When Elijah Martinez, eighteen, was arrested on suspicion of murdering Wayli Alvarado-Gonzalez, fifteen, in the parking lot of a Denver 7-Eleven on New Year's Day 2020, local media treated the story like another typical urban crime in which one brown youth killed another. But to attorney Jason Flores-Williams, who represents Martinez and has made a name for himself in Denver by taking on the powers-that-be (back in 2016, he sued the city over homeless sweeps), it's much more than that.
In Flores-Williams's view, the case, which is at the center of a major motions hearing scheduled for Friday, August 28, with a trial currently set for November, is a test to determine if people of color in the Mile High City, and America as a whole, are given the same right to self-defense as white defendants.
He underscores this concern by comparing what Martinez did to the actions of Bernard Goetz, who was acquitted of attempted murder after gunning down four threatening passengers on a New York City subway back in 1984; George Zimmerman, cleared in the fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin in 2012; and Patricia and Mark McCloskey, lauded at the Republican National Convention this week for pointing guns at Black Lives Matter protesters in St. Louis earlier this year.
"If you look at what happens at trial for a person like Goetz or Zimmerman or other defendants who come from the dominant culture, their interior lives about being victims of violent crime and all the things they've experienced are taken into consideration when it comes to criminal culpability," Flores-Williams says. "But the dominant culture doesn't think black and brown people have interior lives — and that's racism on a fundamental level."
Flores-Williams stresses Martinez's environment and living conditions prior to his fateful encounter with Alvarado-Gonzalez on January 1. "The 7-Eleven is in the Ruby Hill neighborhood, which has seen an absolute increase in violence — multiple murders in the last year," he points out. "If you're a Chicano/Latino kid trying to do well, trying to stay out of that life, you're still going to be affected by that violence continuously, and that's the case with Elijah Martinez."
A student at Excel Academy, Martinez is an outstanding point guard for a basketball team that plays at the Athmar Recreation Center, Flores-Williams continues, "and when he was in eighth and ninth grade, he was able to walk to the rec center. But because of the increase in violence and gang activity, he's had to be driven there for the past year or two. Before a baseball game, he went to a Shell station, where he was robbed at gunpoint, stripped of his clothes, and forced to run home in his boxers. And when he went to an eighteenth-birthday party for a friend, he had to leave because gang members showed up — and one of his friends was beaten to a pulp on a street corner."
According to Flores-Williams, these past events helped shape the way that Martinez reacted at the 7-Eleven. "Elijah and his friends were there, and words were exchanged with this other group. There are no saints here; nobody's wonderful," he acknowledges. "But Elijah eventually made the determination to say, 'This is not a good situation' and walk away — and as was established at the preliminary hearing, he and his friends did. But the other kids, who'd been pumping gas, followed them all the way across the parking lot and started throwing punches at Elijah's friends, and Elijah stepped in and stabbed this kid in defense of others — which is statutorily mandated when there's an initial aggressor."
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He sees Martinez's response as similar to the actions of Goetz, a past mugging victim who said he was afraid that the four black youths he encountered would beat him. Instead, Goetz opened fire before they could, and after hearing his rationale, a jury convicted him only of illegally possessing a gun.
Moreover, Flores-Williams notes, Goetz "was seen as a subway vigilante, a hero, standing up for his right to be left alone to live a life that's free of violence." Likewise, the Zimmerman shooting was forgiven, at least from a criminal standpoint, and the menacing of the McCloskeys celebrated because "certain people in the dominant culture can see their perspective and their fear. So their actions are justified."
All too often, Flores-Williams continues, that hasn't been the case with defendants of color such as Martinez — and he offers a scenario to illustrate the hypocrisy: "Let's say what happened at that 7-Eleven happened outside the Cherry Creek mall. Some upper-class, privileged, suburban white kids are walking out with their bags, and they exchange words with some black kids in a car. Then the white kids walk away, and the black kids get out of their car and walk sixty yards across a parking lot — the same distance the kids walked to Elijah and his friends — and confront and start assaulting the white kids until one of the white kids pulls a knife in self-defense. Do you think that white kid would be charged with first-degree murder?"
By pointing out these contradictions, Flores-Williams hopes to prevent Martinez from being punished for defending himself and others in a way that was deemed legal in those famed cases involving whites. "The dominant culture doesn't think black and brown people experience trauma," he maintains. "They think PTSD and trauma only happens to white people. But black and brown people feel it, too — and those experiences matter just as much as they do to whites."