Let's play a macabre game of pretend.
Pretend for a moment that a white teenager, a football player on his high school team, and some of his white buddies decide to jump a 40-year-old black man walking home from his job as a dishwasher one evening with his two brothers.
Pretend the football player leaps on the man like a 170-pound wrestler, with such force that the man's head slams backward against the pavement, cracking his skull. At least one teenager kicks the man as if he were a soccer ball. When they are done, the football player laughs as he leaves his victim, bloody and limp on the ground.
Pretend four days later, the man dies. The two brothers tell police the white teenagers brandished a knife and demanded money. Police charge seven teenagers with robbery and murder. But without even bothering to interview the two black men who were with their brother that night, the white prosecutor drops all charges against four of the white teenagers. Then, he drops the robbery charges against the other three.
Would that be enough to outrage you?
I know me. I would be furious. And I'm pretty sure that, if the story were true, black folks would be marching and protesting all over Prince George's.
Now, let's drop the game of pretend.
Gilberto Hernandez, a 40-year-old Salvadoran immigrant, was attacked that horrific way on Sept. 4 last year. But his attackers are African American, and so is the Prince George's County state's attorney, Jack B. Johnson, whose office prosecuted the case.
Last week, a jury convicted one of the teenagers, 18-year-old Cochise Iraun "Cody" Queen, a former high school football player, of involuntary manslaughter and two second-degree assault charges for the fatal attack on Hernandez. He was acquitted of second-degree murder. Prosecutors didn't pursue a felony murder conviction until their closing arguments--and only after a judge ruled there was enough testimonial evidence during the trial for the jury to consider the tougher charge.
Until then, Johnson had made a big deal of saying there was no motive for the killing, which essentially nixed the possibility of a felony murder case. To win a felony murder conviction, prosecutors would have had to prove that the killing occurred during the commission of another felony, such as robbery.
From the beginning, the county's Latino community has been outraged by Johnson's handling of the case. The rest of us should be, too.
This is not about whether Johnson made the right decision to drop the robbery charges. He says there wasn't enough evidence to prove a robbery. I'm willing to give his legal judgment the benefit of my doubt, despite the prosecution's last-minute change of tactics.
As I see it, this case raises new issues of race and power.
It wasn't too long ago when African Americans were the minority in Prince George's, and they weren't too happy with the way the white-dominated criminal justice system treated them. I'm sure there were more than a few times when legitimate concerns raised by African Americans were summarily dismissed by the county's white power brokers.
My, how times have changed.
"The Hispanic community of Prince George's County will be watching this trial intently to ensure that fairness in the judicial system is extended to the Latino victim," Bill Stagg, director of the county's Hispanic Resource Center, told a reporter as the trial opened.
Stagg wasn't talking about keeping his eyes on white folks.
African Americans are some of the leading power brokers in majority-black Prince George's now. The question is: What kind of power brokers are they?
When Latino activists asked in the months after the killing why Johnson's office had not interviewed the two Salvadoran brothers--a legitimate question--Johnson responded that the men had "nothing to add" to the case. And prosecutors ignored the brothers a few more months.
When the Rev. Brian Jordan, a white Franciscan priest who speaks Spanish, involved himself in the case and began asking questions of prosecutors, Johnson all but accused the man of coaching the immigrant brothers to concoct the robbery story.
When county officials pressed Johnson during the budget process earlier this year about the lack of Latino prosecutors in his office, Johnson responded with indignation that anyone would dare question his commitment to diversity.
And when Latino activists complained after the guilty verdict that prosecutors botched any chance of getting a stronger conviction, Johnson accused them of playing the race card.
"We understand that any time in this country when there's a cross-racial killing, it creates fear and distrust," Johnson said in an interview with WRC-TV (Channel 4) last Wednesday. "But I think many people, unfortunately in this case, exploited that, and that's why it created such a sensation."
Johnson summarily dismissed race as an issue. As an African American, he should have known better.
That's not to say that Johnson has an automatic obligation to agree with the minority group. But it is not too much to expect that the new African American power brokers--if for no other reason than because of their people's history of oppression--respond to a minority group's racial concerns with sensitivity and compassion.
But that responsibility does not end with Johnson.
If it took a black and white game of pretend for the rest of us to care, then we, too, are guilty.
To comment or suggest a story idea, feel free to write me at 14402 Old Mill Rd., Suite 201, Upper Marlboro, Md. 20772; send me an e-mail at frazierL@washpost.com; or call me at 301-952-2083.
CAPTION: State's Attorney Jack B. Johnson has come under fire for the way prosecutors handled the beating death of a Salvadoran.