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A Black mother’s fight for justice: Georgetown Law student-attorneys file lawsuit on behalf of Kenithia Alston

August 13, 2020


Illustration by Liv Stevens

Content warning: This article handles issues of racism, police violence, and death. 

Kenithia Alston, represented by a team of student-attorneys from Georgetown Law’s Civil Rights Clinic, filed a $100 million wrongful death lawsuit against the city of Washington, D.C. and the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) on June 10. The day the suit was filed marked almost exactly two years since MPD officers shot and killed her son, Marqueese.

Marqueese Alston, a 22-year-old Black man, was shot between 12 and 18 times by police officers in Southeast D.C. on June 12, 2018. For over two years, MPD refused to publicly release the names of the officers responsible for his death. The lawsuit filed seeks to compensate Ms. Alston for the wrongful death of her son and the emotional distress it caused her, as well as impose punitive damages on MPD and the city for their lack of transparency surrounding her son’s death and their disproportionate use of deadly force when policing Black communities.

Marqueese Alston was an active member of his Ward 8 community and father to a now-four-year-old daughter. His case received renewed scrutiny when the edited body camera video of his death was released by police in late July of this year. He was in the process of completing his GED and working to financially support his daughter when he was killed.

In the summer of 2019, Ms. Alston contacted the Georgetown Law Civil Rights Clinic, which employs student-attorneys to work pro-bono on anti-discrimination litigation, and asked them to help her file a claim to get answers about her son’s death. Zina Makar, a supervising attorney in the Georgetown Law Civil Rights Clinic, said MPD’s reluctance to release the body camera footage and refusal to name the officers involved was part of why Ms. Alston’s case was taken up by the clinic. 

For the amount of time that she’s been seeking answers, one thing always stuck in our minds: Why won’t MPD tell her? Why won’t MPD give her any information at all?” Makar said. “To us, that seemed like something was wrong, something akin to police misconduct was happening here, and we wanted to help her in any way that we could.”

Marqueese Alston’s shooting carries significant weight in the context of current discussions of police brutality and over-policing in D.C., specifically in Ward 8, which is 92 percent Black. 

“There is a disproportionately heavy police presence in Ward 8,” Olivia Grob-Lipkis (LAW ’21), a student-attorney working on the case with Valencia Richardson (LAW ’20) and Andrew Dam (LAW ’20), said. “It’s not a coincidence that it’s one of the less wealthy areas in the city and most populated by communities of color, and D.C. police have a very violent legacy specifically in these areas.”

The public police report claims that Marqueese Alston ran into an alley and opened fire on the officers before he was killed, but for his mother and many others, conflicting reports about what happened that night leave many questions unanswered.

One witness, Harry Brown, told WUSA9 reporters that “none of us saw a gun.” At least two other witnesses in the neighborhood spoke to NBC4, saying that they did not hear Marqueese Alston fire any shots before police shot him. 

The police told a different story. According to DCist, Police Chief Peter Newsham initially told reporters on the night of the incident that Marqueese Alston was shot after he “pulled a weapon.” However, the next day’s official MPD report had yet another version of events—that he fired at officers first.

The official forensic investigation found Marqueese Alston’s DNA on a firearm and shell casing at the scene. The firearm was not found on his body or on the pavement where he died, but yards away in a bush. MPD claims the gun was dislodged from his hand during the shooting.

The recent release of body camera footage from that day’s shooting, which was supposed to respond to these discrepancies, has not answered all of Ms. Alston’s questions, according to her legal team.

Police delayed the public release of the footage for over two years, claiming that the incident was still under investigation. On July 31, MPD released heavily-edited body camera footage of Marqueese Alston’s death, along with footage of MPD killings of two other Black men in 2018. 

For Marqueese Alston’s shooting, MPD released redacted body camera footage from two officers involved, as well as a “Community Briefing Video,” which used edits and explanations to lay out their justification for the killing. The community briefing includes a shaky 90-second video followed by an enhanced freeze-frame edit that highlights a thin black object in Marqueese Alston’s hand prior to the officers shooting, which MPD claimed to be his firearm. It is not possible to identify the object from the freeze-frame, and the videos released by MPD are too blurry to clearly show the object.

Ms. Alston believes that the footage she was shown of her son’s death was highly edited and did not support the police narrative. She and her legal team called the footage a “slick social media video” and have continued to demand the full, unedited footage of her son’s death.

