Injustice in Our Justice System

When he was 18 years old, Tony Yarbough’s mother was murdered.

So was his 12-year-old sister, and her 12-year-old friend.

The grief of losing a mother and a sister to murder is unimaginable to me.

But it’s possible that what Tony Yarbough is going through now is even worse.

He’s in jail.

For the murders of his mother and his sister.

Tony Yarbough is innocent. A slight, soft-spoken young African-American man, Tony Yarbough was not given a fair trial. He wakes up and goes to sleep every night behind bars. Even though he committed no crime.

He’s being held in Attica Correctional Facility, a maximum-security prison in upstate New York.

Two years ago a man named Eric Barden went to see my brother, one of New York City’s top criminal defense lawyers. My brother tried to brush him off. Barden persisted, asking him simply to review the transcripts of Tony’s trial.

As he read the transcripts, my brother, Zachary Margulis-Ohnuma, started getting angry:

“What I read was astounding: Tony was convicted in 1994 of murdering his mother, his 12-year-old sister and another 12-year-old girl on the slimmest of evidence, a rehearsed, contradictory statement from his 15-year-old co-defendant who had been convicted of the same murders based on a confession he gave after hours of interrogation without an adult present. No physical evidence, no motive, no murder weapon, and no investigation of a far more believable alternative theory (Tony’s mother was a drug addict and had been threatened at knifepoint the night of the murders by a junkie she had ripped off). Worst of all, Tony’s lawyers failed to pursue the fact that the physical evidence showed the murders took place hours earlier than the co-defendant claimed, when both boys had an alibi the DA did not challenge. It did not take much more than reading the transcript to see that Tony was innocent and desperately needed legal assistance. But Eric—who turned out to be Tony’s cellmate in Attica—also gave me a letter from the co-defendant to Tony’s aunt recanting his testimony and explaining how the police set the boys up.

My brother filed a motion to set aside the verdict for Tony last summer. The DA opposed the motion, but agreed to some limited DNA testing. In the motion papers and subsequent requests, my brother asked the judge for resources—they need a private investigator, a forensic pathologist and a crime scene expert. The court has ignored those requests. The need for a private investigator is particularly acute as my brother believes the crime can be solved and that Tony is unlikely to be freed unless the real killers are caught.

What kind of justice system is this?

Why would we start a witch hunt against an 18-year-old with no prior record, no motive for murder, and no evidence against him, and put him behind bars for a crime he didn’t commit?

I’m saddened and sickened by Tony’s story.

I’m saddened and sickened by the racism and sexual orientation discrimination that persists in this country and by the way young black men are often treated as guilty when they have done nothing wrong, as if being young, black, and male is enough of a reason for the white “justice” system to put you behind bars.

More information can be found here. Bottom line: We need to get Tony Yarbough out of Attica. We need to find the real criminals who killed his family. DA, are you listening? Stop perpetuating this cruel cover up that has robbed a young man of his freedom and his life. Reopen Tony Yarbough’s case. We have a black president. This isn’t the 1950s. Everyone in America has the right to a fair trial.

Related posts:
When Your Husband is in Jail
I Go to Jail
Crime at the Co-op
A New Mom’s Story of Stealing

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13 thoughts on “Injustice in Our Justice System”

  1. i want to say i’m astonished to read this, but i’m not really surprised. increasingly, i’ve lost faith in justice. in other areas of life, we have the ponzi scheme which victimized many people, a political party which is trying to dismantle workers’ unions, state governments which break their promises by “revising” pension plans. On a personal level, when I filed a formal complaint against my direct supervisor, HR told me becasue the harrassment i experienced was not of a sexaual or racial nature, the harrassment was “legal.” For this young man . . . i’m not opmistic.

  2. This story is indicative of the reality that Blacks live with daily, which occasionally surfaces from beneath the vast sea of racist norm that covers the country. It’s not popular to think that America is a racist nation, with deep-rooted institutions governed by racist constructs guarded by racist power brokers.

