Reflection

Marie Ndiaye
Harvard Law School ’12

Marie Ndiaye, first from left, with Robert McDuff, Thelma Collins, Margaret Burnham and Thomas Moore, on the steps of the federal courthouse in Jackson, Mississippi, after settlement was reached in the Dee and Moore case.

Every time I was asked, “why are you going to Mississippi,” this case was one that I described to people in order to show that I was going to do justice. I was going to work on a wrongful death suit against a county for its Sheriff and policy department having allowed the Ku Klux Klan to kidnap, torture, and drown two young men, Henry Dee and Charles Moore, in 1964. Finally, I was going to do work that made a difference: what a great feeling for a future civil rights attorney like myself. This feeling remained as I sat, listened, and observed the settlement conference with the county, and still maintained as we left the courthouse victorious. Finally, the county acknowledged and paid for what happened to Mr. Dee and Mr. Thomas some forty plus years ago. My exuberance was somewhat diluted at the time since the settlement did not include acknowledgment of wrongdoing such as an apology or memorial to the men. But, that was considered a minor setback. Now, months later I find my exuberance fading some more as I realize that I am not sure what the county paid for. I am no longer confident that we were victorious or perhaps, I really didn’t understand torts. This was a wrongful death suit and yet there was no mention of the men’s potential, of how much they would have earned, of the joy they brought their families, of the loss of companionship to their parents and siblings, of the pain and suffering they endured (which would have been astronomical given the nature of their deaths), or of the families that they could have had themselves. Rather, the settlement focused on the county’s insurance policy and how much more, if any, the county could afford to pay. We were told that the county’s insurance policy is ‘x’, so we negotiated within x amount. I did not think anything of this at the time; I just thought we were being smart negotiators. Now I wonder if we cheapened the lives of these two men, if we should have went to court and let a jury provide the proper compensation, or if we did the right thing. Maybe this way of negotiating was a good thing? How much were the lives of young black men worth during the era of Ku Klux Klan terror and Jim Crow. I don’t know the answer to this question but I do know that we were indeed victorious, and I was misled by torts. The reality of the situation is that we are always bound by the parameters before us and in this case that was the amount money available. I learned a valuable lesson during this settlement conference: often times it’s not about what the deceased and his family has lost, it’s about what the other side has to offer, which will never compare.
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