An Injustice in Delaware County

When it came to my client Tiana Drummond-Phiri, school officials and Delaware County's legal system got it all wrong

A few days ago, America marked the 153rd anniversary of the worst judicial decision in its entire history. It was on March 6, 1857 that the United States Supreme Court ruled in the notoriously racist (but brutally honest) Dred Scott decision that enslaved and free blacks “had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.”

Fast forward to December 2009 when a white Delaware County judge sentenced Tiana Drummond-Phiri, a black Archbishop Carroll High School honor student, after having found her guilty of assault in connection with a small white-versus-black student melee in March of that same year. This criminal conviction by the white judge followed the prosecution of Tiana by the white district attorney, which itself followed the arrest of Tiana by the white police officer, which in turn followed the racial melee wherein not even one white student, including the one whom witnesses said exchanged punches with a black male teenager, was sentenced, charged, arrested, or even suspended by the white school officials at the almost exclusively white school wherein Tiana and other African Americans constituted only six percent of the population. (Read an account of the case by Inquirer columnist Annette John-Hall.) [SIGNUP]

Tiana was convicted despite exculpatory eyewitness testimony that she was inside a car 50 yards away from the melee, despite having absolutely no criminal record whatsoever, and despite having an unimpeachable reputation for being honest, law-abiding, and non-violent. In addition to being convicted, she was also expelled from school, thereby sadly losing the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to attend her prom and the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to attend her high school graduation ceremony. And this was despite the fact that she was a National Honor Student who had a 4.0 grade point average, who was on the High Achievers’ List of the College Board Student Search Service, who was a recipient of the Certificate of Excellence in Science, and who was a leading member of the school’s thoroughly impressive Mock Trial Team — with plans of ultimately becoming a civil rights lawyer.

She is currently a first year undergraduate pre-law student at Temple University whose plans for law school have now become mere hopes as a result of the unfounded and unjust conviction. In other words, if left in place, that conviction could essentially be a death sentence for her lifelong goal of being admitted into a law school.

Tiana’s dream of becoming a civil rights attorney stems primarily from the fact that, although she was born in the United States, her family is from South Africa and her father had been unjustly arrested, charged, found guilty, and imprisoned by the racist apartheid government for nearly seven years because of his political activism. Fortunately, her father was later released and then pardoned by Nelson Mandela shortly after Mandela’s historic election as president.

After Tiana contacted my law office to right the wrong of her tragic Delaware County plight, I filed a post-sentence motion in the attempt to get her conviction reversed. I am awaiting a ruling by the trial judge, which I expect within about a month or so. I also organized a “Justice For Tiana Petition” that is available by logging onto or by calling 215/552-8751.

I hope the judge does the right thing regarding my motion. After all, it’s 2010 and now blacks finally have “rights which the white man is bound to respect.” Don’t we?

MICHAEL COARD is a Philadelphia attorney. He represents Tiana Drummond-Phiri.