    Millions of well-meaning non-racists in the majority populace cannot fathom that the ugliness of the nation that caused the death of Dr. Martin Luther King in 1968 might still exist more than 42 years later. But that’s because they are not exposed to it.

    Consider the motives of each individual in the story of Tony Yarbough and compare those motives to the outrage of the author of this article. How do the actions of the police, DA, judge, jury, media and all the supporting cast and characters involved in each of the institutions of jurisprudence and public influence compare with the heartfelt outcry for justice from this author?

    Juxtapose the reaction today, not in 1984, but today, from the same institutions of so-called justice against the angst felt by this author over the life of an individual she doesn’t know.

    The dismissive attitudes of those power brokers and authorities who readily, easily and willingly condemn innocent people to a torturous existence even when faced with opportunities to correct the hypocritical damage they intentionally inflicted upon an innocent person whom they accused of doing the same to others, is evidence of the continued hatred that remains pervasive throughout institutions of power in America.

    Few in the majority population want to talk about race in America, just those us impacted by it. Well, that dynamic exactly what enables racism to maintain its power and why innocent people who are subjected to it have no voice.

    The notion that America has a Black president and therefore must not be a racist nation is exactly the same rationale that a major university used when it refused admission to Dorothy Height (a Civil Rights heroine who a dozen presidents greeted while she continues to remain unknown to America to this day). The school had a couple of Black students. The same rationale is used by companies, industries, etc. to justify behavior that continues to ignore the deep-seated problems of a demographic that has endured generations of targeting by institutionalized hostility in America.

    Somehow, the majority populace has vindicated itself, lifted the nation from its impurities and magically uplifted all of the downtrodden into equal status within the span of four decades without ever once thinking through how such a magical occurrence might have taken place … if, indeed if ever did.

    We look at the president and see him as a representative of the long road we’ve walked as a nation from a mere four decades ago … after four centuries of racial hatred and hostility. The very existence of a Black president must mean racism is eradicated, we hear. Yet, the ongoing experience of Tony Yarbough and many others testify otherwise.

    America has made a modicum of progress in race relations. That seems to be enough, perhaps even too much for some. And that one step in the right direction has seemingly been accepted as the limit. There’s no need to continue to speak of race in America. That was our past, say the majority.

    Yet, expose the majority to the facts that Black America has a 16% unemployment rate and many shrug their shoulders and wonder why we have to segregate the data. Why should we pay special attention to the problems of Blacks when we all have problems, many ask.

    Black wealth is 6% of the average wealth of White families, down from 25% in Dr. King’s day. 2 million Black businesses in total produce less than 1% of the nation’s GDP. Blacks receive 1% of investment in tech-related entrepreneurship. Blacks own 1% of media, the most influential industry outside of banking (yet another piece of the pie that’s less than 1% for Blacks).

    This extremely small amount of economic progress over the past 40 years comes with a tremendous price tag, but that data is also hidden from White America. When we can’t talk about race, we can’t talk about the associated problems and the power brokers who wield the swords of dismissiveness.

    Meanwhile, the Tony Yarboughs of this nation, impacted severely by the institutions of authority controlled by power brokers who maintain the status quo and resist the changing tide, find themselves ignored and unheard by those who might otherwise be concerned. But we don’t like to talk about race. Its in the past, some say. Talking about it keeps it alive, they say.

    No one subjected to the hostilities of the power brokers are saying such things. Certainly not Tony Yarbough.

    But I’m encouraged. This author is indicative of millions who do care. Millions who want change. Millions who supported CORE and actively engaged in the Civil Rights Movement. We need those voices today. We need that energy, that concern and the action that follows.

    Even if it means writing one article, one email or making one phone call. One small act taken by millions of people equals millions of acts, millions of voices being heard and a cacophony of protest and outrage that cannot be ignored.

