Joel Robinson of Orangeburg, South Carolina, was home alone one morning in October of 2014. It was 6 a.m.—still dark out—when suddenly a group of men burst onto the property, armed and yelling. Alarmed and assuming he was experiencing a home invasion, Robinson grabbed his gun and fled out the back door. As he ran to safety, he shot one of the men he thought was a burglar in the arm.
It was then that Robinson realized that the home invaders were actually federal agents, officers of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) who were executing a search warrant on his home on the suspicion that he’d been manufacturing the drug PCP. Robinson, who had never shot anyone before, immediately dropped his weapon and was arrested.
Seems like a simple case of self-defense, right? Robinson had no way to initially know that the men storming his house were federal agents; he didn’t kill anyone; and as soon as he understood what was happening, he gave up his gun.
Unfortunately, the DEA and the local justice system thought otherwise: Because even accidentally shooting a federal agent counts as assault, Robinson was hit with a whole host of charges—enough to get him a life sentence if convicted for all of them.
His charges included manufacturing and intending to distribute illegal drugs, but no drugs were ever found in his house.
And the DEA officers who ran unannounced into Robinson’s home at 6 a.m.? They weren’t even following their own protocol. “There’s a statute that requires you to knock and announce, and give the person an opportunity to come to the door and answer, and they didn’t do that,” explained one of Robinson’s defense attorneys. If they had, it’s not hard to imagine Robinson’s response would have been very different indeed.
Ultimately, to escape 30 or more years in prison, Robinson accepted a deal in which he plead guilty to the shooting, was sentenced to eight years in prison, and agreed to pay the officer’s $82,000 medical bills (despite the fact that they’d already been covered by insurance).
Joel Robinson’s life is effectively ruined.
How any of this can be said to remotely resemble justice is beyond me.
Robinson’s house was raided on the suspicion that he was manufacturing PCP—but when no drugs were found he was still charged with drug production.
And the agents who invaded his house didn’t follow their own rules to identify themselves—but Robinson was still charged with assault for not realizing who they were.
It goes almost without saying that Robinson is black. While it is impossible to say what kind of role race may or may not have played in his case, there is significant evidence that institutional racism remains a real problem in our justice system. This is particularly true where the drug war is concerned, as black people are more likely than white people to be arrested, convicted, jailed, and given long sentences for the exact same drug crimes.
But perhaps the saddest part of this whole story is that Robinson expressed gratitude that the DEA agents didn’t shoot and kill him on sight. Though that certainly is a mercy, it is appalling that a man who was caught doing nothing wrong would expect that armed government agents could murder him in his home.