Remembering Alvin Sykes, human rights activist

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Opinion column

Alvin Sykes (File photo by Mary Rupert)

by Mary Rupert

One of the most successful human rights activists in the area, Alvin Sykes, died Friday morning, nearly two years after a fall at Union Station landed him in a nursing home.

“He was such an influential part of social justice and human rights in this area,” recalled State Sen. David Haley, D-4th Dist. “I can’t think immediately of anyone who worked more tirelessly toward that goal than Alvin Sykes.”

“On a personal note, my legacy as a legislator is most noted by legislation that he originated and encouraged me to support,” Sen. Haley said.

Sykes was the impetus behind Sen. Haley’s supporting the wrongful incarceration compensation law, creating a DNA cold case task force, Scruffy’s law against animal cruelty, medical marijuana, eyewitness standard benchmarks, audio-visual recording for all felony cases, and hate crimes enhancement legislation, Sen. Haley said.

Alvin Sykes, second from left, attended a bill signing for the wrongfully convicted compensation law in May 2018 at which State Sen. David Haley, right, spoke. (File photo by Mary Rupert)

Those measures and more were a result of the advocacy of Sykes bringing them to him, and then insisting that he do something with them to see them through the process, Sen. Haley said.

This year, the governor issued a statement favoring medical marijuana, but for many years, Sen. Haley was the only one proposing it in the Kansas Legislature. In 2008, Sen. Haley proposed legalizing medical marijuana after he was urged by Sykes to address the issue. Young black men were being disproportionately arrested and jailed on possession charges, and Sykes urged Sen. Haley to do something about it. More than 10 years went by, and other states passed legalization laws while Kansas still debated it.

In many ways, Sykes was ahead of his time.

Sykes did not advocate only at the Kansas legislative level, Sen. Haley said. He also was active in Missouri state advocacy, as well as at the federal level. He worked with legislators on both sides of the aisle. A high mark of Sykes’ activism was the passage of the Emmett Till legislation in Congress. Cold civil rights cases could be reopened years after they had been closed.

Sykes was on his way to visit the Rev. Wheeler Parker, a cousin of Emmett Till’s, when Sykes fell in March 2019 at Union Station in Kansas City, Missouri. Sykes had been instrumental in changing the federal law, allowing for prosecution to take place decades after the 1955 racially motivated lynching in Mississippi.

Sykes, 64, was at a rehab facility in Johnson County when he died. A self-taught activist, Sykes spent many hours of his life researching the laws at the area’s public libraries, then contacting legislators. He was a scholar in residence at the Kansas City, Missouri, Public Library.

“His legal acumen was far superior to me,” Sen. Haley, who has a law degree, recalled.

Sykes read to study, learn and apply what he learned, Sen. Haley said. “He was on a mission, his mission was to bring knowledge to light as it should apply in the legal system, and in parity for all people,” he said.

Sen. Haley said he would occasionally meet with Sykes at Fritz’s restaurant on 18th and at other places to discuss human rights legislation, before Sykes’ fall. They had some occasionally heated discussions on the issues.

Sometimes Haley was mindful of how the legislation would affect his chances of getting re-elected, but Sykes would continue to advocate for bills that would advance human rights. Sykes was persistent, always.

Sen. Haley said he was talking to Sykes a few days ago about legislation that Sykes was interested in getting passed, and he had been planning a meeting with him soon.

Though flat on his back at a nursing home, Sykes was still working on writing the story of his life and other issues, he said.

“I can’t believe he’s gone,” Sen. Haley said.

“Alvin was a wonderful advocate,” Sen. Haley said. “He shook you to the core and made you think. There’s nobody like him, just nobody like him that I’ve ever met. He called me his big little brother.”

Active for decades in the fight to maintain rights and fight for minorities, Sykes was quick to let people know that he didn’t want to be known as a “civil rights activist,” he was a “human rights activist.” He advocated for rights for everyone.

In an interview in April 2018, Sykes said that he was confident that progress was being made in human rights, and he felt he had achieved some of his goals. He told us about how Buddhist beliefs influenced his work.

So much of his work was about getting the truth, and then seeking closure, he told us in 2017.

Sykes did more than just notice that things weren’t right in this world. He took it a step further, doing the research necessary to find out why it wasn’t right, and then taking steps within the system to change it.

Services for Alvin Sykes have been scheduled. Viewing will be from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. April 1, followed by services at 11 a.m. April 1 at Metropolitan Missionary Baptist Church, 2301 E. Linwood Blvd., Kansas City, Missouri.

A Go Fund Me page has been established to help with the cost of Alvin’s memorial service, at https://www.gofundme.com/f/alvin-sykes-memorial-fund?member=9501212&utm_campaign=p_cp+share-sheet&utm_medium=copy_link_all&utm_source=customer.

