Can you imagine spending thirteen years in jail for a crime you didn’t commit simply because the exculpatory evidence you might have defended yourself with happened to have been given to someone as a gift? Can you imagine spending thirty years in jail for a crime you didn’t commit and that your prosecutor knew you didn’t commit, only to be released with pennies to pick up your life with and a terminal health condition to manage? Can you imagine not eating fruit or using a fork for thirty years? Can you imagine never having people who walk in front of you, only behind you? Can you imagine having your life stolen from you? There is a story at the end of this article for each question asked in this paragraph.
We’ve all been so engaged in the conversation about and getting outraged at the epidemic of police violence cases that we’ve let another aspect of the police misconduct story go by the wayside: wrongful convictions. That we would be obsessed with daily cases of police brutality is understandable and good, but a horrendous state of affairs requires our undivided attention across the entire span of society. In a very detailed report, the New York Times’ Upshot explains the impact 1.5 million missing Black men is having on African American communities throughout the country. These Black men’s absence is due to incarceration or untimely deaths. Alongside stories of police killings, too quietly, there has been a steady stream of incredibly powerful stories on the recent release of many wrongfully convicted Black men, some who had been on death row for decades.
Exonerations are nothing new in any society. No society is error-free. However, relatively speaking, none seems to be more error-prone than ours. The University of Michigan Law School’s graphic rendering of its registry of exonerations paints a grim picture:
If this isn’t telling enough, here is the racial breakdown for the same information:
According to the website BlackDemographics.com, the African American community comprises 14.1% of the total US population:
“In 2013 US Census Bureau estimated 45,003,665 African Americans in the United States meaning that 14.1% of the total American population of 316.1 Million is Black. This includes those who identify as ‘Black Only’ or as ‘Black in combination with another race’. The ‘Black Only’ category by itself totaled 41.6 million African Americans or 13.2% of the total population.”
So, 1.5 million Black men, or 5% of all African Americans, in jail, is very alarming. While mass-incarceration affects a disproportionately high number of Blacks, also caught in the prison-industrial complex’ web and in very high numbers, are whites, Hispanics, and others. The total number of people who are incarcerated in the US is roughly 2.2 million people. ThinkProgress points out that “Many have estimated the total number of U.S. incarceration to be more than 2.4 million. This is in part because another estimated 12 million individuals cycle through the county jail systems in a given year for periods of less than a year, and are therefore not factored into a snapshot on December 31, (2014.)” The same ThinkProgress piece also points out that 1 in 3 Americans has a criminal record.
These numbers are alarming enough on their own. Add to that the recent admission by the FBI of flaws in its hair analysis for decades, along with all of the other errors, intentional and unintentional, that are committed during any given investigation, and one has to wonder just how many innocent people are in our jails without recourse? Sadly, there is no definitive answer to that question. There are educated suppositions that roughly 10,000 people are wrongfully convicted each year, but we have no way of knowing for sure. We get some idea of the extent in this article from The Week:
“What they found: More than 2,000 people were wrongfully convicted of crimes since 1989. “If that were the extent of the problem we would be encouraged by these numbers,” says Michigan law professor Samuel R. Gross. But sadly, it’s just the tip of the iceberg. One hope of the registry is to find out where the system messes up, so more innocent people don’t end up in jail.”
As with the accounting of police shootings, there is no official count of wrongful convictions state by state, or throughout the US, by any official agency. While Attorney General Holder has spoken out on mass-incarceration, especially marijuana-related ones, and FBI Director Comey has spoken out on racism and police brutality, we have yet to see an effort by both officials’ agencies and others to push for a serious review of criminal justice as a whole and a state by state analysis, in particular.
It doesn’t take a PhD in criminology to see that we are a nation in trouble, with a criminal justice system that has run amok, is corrupt to its core, and cruel beyond the bounds of acceptable ethics. Examples of ethics violations range from malicious prosecution in all classes of crime, debtors’ prisons, all the way to punishing poor teens for truancy by sending them to jails for adults. The ethics breaches are so rampant now that only the most grossly grievous cases get some attention in the press. To those of us who cover these topics, it is difficult, with each outrageous new low, to find adequate language that conveys the severity and seriousness of the situation. When looking at reader comments in social media, it is clear that the public is mostly in the dark about the true extent of the problem. While readers may come across some news stories, media outlets, local and national, only cover cases that come to a boiling point. The daily suffering and injustice that goes on hardly gets a mention. There are prison systems that are habitual human rights violators and they almost never get a mention in the mainstream press. For example, Aramark, a supplier of food to several for-profit prison systems, was serving maggot-infested food in several states. The Marshall Project, an organization started by The New York Times’ former editor, Bill Keller, published a report on the cruel treatment of diabetic inmates who are not allowed to keep their own diabetic medications and supplies on hand and depend on wardens to provide insulin injections, blood sugar tests, shoes, and foods appropriate for a diabetic. Injections are given by prison staff not as needed, but on their own schedule, without regard for the consequences.
