Does Criminal Punishment of Police Contribute or Distract from Societal Transformation of Racism?


Co-organized by the Transitional Justice-Rule of Law Interest Group of the American Society of International Law and the Association of American Law Schools Section on International Human Rights

Date: Monday, February 28, 2022, 12:00 – 1:30 PM EST

Webinar Description:

While many celebrated Dereck Chauvin’s conviction for the murder of George Floyd as a sign of progress, others worried that it would distract from the systemic change needed to combat racism in policing and put the focus instead on a few “bad apples.” Such considerations about criminal punishment are familiar to transitional justice scholars and activists, who have long debated the appropriate aim and reach of criminal accountability in transitioning societies. On one hand, some have argued there is a duty to prosecute all involved in mass atrocity, while critics are concerned that criminal punishment reinforces an individualized and decontextualized understanding of harms and diminishes the likelihood of more profound transformation. This panel will contextualize these debates by centering the role of police accountability in the much needed racial reckoning in the United States and discussing both the potential benefits and limitations of prosecuting police for racial violence. In particular, the panel will explore whether criminal accountability has lived up to its promise in other transitioning contexts and what lessons we can learn from those examples that might be applicable in the United States.


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Roxanna Altholz, Clinical Professor of Law and Co-Director, International Human Rights Law Clinic, Berkley Law School

Roxanna Altholz ’99 is an international human rights lawyer and scholar with extensive experience in international and national fora. Altholz has won several ground-breaking judgments from the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, provided expert testimony before UN human rights groups, and initiated legal actions on behalf of human rights victims in U.S. federal courts. She has also developed advocacy and research initiatives to address human rights violations suffered by asylum seekers and migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border, to examine the human rights impacts of unsolved murders in Oakland, and to understand accountability mechanisms for private companies receiving international financing.

Prior to teaching at Berkeley, Altholz served as a legal advisor for the United Nations Mission in Kosovo (1999-2000) and a staff attorney at the Center for Justice and International Law (CEJIL) in Washington, D.C. (2000-2005). At CEJIL, Altholz handled a docket comprised of approximately 40 cases involving massacres, extrajudicial killings, torture, disappearances, and discrimination in the United States, Colombia, Guatemala, Dominican Republic, and Ecuador before the Inter-American human rights system.

Altholz’s most recent publications include, “Living with Impunity: Unsolved Murders in Oakland and the Human Rights Impact on Victims’ Family Members,” “Dam Violence: The Plan to Kill Berta Cáceres,” and “Chronicle of A Death Foretold: The Future of U.S. Human Rights Litigation Post-Kiobel,” appeared in the California Law Review (2014). She is the recipient of the 2013 UC Berkeley Law Young Alumni Award and the 2013 UC Berkeley’s Foundation for Change Thomas I. Yamashita Prize.

Nikki Grant, Policy Director, Amistad Law Project’s Policy Director and co-founder Our Team | Amistad Law Project

Nikki Grant is Amistad Law Project’s Policy Director and co-founder. She is the proud daughter of Jamaican immigrants and grew up in a tightly-knit, working class West Indian community in Orlando, Florida. As a young person, she witnessed poverty, racial segregation and inequitable schools in her community, as well as her father’s disabling chronic illness. She was inspired by the demonstration of care by primarily Black women neighbors and church family to work towards social equity through a Black feminist lens. Nikki is a movement lawyer, Courtwatch Organizer for the Judge Accountability Table, and a founding member of the Coalition to Abolish Death by Incarceration. She is also a board member of the Women’s Medical Fund, where she serves on the Community Organizing committee.

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Darryl Heller, Director of the IU South Bend Civil Rights Heritage Center and Assistant Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies, Indiana University

Darryl Heller is the director of the IU South Bend Civil Rights Heritage Center and an assistant professor of women’s and gender studies. Since arriving in South Bend in 2015, he has brought his extensive experience as an organizer and activist to the work of the Civil Rights Heritage Center, transforming it into a vibrant hub of activity in the fight for civil rights and social justice. He also teaches and facilitates discussions on the difficult topics of the history of racism and white supremacy, race construction, and the intersection of race and gender.

After receiving his B.A. in philosophy from the College of Charleston in the early 1980s, Heller spent 20 years working in the fields of human services, community development and political activism. While living in New York City, he earned an M.A. in American studies from Columbia University. He also co-founded of the Amistad Institute, a nonprofit organization with the mission to design, develop and implement educational programs for inner-city communities. Heller came to the Midwest to pursue additional studies and earned his Ph.D. in history from the University of Chicago.

