A week after Meek Mill received a gubernatorial pardon for the 15-year-old charge that famously landed him in jail after he popped a wheelie, pressure is mounting for the judge who put him behind bars to resign.
Judge Genece Brinkley, who had sentenced the Philadelphia rapper born Robert Rihmeek Williams to 2 to 4 years in prison for minor probation violations, is currently embroiled in her own legal trouble. Brinkley is battling at the Pennsylvania Supreme Court with First Judicial District leadership, who last month stripped her of her criminal docket and reassigned her to civil court.
“She hasn’t been a true stewardess for the law in the city of Philadelphia,” said Kurt Evans, an organizer with the 215 People’s Alliance, which has been pushing for Brinkley’s resignation with weekly Wednesday morning protests outside the Criminal Justice Center in Center City.
“It’s been a lot of blind justice handed out. She needs to step down and resign and do the right thing so this doesn’t have to go any further,” Evans said.
Coming in the wake of Brinkley’s transfer to civil court, Meek’s pardon — one among hundreds made by outgoing Gov. Tom Wolf — highlights the harm she has done to defendants, using probation and parole to inappropriately keep people entangled in the criminal justice system, according to court observers.
“As soon as people knew I was involved with Meek’s case, I started hearing that what happened to him is what happens when people go in front of Judge Brinkley all the time,” Peter Goldberger, a member of Meek’s legal team who handled his pardon process, told Billy Penn. “Hopefully it can trigger some change.”
Though he was “thrilled” to see the pardon granted, Goldberger doesn’t believe it will have any specific impact on Brinkley. The Superior Court’s 2019 ruling vacating Mill’s conviction “helped get this all rolling,” he said, noting that the pardon is about the changes Mill has made in his own life, rather than Brinkley’s uncertain future.
“What is more important news is that the system finally decided enough is enough and took her off criminal cases,” Goldberger said.
Other judges describe ‘startling non-compliance’ with normal procedures
Brinkley doesn’t appear ready to resign. After being stripped of criminal cases last December, she petitioned the Pa. Supreme Court to “remedy the serious abuses of judicial-supervisory authority,” alleging that First Judicial District Administrative Judge Lisette Shirdan-Harris and Supervising Judge Lucretia Clemons “committed unlawful, arbitrary and retaliatory acts” against her.
Shirdan-Harris and Clemons filed an official response to Brinkley’s petition on Jan. 12, maintaining — as criminal justice activists also allege — that her failure to follow established judicial protocols led to severe disruptions in the court system. After investigating the post-trial criminal cases in Brinkley’s control, Clemons found “startling non-compliance” with normal procedures, the response said. It described a “false narrative of the supervisory responses to her wrongful conduct” and said Brinkley’s petition was “premised on personal views and grievance and not law.”
Brinkley currently remains removed from criminal court, as the Pa. Supreme Court has not yet ruled in the case.
Gary Green, Brinkley’s attorney, said she’s paying a price for a split in judicial philosophy happening within the First Judicial District, and that Shirdan-Harris and Clemons’ answer was “a ploy and a smear” that unfairly injected new facts into the case.
In Meek’s case, Green said, Brinkley tried to be lenient but wasn’t able to get her message across. “Either we have a system of laws that applies to everybody or we don’t. She didn’t make up the law; she applied the law.”
People who were present when Brinkely sentenced Meek to prison have a different view.
Brad Bridge, an assistant defender at the Defender Association of Philadelphia, was the lone witness to testify at the rapper’s post-conviction relief hearing. Brinkley cross-examined him for 45 minutes, smirking at his testimony and acting inappropriately, he recalled.
By placing people like Meek on extensive periods of probation and then imposing onerous conditions they were likely to fail, Brinkley regularly incarcerated people for “trivial offenses,” Bridge said. In Meek’s case, that meant going to prison for popping a wheelie.
“That can’t be what the criminal justice system is for,” Bridge said. “Judges can’t be intruding so much in people’s lives to be controlling what they do. It just underscores how wrongheaded she was.”
Brinkley’s harsh sentencing of Meek was part of a pattern, critics say
Through the REFORM Alliance, Meek Mill has been working since his release to transform the probation and parole system to prevent more people in his position from being incarcerated.
The details of Meek’s case are similar to so many others “of his generation and background,” his attorney Goldberger noted, which has inspired the rapper’s work since leaving prison. “He threw himself into understanding that he was not uniquely persecuted in his case. He had the benefit of a spotlight, but he was one of a million.”
Meek’s pardon, he said, is a chance to reflect on each element of the system that led him to prison and the potential to reform it. “I hope people see that what happened to him is not because he’s a celebrity,” Goldberger said.
Brinkley has “muddied her name as a judge,” said Evans, of the 215 People’s Alliance. He’s heartened by the recent removal of criminal cases from her docket, which means “her superiors see the miscarriage of justice here.”
The People’s Alliance is holding its protests outside Juanita Kidd Stout Center for Criminal Justice from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. on each of the next three Wednesdays, to continue applying pressure on Brinkley.
If she doesn’t resign, Evans said, the organization will look to influence her retention vote later this year.
Bridge, the assistant defender who testified at Meek Mill’s post-conviction hearing, called Brinkley’s actions in that case “cringeworthy.” Her approach, he said, was “totally at odds with any sort of rehabilitative model of judicial involvement in people’s lives.”