“The Uptown People’s Law Center filed a separate complaint in January on behalf of an Illinois prisoner with diabetes who has lost portions of his left heel due to ulcers — a risk of the disease. The plaintiff in the case, Anthony Rodesky, claimed he was denied special diabetic shoes and could not get adequate treatment for what began as minor blisters. He may ultimately lose his entire foot.” […]
“A 23-year-old man died of diabetic ketoacidosis (acids that accumulate in the blood without insulin to regulate them) in 2008 in a small county jail in Illinois, where he was held on suspicion of a misdemeanor property crime. His family claims the jail did not give him regular insulin injections or blood sugar tests during his 69 days in jail — most of which were spent in solitary confinement. The jail denied any wrongdoing and the case is ongoing.”
Needless to say, people need not die of diabetes, in this day and age.
The DOJ report on Ferguson re-opened our eyes to racist practices when it comes to using citations as a means of revenue as well profiling an entire town’s Black population. But Ferguson is hardly the only town in Missouri to suffer from this type of harassment. Since the DOJ report was issued, there has been in-depth reporting on neighboring towns where the situation is even worse. Missouri is hardly the only state where such practices go on. The Tampa Bay Times reports that Black citizens who ride bikes are the target of citations:
In the past three years, Tampa police have written 2,504 bike tickets — more than Jacksonville, Miami, St. Petersburg and Orlando combined.
Police say they are gung ho about bike safety and focused on stopping a plague of bike thefts.
But here’s something they don’t mention about the people they ticket:
Eight out of 10 are black.
How children end up in jail, why, and how they are treated once they get there should be of much greater concern than it is. While we’ve been hearing about some states looking to reduce the number of cases of children tried as adults and reducing life sentences that were handed out in childhood, we are far from having a “national discussion” on reforming the way we arrest, try, and punish children. The variance in treatment, going from state to state, can be measured in lightyears. The only common thread, it seems, is that poor people, children included, get treated the worst. Buzzfeed’s Kendall Taggart reports on Texas teens:
“More than a thousand Texas teenagers have been ordered to lockup on charges that stem from missing school, often because they have unpaid court fines. The costs to their education are high. Some, like Serena Vela, never go back.”
The idea of rehabilitation, when talking about our system of justice, has all but been erased from our lexicon. The focus is on punishment. The harsher, the better. Pile the fines on poor men and women; children too. Disability, whether in a child or an adult, affords no consideration. When there is a disability, increasingly, race stops mattering. The beating of Kelly Thomas is an appropriate case in point.
Ferguson has become the symbol of institutional racism in America., but it isn’t an isolated case. Racism pervades every aspect of the daily lives of 45 million people, and from the earliest age. The education system is affected by the institutional racism we see everywhere else. It is one of the suppliers in the school-to-prison pipelines. We know that Black children are disciplined at much higher rates, even in preschool. The Atlanta Black Star reports on a new study by researchers at Stanford University on how racial stereotypes are behind the variance in teachers’ punishment of Black students.
Adults and children with a disability are not spared the harshest and cruelest of treatment at the hands of educators or the law. The Freethought Project reports:
“Stacey Doss, Kayleb’s mother and the daughter of a police officer herself, was outraged. Educators stood by, she said, while the cop took her son in handcuffs to juvenile court. The officer filed a second misdemeanor disorderly conduct complaint. And he also submitted another charge, a very grown-up charge for a very small boy: felony assault on a police officer. That charge was filed, Doss said the officer told her, because Kayleb “fought back.”
“I thought in my mind — Kayleb is 11,” Doss said. “He is autistic. He doesn’t fully understand how to differentiate the roles of certain people.””
Since the Department of Justice issued its report, there has been no letup in the flow of news of beatings, shootings and deaths by taser. Brutality is generalized. It’s not a Southern, Midwestern, Southearn, or West Coast thing. It isn’t LA or Oakland, but San Bernadino, Tulsa, and Baltimore, too. Tulsa brought us a horrific shooting incident thanks to which we’ve added the term “pay-to-play” to our conversation. If that wasn’t demoralizing enough to learn, we were treated to this headline: “Reserve Deputy Who Killed Eric Harris Pleads Not Guilty, Allowed to Take Vacation in Bahamas.” How is one not to be disheartened at such an obvious exercise of privilege?
