Racial Racket Pays Off and Juries Get Careless

Chris Powell


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With complaints of racism, sexism, and age discrimination, former state Public Health Commissioner Renée D. Coleman-Mitchell has cadged another $200,000 out of Connecticut’s taxpayers.

That’s what Governor Lamont’s administration has agreed to pay her to withdraw her federal lawsuit over her firing three years ago at the onset of the virus epidemic. As part of the settlement, state government’s record of Coleman-Mitchell’s firing will be changed to signify that she “resigned in good standing,” a polite fiction, and she will be prohibited from rejoining the health department, a provision that repudiated the polite fiction even before the ink on the settlement was dry.

Two hundred thousand dollars is a lot of money, but Coleman-Mitchell’s complaint was always ridiculous. No Connecticut governor has been more politically correct than Lamont, concerned more with “diversity” in government than competence, and if he was really racist, sexist, and ageist, why would he have appointed Coleman-Mitchell, a Black woman, in the first place?

But a trial would have been ugly, with the former commissioner charging that the governor’s aides sidelined her as the epidemic got serious and the aides presumably contending that they doubted her medical and political competence.

While state government’s response to the epidemic is fairly criticized in some respects, the governor emerged with high marks from the public, an indication that the health commissioner’s dismissal was no great loss.

Besides, Coleman-Mitchell seems not to have noticed that commissioners serve entirely at the pleasure of the governor. He has to answer for them. Amid all the restrictions state government imposes on itself to keep the state employee unions serving happily as the majority party’s army, a commissioner’s subservience to the governor is most of what’s left of accountability in state government.

It would be a shame to lose that accountability because of opportunistic and self-serving claims like Coleman-Mitchell’s.

While there might have been more expense, the public interest might have been better served if the administration had declined to settle with Coleman-Mitchell and instead forced her to try to prove her claims in court. For as was noted by the late Charles Krauthammer, perhaps the best newspaper columnist of recent years, the country will know racism is over when people can be not just hired but also fired regardless of race.

The small fortune being paid to Coleman-Mitchell shows the country is not there yet.


A much bigger settlement at state government expense was announced the other day but failed to prompt the serious questioning it deserved — $25.2 million to be split between Shawn Henning and Ricky Birch, convicted by juries of the gruesome murder of a man in New Milford in 1985 and then acquitted on appeal after serving 30 years in prison. Their acquittal involved claims that the former head of the state forensics laboratory, the now-renowned Henry Lee, fabricated evidence — what was said to be a faint bloodstain on a bathroom towel.

Lee denies fabricating anything, and it’s hard to see how the towel constituted evidence against the two defendants in the first place. For it didn’t connect their blood to the crime and wasn’t tested by Lee until long after the murder, and bloodstains on towels in bathrooms, where shaving is done, are routine.

Indeed, according to the Associated Press, “No forensic evidence existed linking Birch and Henning to the crime.”

The defendants seem to have been convicted mainly because of their dissolute lifestyle. They were drug-abusing teenage burglars living out of a stolen car. 

As with other wrongful-conviction cases recently publicized in Connecticut, going back to the still-infamous Peter Reilly case 50 years ago and the Richard Lapointe case 30 years ago, this one well may have been a matter of a jury’s lack of appreciation for reasonable doubt and its reflexive deference to law-enforcement authorities. It has always been bad enough that, as the saying goes, prosecutors can persuade a jury to indict a ham sandwich. Now it’s starting to seem as if a jury in Connecticut might convict one too.


Chris Powell has written about Connecticut government and politics for many years. (CPowell@cox.net)