September 22, 2000


Commentary

"Iverson Bill"— A Tribute To A Murdered Child, A Weapon Against Predators

By Earl Ofari Hutchinson
PACIFIC NEWS SERVICE

California Governor Gray Davis has a chance to make history.

In August, the California state legislature passed the Sherrice Iverson Bill. If Davis does sign the bill—he has until September 30—it will be the first law in the history of the American criminal justice system named after an African-American.

Davis' signature would help bring closure to one of the most tragic and sordid cases in recent memory. On May 25, 1997 Iverson, a seven-year-old African American girl, was kidnapped, raped and strangled in a bathroom stall at the Primadonna Casino 45 miles South of Las Vegas by Jeremy Strohmeyer, 18, a white high school student from Long Beach, California.

After an initial burst of public rage directed at Leroy Iverson, the girl's father, for leaving her unattended at a gambling casino in the early morning hours, the case dropped quickly from sight.

Then, in July 1998, the public learned that David Cash, a friend of Strohmeyer, witnessed at least part of the attack on Iverson and did nothing. He made things worse when he told the Los Angeles Times that he wasn't troubled by her death.

This touched off a furor of protest — marches, demonstrations and rallies demanding that Cash be prosecuted as an accessory to the murder. The media finally began to pay some attention after Iverson's mother publicly demanded that Nevada authorities prosecute Cash.

Even this did not draw the sort of media coverage that would lead to human interest stories on Iverson and her family. Instead, the media sniffed sensationalism and played it as the story of an angry black mother going after a young, devil-may-care, white kid.

In covering the story, both Time and People magazine focused almost exclusively on the protest against Cash, again probing into his life and the lives of his parents and friends.

In the process, Cash was given human dimensions. Iverson and her family were little more than an afterthought. Newspapers featured lengthy interviews with, and profiles on, Strohmeyer, Cash, their parents, friends, and students at the school they attended.

There was not one word on the pain and suffering of those in Sherrice's family.

This was hardly surprising given the stark racial and class contrasts of those involved. Strohmeyer was considered an extremely bright kid from a stable, comfortable middle-class home in Long Beach and had traveled widely.

Iverson lived in South Central Los Angeles. Her father and her mother Yolanda Manuel — estranged at the time of her murder—are low -income workers.

This seems yet one more sad example of the media's readiness to probe the background, lives, feelings of middle-class whites, while minimizing if not outright ignoring blacks, even when they are the victims.

The killing of Sherrice, though heinous and shocking, did not ignite the hyper-charged media frenzy that surrounded the cases of Louise Woodward, the British au pair convicted of manslaughter in a baby's death in Massachusetts, or Melissa Drexler, an 18-year-old high school student in New Jersey who abandoned her baby at the prom. Neither did it spark the kind of coverage that brought widespread public attention to the plight of Megan Kagan, a seven-year-old raped and strangled in New Jersey, or of Polly Klass, an 11-year-old murdered in California.

The victims were all young, and none were black. An even more dramatic contrast is the coverage of the murder of JonBenet Ramsey, a three year old white girl. Hundreds of magazine and newspaper articles have delved into Ramsey's background, and her family, with much speculation on whether they had any role in the killing.

Three years after Iverson's murder, only one article has appeared on her and her family. When the rage over Cash died down, the Iverson tragedy again receded into oblivion.

The murder of Sherrice Iverson is a near textbook example of media insensitivity and disdain for poor victims, no matter how young and innocent.

But the law now on the governor's desk offers a chance to make sure that her murder makes a lasting imprint on law and public policy.

Two years of pushing, prodding and cajoling state legislators in Nevada and California, led by Najee Ali, director of Project Islamic Hope, led to passage of a Sherrice Iverson bill in both states.

The law makes it a crime to witness a malicious act against a child and not report it to authorities. This is much-needed legislation that will provide another safeguard for children who are at grave risk from sexual predators and abusive adults.

Nevada enacted the law. Now all it takes is a signature from Davis to become law in California. This would give Sherrice Iverson the fitting tribute that she and children everywhere deserve. Phone: (213) 897-0322 Fax (213) 897-0319 E-mail: graydavis@governor.ca.gov .

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is the author of "The Disappearance of Black Leadership." His e-mail address is ehutchi344@ aol.com.

Comments? Return to the Frontpage