“This is just another PR stunt,” Ms. Alston said. “I’ve been asking for the full and raw footage for the past two years so I could understand the truth about what happened to my son.”

According to Ms. Alston’s legal team, the video is a curated presentation, not designed to show the truth of the matter. The team also pointed out the video only shows the moments just leading up to and during Marqueese Alston’s death and does not explain why the police originally pursued him.

In the released body camera video (content warning), two out of at least four officers present at the scene can be seen exiting their police cruiser and chasing Marqueese Alston, nearly running into pedestrians in the process. While MPD has not confirmed whether these officers were part of a specialized unit, Grob-Lipkis explained that this footage appeared to show the officers performing a highly controversial tactic known as a “jump out,” where a police unit drives up to a suspect and jumps out of the vehicle to grab them.

Jump outs are one example of the over-policing that has been the hallmark of MPD’s presence in Ward 8, where stop-and-frisks and use-of-force incidents occur more frequently than in the rest of the city. Although D.C. police claim that they have not used jump outs in the past 15 years, community activists say that jump outs continue to traumatize their neighborhoods. A YouTube video posted the day after Marqueese Alston was killed shows MPD officers performing a jump out in Ward 7.

The legal team indicates that MPD’s release of the edited footage will not slow down their efforts. 

“Two years later, this is the explanation supposedly that they’ve been sitting on, and it just doesn’t explain anything. It doesn’t explain the initial questions, but the questions that it raises add even more suspect and exacerbate the lack of information that Ms. Alston has,” Grob-Lipkis said.

***

At the Civil Rights Clinic, law students are given hands-on experience in the field, working on cases as student-attorneys while still in law school. “The clinic is just known for really pushing its students into the water. It’s sort of a sink or swim method, but in a way that really empowers us to be the strongest legal advocates possible,” Richardson said.

Over the course of a year, Richardson and her fellow student-attorneys pored over the evidence and coordinated with Ms. Alston to build the suit filed this June seeking punitive damages, which are generally awarded to punish the defendant for especially harmful behavior and to deter similar conduct in the future. “Ms. Alston doesn’t want this happening to another Black life, or any life for that matter,” Grob-Lipkis said.

“Punitive damages are one reason why this kind of litigation is important, because Ms. Alston has had no choice but to file her claim in a court of law.”

In Ms. Alston’s case, her attorneys say that the way she has been treated by police since her son’s death rises to the level of egregious misconduct. “The city totally failed to provide her any meaningful information about what happened to her son and continues to do so today,” Richardson stated.

“We’re talking about someone whose son was shot dead and on the street, and she didn’t find out about it until the next day.”

Part of this problem, Grob-Lipkis, explained, is that D.C. has a two-year statute of limitations on wrongful death claims. MPD delayed releasing the body camera footage and case file for so long that Ms. Alston had to take matters into her own hands—the suit was filed on June 10, two days before the statute of limitations would have expired for Ms. Alston’s claim.

A lawsuit was not how Ms. Alston preferred to find answers. 

“Bringing litigation like this is always the last resort. Ideally, Ms. Alston would’ve been able to find out what happened to her son right off the bat, when she initially asked MPD,” Grob-Lipkis said.

Many victims of police brutality, Grob-Lipkis pointed out, unfortunately, lack the resources of a firm like the Civil Rights Clinic when seeking justice through civil litigation, deterring them from filing expensive, emotionally taxing cases.

“We were able to devote full-time work to this case and really do all we can to try and get justice for Ms. Alston,” Grob-Lipkis said. “But this is not representative of thousands of police brutality victims and families across the country who can’t afford to put multiple years of their life on hold to litigate this kind of claim and the amount of resources it takes.”

According to the legal team, when Ms. Alston was finally allowed to privately see footage of her son’s death, a year after his killing, she was only allowed to see an edited segment of the body camera footage. To this day, pursuant to D.C.’s emergency police legislation mandating the release of body camera footage, Ms. Alston has only seen edited presentations of her son’s death. 

The D.C. police also reneged on several promises to Ms. Alston regarding viewing the footage, according to Dam. “When MPD eventually did let her view the body camera footage, they had originally said that she could bring up to eight people with her. And then they reduced it to three,” he said. 

MPD forced Ms. Alston to view the footage of her son’s death for the first time in August of 2019 at a police precinct rather than giving her a copy. “It’s really every mother’s nightmare to have your child die before you, but especially to have your child be killed in such violent and uncertain circumstances was especially traumatic for Ms. Alston,” Grob-Lipkis said.

