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8 Years for $6

The Case of Omar Pilgrim
by Arthur Henson |
January 16, 2006

The Union County, NJ, case of Omar Pilgrim is a flagrant example of the racist abuses of the United States criminal ‘justice’ system. In March 2005 Judge John Triarsi gave Omar, an African-American, a prison sentence of eight years on a first offense in a matter involving $6.75. He must serve six years before he is eligible for parole.

At the time of the incident in the case, Pilgrim was 19 years old. He was employed as a security guard by the Irvington, NJ Board of Education. He was enrolled in the criminal justice program at Essex County College. He had never had problems with the law.

Around 7:00 a.m. on Jan. 4, 2004 Pilgrim bought $10.00 worth of gas at a station in Union Township. He then found he had only $3.25 on him. He offered to leave his driver license with the attendant while he went to get the difference. He made two documented phone calls from the station trying to get the money.

The attendant is an immigrant who does not speak English. An argument arose in which neither could understand the other. Family members state the attendant called Pilgrim a “nigger.” They also say he had been partying and did not want to deal with the police. Not knowing what to do in the face of such a situation, Pilgrim left the gas station in a state of panic without paying the additional $6.75.

The attendant called the police and claimed that Omar had threatened him with a gun. The police apprehended Pilgrim in nearby East Orange at 8:00 a.m. His car was ransacked but no gun was found. No gun connected to the incident has ever been found.

Pilgrim was held and questioned alone by the police. He was 19 years old. He had been diagnosed in childhood as suffering from attention deficit disorder. He had been awake for more than 24 hours. No family member or attorney was present. The police investigator told him that if he signed a statement he would be allowed to go home.

Under these circumstances Pilgrim was induced to sign a waiver of his rights to counsel. He also signed a statement, which his family says he had not read. The statement said that he had simulated a gun and demanded money from the attendant. On this basis Pilgrim was charged with aggravated assault, possession of a weapon and robbery. To this day, however, family members have not been allowed to see the full statement. Further, Pilgrim has never admitted to robbery.

The trial was a mass of contradictions and irregularities. It was claimed that Pilgrim used a soft ‘skully’ hat to frighten the attendant into thinking he had a gun. The prosecution brought a gun into the courtroom and showed it to the complainant and the jury claiming that the hat “looked like” the weapon. When the defense attorney objected to this glaring procedural violation Judge Triarsi dismissed the objection.

Judge Triarsi would allow no lesser charge against Pilgrim than robbery. He repeatedly instructed the jury that the charge was robbery. When the defense asked if a white person would be subjected to such proceedings, Triarsi said the defense was, “playing the race card.” However, the family and friends of Omar felt that Triarsi was racist and actively hostile to the defendant. Pilgrim was found guilty of robbery but not possession of a weapon or aggravated assault.

On the basis of this tainted conviction, Omar was offered a deal of a four-year sentence if he would plead guilty to robbery. He refused. The family states that Triarsi was visibly enraged. He gave Omar an eight-year sentence, of which he must serve six years before he is eligible for parole.

Pattern of Injustice

The case shows a pattern of misconduct that has always been common in the U.S. ‘criminal justice’ system but is getting worse. First Pilgrim was questioned in violation of his rights. The resultant statement was admitted into evidence. There was at least one more major procedural violation, the introduction into the trial of a weapon that had nothing to do with the charges. There followed a plea bargain where the threat of a severe sentence was used to cover these abuses with a guilty plea. The script failed when Omar Pilgrim refused to plead. He was ostensibly sentenced for robbery but really for refusing to accept a cover up.

If a white person had been involved in the original incident the odds are high that there would have been little argument. The chances would have been much better that the cops would have observed correct procedures. The case would have been very unlikely to go to trial. If against all these odds the case had gone to trial there is little likelihood that such a result would have occurred. If it had been a middle or upper-income white person it can flatly be said that none of this would ever have happened. What happened to Omar was racist from start to finish.

The United States has the highest rate of imprisonment in the world. One quarter of all persons incarcerated in the world are in the United States. African-Americans make up one eighth of the total U.S. population but half of the prison population. ‘Justice’ in the United States systematically criminalizes African-American people. Family member Grace Francis says, “The white justice system is trying to enslave African-American people all over again.”

Monopoly capitalism, a system that serves the rich and powerful is losing its ability to dominate the world on behalf of profits. The ruling class is panicking in the face of its growing problems. It subjects working people and oppressed nationalities to all sorts of worsening conditions. Wages and living standards are falling. Education and health services are cut. The system becomes ever more racist and repressive. Omar Pilgrim’s case is an outrage against African-American people and the entire U.S. working class.

Pilgrim’s supporters are not taking this injustice lying down. The case is on appeal. Family members and friends of Pilgrim wrote letters to the New Jersey Director of Criminal Justice to complain of Triarsi’s handling of the trial and to demand that he be removed from the bench. An application for pardon will be made to the governor of New Jersey.

The People’s Organization for Progress, a New Jersey-based human and civil rights organization, is supporting the struggle to free Pilgrim. Persons who wish to express their concern about this case can write to:

People’s Organization for Progress
PO Box 22505
Newark , NJ 07101

Or send letters demanding justice for Omar Pilgrim to

Mr. Vaughn L. McKoy, Director of Criminal Justice
Hughes Justice Complex
25 Market St .
Trenton , NJ 08625-0085