To see some earlier stories about Alvin Sykes and his work, visit:
http://www.wyandottedaily.com/closed-case-dna-bill-passes-senate/
http://www.wyandottedaily.com/sykes-to-receive-peace-builder-award/
http://www.wyandottedaily.com/kck-human-rights-activist-optimistic-about-reaching-goals/
http://www.wyandottedaily.com/local-activist-and-others-take-a-new-look-at-the-emmett-till-case/
http://www.wyandottedaily.com/human-rights-activist-to-receive-award-tonight/

To reach Mary Rupert, editor, email maryr@wyandottedaily.com

Bill backed by Innocence Project would expand DNA searches to closed cases

by Mary Rupert

A bill was introduced in the Kansas Senate this week to expand DNA searches to closed cases.

The bill is supported by State Sen. David Haley, D-4th Dist., and human rights activist Alvin Sykes, as well as by the Innocence Project.

Law enforcement agencies frequently send DNA samples to laboratories for testing, and the labs report back the results with DNA matches in the combined DNA index system.

Currently, according to the bill’s supporters, after a person is convicted, the case is closed. When DNA tests are run, the search passes over closed cases and looks for an open case to compare. But if the search includes closed cases, sometimes a match can be made where another person has already been convicted, according to the bill’s supporters, which raises questions about whether the right person is in prison.

If closed cases are excluded from the DNA searches, information that might exonerate individuals can be missed, according to supporters of the bill. A proposed change to the law would mandate notification for both closed and open cases.

Sen. David Haley

“At the end of the day, we in the legal community just want to ensure that the true perpetrators are doing the time, and that innocent people are not,” Sen. Haley said. “It’s a simple concept. Public safety is not enhanced if someone is getting away with a crime and someone else is convicted of a crime they didn’t commit.”

Sen. Haley is a member of the Judiciary Committee, which introduced the bill.

The bill also calls for authorities to share this data from both solved and unsolved cases with the prosecutors’ offices, the original defense attorney and the last known attorney of record, crime victims, surviving relatives and a local organization that litigates claims of innocence.

The bill calls for a closed case task force to develop protocols for a process to be implemented. The proposed task force would include legislators, governor’s office, attorney general, law enforcement agencies, prosecutors, indigents’ defense service, attorneys, victim services, and innocence organization litigators. The task force would submit its report by Dec. 1, 2020, under the proposed bill.

If Kansas passes the bill, it would be the first one in the country, according to supporters.

“It’s a great concept, it’s really common sense,” Sen. Haley said about the bill. “Kansas will be the first to implement it, and I suspect, once it’s passed, others will follow suit.”

Sen. Haley said he appreciated Alvin Sykes bringing this concept to him.

Alvin Sykes (File photo)

“When a sample of DNA is circulated nationwide seeking a matched identification it currently skips over ‘closed cases’ because somebody, possibly innocent, is already convicted for the crime and continues automatically searching ‘open’ unsolved cases for possible matches,” Alvin Sykes said in a statement.

“The Emmett Till Justice Campaign has joined forces with the Innocence Project to prove with this ‘first-in-the-nation’ legislation that if the lab results of the DNA hits are circulated amongst the prosecutors and defense attorneys associated with both ‘closed’ and ‘open’ cases we will systemically identify countless innocent people serving time for crimes they did not commit,” Sykes said in a written statement. “Kansas SB 102 was introduced as a ‘Committee of the Judiciary’ bill by courageous justice champion Kansas Sen. David Haley this week at my personal request based on research and model legislation drafted by the Innocence Project in New York. The Emmett Till Justice Campaign will keep on keeping on turning the poison coming out of Till’s murder in 1955 into the medicine of justice for countless victims of injustices, including the falsely convicted, into the infinite future. We strongly urge all justice seeking Americans to join us in support of Kansas Senate Bill 102 and all similar legislation when it rolls into your state in the future.”

Rebecca Brown, director of policy for the Innocence Project, is supporting the proposed legislation.

“The Innocence Project is thrilled to see Kansas take the lead on a critical innocence reform that will not only help to settle claims of innocence but also help to identify people who committed serious, violent crimes,” Brown said in a prepared statement. “An overlooked corner of our criminal justice system is the ‘black hole’ of ‘hits to closed cases,’ which – absent sound policymaking – will continue to enable miscarriages of justice. We are so grateful to Senator Haley for his leadership and longtime justice advocate Alvin Sykes for bringing attention to this needed area of reform. We are hopeful that Kansas will lead the nation in this important area of reform, demonstrating how stakeholders can work together to make sure our shared justice goals are realized.”

The bill, Senate Bill 102, introduced by the Senate Judiciary Committee, is online at http://www.kslegislature.org/li/b2019_20/measures/sb102/.