Helen Mack, President and Founder of the Myrna Mack Foundation

Helen Beatriz Mack Chang is president of the Myrna Mack Foundation. She began her fight in the search for justice after the murder of her sister Myrna Mack by the Guatemalan military in 1990, including wining a favorable judgment by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights and eventually leading to the prosecution of state agents for human rights violation. In 2004, the Guatemalan government accepted responsibility for the murder and paid compensation to the Mack family.  Ms. Mack is recognized nationally and internationally as a key figure in the fight against impunity in Guatemala, for her contributions to peace, democracy and reconciliation, and for her proposals to transform the institutions of justice, security, national defense and intelligence in the country. She has directed the Commission for the Strengthening of Justice, the Security Advisory Council and the Commission for Police Reform. She has been a member of the directives of CEJIL, the Foundation for Legal Due Process and the Fund for Global Human Rights, among others. Due to her experience in security, justice and human rights issues, she has given talks in different international spaces and has been requested as an expert in human rights cases before the Inter-American Court. She received the Right Livelihood Award in 1992, considered the alternative Nobel Peace Prize; the Notre Dame Award for Outstanding Public Service in Latin America in 2005; the King of Spain Award for Human Rights in 2006; the Order of the Legion of Honor in Knighthood of the Government of France in 2011; the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) Human Rights Award in 2012; and in June 2014 he received an Honorary Doctorate in Law from the University of Guelph, in Canada, among many other national and international recognitions.


Rachel Lopez, Associate Professor of Law, Drexel University, Thomas R. Kline School of Law

Rachel López is an Associate Professor of Law at the Thomas R. Kline School of Law at Drexel University and the Director of the Andy and Gwen Stern Community Lawyering Clinic. She is currently a Fellow at the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School. She has also held visiting fellowships at the Lauterpacht Centre for International Law at the University of Cambridge, the Orville H. Schell, Jr. Center for International Human Rights at Yale Law School, and the Max Planck Institute for Comparative Public Law and International Law. In 2016, Professor López researched transitional justice in Guatemala and Spain as a Fulbright Scholar. From 2015 to 2019, she served as a Commissioner on the Pennsylvania Sentencing Commission, as an appointee of Governor Tom Wolf.

Her scholarship primarily focuses on state responsibility for mass abuse, transitional justice, and the carceral state. Her articles have appeared or are forthcoming in well-regarded law journals, such as the Northwestern Law ReviewColumbia Journal of Transnational Law, NYU Journal of International Law and Politics, and University of Pennsylvania Journal of International Law. Her article, The Law of Gravity, was selected for the “New Voices in Human Rights and International Law” session at the 2020 Association of American Law Schools (AALS) Annual Meeting. Her work has been featured in The Hill, Americas Quarterly, Opinio Juris, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Open Global Rights, and local affiliates of National Public Radio (NPR) and the National Broadcasting Company (NBC). She has also testified at hearings before the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and the Philadelphia City Council.

She is a co-chair of the 2022 Annual Meeting for the American Society for International Law (ASIL) as well as for the Transitional Justice & Rule of Law Interest Group of the Society. Additionally, she is a co-founder of the Collaborative Research Network (CRN) on Transitional Justice at the Law and Society Association. She serves on the Executive Committees of the AALS Sections on International Human Rights, Civil Rights, and Elder Law and is also the treasurer for the AALS Section on International Human Rights. Recently, she was also appointed to serve on the Board and the Legal Advisory Committee of the Philadelphia Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.

Prior to joining the law school, Professor López was a clinical teaching fellow and then a visiting assistant clinical professor at Seton Hall University School of Law where she supervised law students on a wide range of cases, including immigration, human rights, death penalty, prisoners’ rights, family law, and civil rights cases, in both domestic and international forums. She also served as a Cooperating Attorney with the Center for Constitutional Rights and clerked for the Honorable Justice Petra Jimenez Maes at the New Mexico Supreme Court. She previously worked at the Open Society Justice Initiative, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. Through the support of the Arthur C. Helton Fellowship from ASIL, she also worked at the Citizen Governance Initiatives in Cameroon.

Professor López received her B.A. in Sociology, Political Science, and International Studies from Northwestern University and her J.D. from the University of Texas, School of Law. She also has an LL.M. in French and European Law from Université Paris 1, Panthéon-Sorbonne.