Did D.A. Turn the Amber Jefferson Case Into a Cause?

If this were New York City, 15-year-old Amber Jefferson would be a cottage industry by now. Pictures of her swollen, slashed face would have done wonders for tabloid newspapers. Her name would be spray-painted on tenement walls. You can almost picture the slogan: "Remember Amber." The phone lines on call-in radio would be lit up all night. Film at 11.

Amber wouldn't be a kid anymore; she'd be a cause.

But out here in the suburban jungle, where sky-blues and neon-greens help people forget about the grittier colors of black and white, consciousness-raising hasn't quite evolved to that level.

After Tuesday's press conference at the district attorney's office, that may change. Amber might become a cause, after all.

Dist. Atty. Michael R. Capizzi stopped just short of saying Amber and her friends knew from Day One that, despite the flurry of publicity generated by her family and supporters, the attack on her just after midnight on Aug. 7 in a Stanton condo complex wasn't racially motivated.

Indeed, Capizzi said, one of Amber's friends told investigators that it "was in no way racially motivated."

According to Capizzi, Amber, the daughter of a black father and white mother, got caught in the middle of what amounted to a street fight. In the heat of battle, racial slurs were flung about--all of which would have disappeared into the summer night had Amber not wound up with a broken jaw, a wicked gash on her head and 10 hours of surgery.

And although felony charges were filed against a 17-year-old white boy, charging him with causing Amber's injuries, Capizzi made it clear that Amber probably wasn't even the boy's target. Rather, she was probably an unlucky victim who got in the way of a glass shard thrown at another friend of hers. Capizzi wouldn't confirm that she was ever hit by a baseball bat or other object and said that both her broken jaw and the head cut likely were caused by the glass shard.

To Capizzi, the Amber Jefferson case was the Hate Crime That Never Was.

Whether that flies is going to say a lot in the days and weeks ahead about the state of race relations in Orange County. The choices are clear: accept the finding that this wasn't anything more than your garden-variety street fight, or believe that it's another case of the white power structure ignoring racial injustice.

Whoever said the wheels of justice grind slowly must have had this case in mind. And because the investigation dragged on and because the perception was that some murder cases get pieced together faster than this case did, suspicions surfaced. Is this a case of white assailants getting off while victims of color wind up in the hospital?

All the while, the Sheriff's Department and the district attorney's office said they were playing it by the book, sifting through a lot of conflicting information.

They probably were. And by doing so, they've demonstrated how you can do something right and still do it wrong.

Once this case started generating headlines--amid the possibility of it being a racially tinged crime--it wasn't a simple street rumble anymore. It also wasn't just about Amber Jefferson and what happened to her that night. It was about being part of a 2% minority group in a county and wondering whether anybody gives a damn about your daughter.

On Tuesday, Capizzi said his office's investigation wasn't "emotional and hysterical."

You get his point.

Unfortunately, it doesn't seem that he gets the other side's point.

If anyone thinks Amber's parents intentionally turned this case into a racial incident that perhaps didn't exist, I would suggest that you try to picture your daughter in a hospital bed, with her head sewn up and her jaw broken. You might make some noise, too.

That noise should have been answered, and right away. It could have been done without prejudicing the investigation or future prosecution.

Capizzi said prosecutors "can't detail day-to-day what's taking place" in an investigation. Fair enough. But there's a big playing field between day-to-day accounts and keeping everyone in the dark for 35 days.

When law enforcement authorities finally got around to talking, they said the evidence was conflicting and that, as a result, it was holding up the investigation. Fine. But they also could have said that Orange County won't tolerate racially motivated crimes and that if that's what the evidence showed in this case, it would be vigorously prosecuted.

Capizzi said that Tuesday. He should have said it a month ago.

It wouldn't have been grandstanding. It would have been a signal to a segment of the public that wonders if its rights are being protected. It would have sent out a loud signal to everyone about what kind of county we want.

Yelling racial slurs in the middle of a fight doesn't automatically constitute a hate crime. That isn't the point; we hardly need the Amber Jefferson case to prove that racism exists.

In the aftermath of this sorry case, what probably does matter most is perception--whether the sheriff or district attorney thinks it does or not.

Capizzi says the people now have the truth. Maybe they do.

Now all he's got to do is convince them.

Dana Parsons today begins writing a column for The Times Orange County Edition, filling in for columnist Dianne Klein, who is on maternity leave. His column will run on Wednesday, Friday and Sunday. Readers may reach Parsons by writing to him at The Times Orange County Edition, 1375 Sunflower Ave., Costa Mesa, Calif. 92626, or calling (714) 966-7821.

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