“Having to view it in the police station, and being limited in the support she could bring with her to view it, really added to the agony of reliving the most painful moment of her life.”  

***

One month prior to Marqueese Alston’s shooting, Newsham increased the number of MPD personnel in Ward 8 in response to a spike in homicides. Given the heavy police presence in the area, the attorneys argue that Marqueese Alston’s death was not an isolated incident. Under the count of violating Alston’s Fourth Amendment rights, the complaint argues that D.C. is liable for “maintaining a practice of disproportionately heavy police presence and enforcement in Ward 8.”

The complaint also alleges that the two officers violated Marqueese Alston’s right to not be subject to unreasonable search and seizure by targeting him “while he spoke with a group of acquaintances in a residential area of Ward 8” and by using “excessive deadly force” in shooting him 12 to 18 times. 

“To MPD, Mr. Alston was nothing more than another Black kid on the streets of Ward 8,” the complaint reads.

The recent police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and countless others have invited new scrutiny into the policing of Black communities. Earlier this summer, MPD drew national attention when dozens of videos surfaced that appeared to show police officers escalating conflict with Black Lives Matter protestors, at times responding to peaceful demonstrations with near-deadly force.

Within this national and local context of current Black Lives Matter protests, the death of Marqueese Alston and Ms. Alston’s case highlight the potential disparities between government vocal support and government actions. When the D.C. City Council approved a $15 million cut to the $559.5 million MPD budget in late June, Mayor Muriel Bowser opposed the cuts and instead called for an increase in police funding.

The negative relationship between the police and the Ward 8 community is not a foreign concept to those familiar with D.C. police activity. According to a survey from 2015, 51 percent of Ward 8 residents described police-community relations as “slightly bad” or “bad,” while only 15 percent of the wealthier and majority-white Ward 3 residents described their relationship with the police in a similar way.

“There’s such a material gap between privileged communities that work in government and go to Georgetown Law School and those that are in areas like Ward 8 that really feel the police violence impacting their everyday lives,” Grob-Lipkis said. “So I think it’s a really important aspect of what happened to Marqueese and that’s the reason that this shooting can’t be looked at as an isolated incident.”

Working on Ms. Alston’s case and at the Civil Rights Clinic has not only given these student-attorneys relevant insights into the systemic disparities that define policing in D.C., but it has also taught them how to be legal advocates out in the field. 

Dam shared his takeaways on using litigation to carry out the goals of a civil rights movement. “One of the critical things that we typically miss in movements is that we think it’s just a one answer fits all, like even with the current Black Lives Matter movement, we can’t address police brutality and over-policing of Black communities without thinking about housing discrimination and employment discrimination and all the other things that go along with it,” he said.


Dam feels that while the D.C. government has expressed symbolic support for Black Lives Matter through renaming part of 16th St. to Black Lives Matter Plaza, their actions are merely lip service. “I think we all similarly feel that, while it’s a great sentiment, it’s really hard to believe that D.C. is actually committed in a meaningful way when you work on this kind of case and see the lack of transparency and accountability regarding the murder of a Black man and the trauma inflicted on his mother.”

Grob-Lipkis agreed, emphasizing the city’s treatment of Ms. Alston. “They refuse to release body-worn camera footage, refuse to release the names and bodycams of half the officers in the car, and then meanwhile decline to lower the police budget,” she said. “I think that those actions speak a million times louder than the renaming of a street.”

Ms. Alston has devoted the last two years of her life to getting answers for her son. To the student-attorneys, Ms. Alston’s tireless advocacy has been nothing short of inspirational, and working with her was a very special part of the experience for them.

“Ms. Alston as a client has been just as much of an impactful educational experience as the actual litigation itself,” Richardson said. “It was just an honor to work with her. And I emphasize ‘with her’ because she’s a client who’s an incredible advocate in her own right.”

“At the end of the day, this is great litigation, but what it actually boils down to is a mother who wants answers for her son.”

Developments in this case are ongoing.


Annabella Hoge
Annabella is a sophomore in the college who enjoys wearing bucket hats and writing about mini-golf. She is also an assistant news editor.

Darren Jian
Darren is an assistant news editor and a junior in the College studying government and math. Some things he likes are tennis, indie rock concerts, and student debt cancellation.


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