    This article raises one concerned voice. I’m hopeful there are more.

  3. Sounds like the problem today is the court denying the attorney’s requests. I have seen countless cases like this on 20/20 and Dateline etc. that have gone on for years and until innocent people are released. Well, great. Now their lives are over. If there is a remote possibility that he was imprisoned in error, what kind of judge would not hasten to seek more evidence? What kind of system is this? The kind that let Simpson run free after he clearly, with all evidence against him, killed his wife. But, beyond a reasonable doubt? No. This case seems like the opposite and neither is understandable or acceptable to me. We are a long way off, though, from racial profiling in this country. It sickens me. I heard Barack Obama tell the story of how his own mother admitted to tightening the grip on her purse whenever a black man passed her on the street. In a nation that has more interest in Charlie Sheen than the leader of Libya, right now, what do we expect? How did we get here? By turning the cheek, or, in this case, the eyelashes.

  4. That’s an incredibly sad, maddening, frustrating story, Jennifer. I wonder if a letter-writing campaign to the DA would have any impact?

  5. Jennifer. I am sorry that it took me this long to visit your blog, and to read about Tony. As you know, my husband is in prison, so the reasoning (or lack of) and dealings that happen within our justice system do not surprise me any longer. It makes me angry, and makes me sad. Plain and simple – the American justice system needs to be reformed. I wish that I could physically do something to help Tony. Believe me I really do, but at the very least, I am going to get this post out to as many people as I know who can read about this, and I know, will sympathize as I do. An awareness needs to reached. I’ll do whatever I can. Thank you for writing this. Much Love – Lori.

  6. Thanks to everyone who commented and especially to Jennifer for posting this piece. There is a lot to say but in response to the comments my main point is this: do not give up on our country, our legal system, or Tony Yarbough. there is nothing “typical” about this situation. @Holly, yes letters to the DA and the judge could help (email me at for specifics). But most of all right now Tony needs financial and expert assistance to help us catch the real murderers of his family. If you are a forensic pathologist, please call me. If you can donate even a few dollars, please do so by clicking the donate button on the Free Tony Yarbough page at The system, flawed as it is, provides avenues to correct its own errors. I have no doubt that one day, this horrible error will be corrected (I won’t rest until that happens) but how long it takes – one year or twenty – depends on you. Please help if you can. Zach.

  7. Jennifer, I just saw your incredible blog. I couldn’t agree more with Mike Green. I worry about the future of our young black men in America. This is a country that loves to say it puts family and children first, but both are narrowly defined and black boys especially are too often marginalized. It’s a sad statement about society. Stories like Tony’s and unfortunately so many others need to be told. Thank you for sharing this. I’m forwarding it to friends and family right now.

  8. Wow. What a frustrating, maddening story — and one I hadn’t heard about until I read this post. I’m praying for Tony and all involved that justice is served ASAP to the REAL killer.

  9. I’m afraid I do not have much confidence in the justice system either, and wish it were otherwise. The switch for me had to do with a case here on Cape Cod about 10 years ago. An African-American garbage man was convicted of writer Christa Worthington’s murder, while everyone local believed the real murderer was his white buddy, who produced an alibi, but remains free to this day.

  10. What a sad, frightening story. I truly hope justice is served and the real killers are found and punished.

  11. This makes me ill to read. I think both of Tony — and the countless other prisoners who have been unfairly convicted. Please let us know what happens.

  12. Amazing. There’s a new book out offering a chilling look at how often this sort of thing happens. Apparently, a good deal of psychological data shows that false confessions are really common. Hard to imagine for people who’ve never been interrogated, I suppose, which is why confessions, regardless of circumstances, seem to hold so much weight.

    This poor kid! Zach, I’m so glad he has you on his team. I wish I could somehow help with the legal roadblocks the system is throwing at you. I’d be happy to write a letter to someone in power–would that be of any use in at least getting the case some attention?

    Thank you for fighing!

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