire criminal justice system as racist. He described the courts as, "ignorant of and indifferent to the debased reality of those who are judged." His outspoken opinions served to incense the New York Police Department which would successfully lobby for his removal from the bench.

Wright sued and was eventually reinstated, only to lose his position again when he released, without bail, a Black man arrested for allegedly slitting a police officer's throat. Though the accused was twice found not guilty of the attempted murder, Wright was essentially kicked upstairs to the Civil Court, where he served for a dozen years till his retirement in 1994.

Asked if he had any regrets, he responded: "To say that I would have done things differently means to me I would've been a good boy, kept my mouth shut, and availed myself of the benefits of the system--I don't think I could ever do that."

Besides his wife, Elizabeth, he is survived by a brother, Robert, a daughter, Tiffany, and five sons, Geoffrey, a Manhattan judge, Keith, a Democratic state assemblyman representing Harlem, Alexis, Patrick, and Bruce, Jr.

Bruce McMarion Wright was 86 when he passed away in his sleep on March 24th at his home in Old Saybrook, Connecticut. He was born in Princeton, New Jersey on December 19, 1918 to a white mother and a Black father, a baker.

Black Star News columnist Kam Lloyd Williams, Jr. is a member of the NJ, NY, CT, PA, MA & US Supreme Court bars. For more reports please subscribe to the newsstand edition of The Black Star News. Send a check or money order or to 234 5th Avenue 5th Floor, NYC, 10001. Annual subscription--$45 in New York; $55 outside New York. You can also call us at (212) 481-7745 with story ideas.

 

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