How is one who looks at all these stories to react? How does one who cares, deeply, about their fellow man, go on about their day for months on end, and compartmentalize this information without so much as a thought as to what they can contribute towards a solution? Black males were interviewed for a mini-documentary. Their reactions sum it all up:
One Word: Black Males 5-50 Respond to the Word ‘
Courtesy: Professor Mark Anthony Neal and New Black Man (in Exile)
We’ve talked about Black men, so far. I will be writing about Black women next.
30 Years on Death Row: A Conversation with Anthony Ray Hinton ‘They tell you justice is blind. I am telling you that justice can see.’
Exonerated Death Row Inmate Meets the Former Prosecutor Who Put Him There – ABC News
When Glenn Ford walked out of prison for the first time in 30 years, he had a state-issued debit card for $20. His prison account had $0.24. Everything he owned fit into two cardboard boxes.
Until he was freed last March, Ford, now 65, had been one of the longest-serving death row inmates in the United States.
He was convicted in 1984, but then exonerated of first-degree murder after a new informant came forward and cleared him of the crime.
His former lawyer, Gary Clements, was by his side on his client’s first day of freedom.
“Nobody ever finds out the truth. Sometimes they don’t find out in time. Here they did,” Clements said. “That’s a blessing. To say that justice has arrived now, it’s a little 30-years-too-late.”
The person responsible for putting Ford behind bars is Marty Stroud, who prosecuted the original case back in 1984.
Stroud has now apologized to Ford, writing in a letter to the editor of the Shreveport Times in Shreveport, Louisiana, “I was not as interested in justice as I was in winning. … I apologize to Glenn Ford for all the misery I have caused him and his family.” […]
Thirty years in jail for a single hair: the FBI’s ‘mass disaster’ of false conviction
A ‘dirty bomb’ of pseudo-science wrapped up nearly 268 cases – perhaps hundreds more. Now begins the ‘herculean effort to right the wrongs’
April 21, 2015
George Perrot has spent almost 30 years in prison thanks to a single hair. It was discovered by an FBI agent on the bedsheet of a 78-year-old woman who had been raped by a burglar in her home in Springfield, Massachusetts, in 1985.
Perrot, then 17, was put on trial, despite the absence of physical evidence tying him to the crime scene. There was no semen. There was no blood. And so there was no way to conduct a conclusive DNA test.
Even the victim testified that the defendant looked nothing like her attacker: he had a short haircut and was clean-shaven, while Perrot had a long shaggy mop, a moustache and a goatee beard.
But there was that strand of hair. At a key stage in the 1992 rape and burglary trial, an FBI agent named Wayne Oakes took the witness stand, describing himself to the jury as an expert in hair and textile fibers – as would so many of the agency’s trial witnesses, in condemning hundreds of people to long prison sentences.
Individual head or pubic hairs were distinctive, he told the court, to the extent that a well-trained specialist like himself could tell those belonging to one person from another. Oakes went on to bombard the jury with scientific jargon, referring to the medulla, the cortex and the cuticle of hair, likening the task of comparing individual strands to recognizing a specific person in a crowd.
Chaunte Ott, 41, was wrongly accused of killing 16-year-old Jessica Payne in Milwaukee in 1995, authorities said, adding they now believe Payne was the victim of a serial killer who died in prison.
“We’re appreciative that the case reached a fair resolution and that Mr. Ott can move on with his life,” Ott’s attorney Jon Loevy said.
Ott was convicted in 1996 of first-degree homicide and sentenced to life in prison after two men testified they were with him when he raped Payne and slashed her throat after trying to rob her, court documents showed.
Read the rest of this article on BusinessInsider.com
L.A. murder saga costs city $8 million
On a March morning in 1994, two homicide detectives and a Los Angeles Times reporter stood on the roof of a South L.A. brothel, bullets and spent shells at their feet.
The detectives were investigating the fatal shooting of a 29-year-old man who was killed during an apparent robbery the night before.
Los Angeles police Det. Pete Razanskas bent down and picked up six rounds. But instead of bagging them as evidence, he handed them to the reporter, Miles Corwin, as souvenirs.
The spent rounds from the roof were kept in a closet in the reporter’s home as two men were convicted in the killing. The men spent more than 15 years in prison until a judge threw out their convictions.
Now, ballistics tests conducted by lawyers for one of the men suggest that the spent rounds came from the weapon that was possibly used to kill Felipe Gonzales Angeles and could have helped identify the real killer. The tests mark the latest twist in a legal saga that led last month to the city of Los Angeles agreeing to pay Obie Anthony, 40, more than $8 million. […]
Read the rest of this article on LATimes.com