Actress Felicity Huffman made a plea for leniency as she faced sentencing for paying $15,000 to rig the SAT scores of her daughter. Continue reading “The Racism in Defining a “Good Mother””
A group of faith leaders from across the country invited by Sojourners, an evangelical organization, sat spellbound this week at the Equal Justice Initiative as a man who sat on Death Row for 30 years for a crime he did not commit told his story. The room was silent except for the sniffles that resulted from tears which could not be contained.
Anthony Ray Hinton was 29 years old when, in 1985 his life changed forever. His mother had asked him to cut the lawn at their home; the two lived together in a residence near Birmingham, Alabama, and Hinton begrudgingly acquiesced to his mother’s request. As he mowed the lawn, he noticed two white men drive up to his house, park their car, and get out. It was strange; white people didn’t often just show up in the black part of town.
“They came up to me,” Hinton said to the group of faith leaders, “and asked me if I was Anthony Ray Hinton. I said, “yes, sir,” and they said I was under arrest.” Hinton recalled being surprised. He had done nothing wrong; he knew that, so although he was caught off guard at being arrested, he was fairly sure that the confusion would be cleared up shortly and he could get back to his life. He had no idea, however, of how life had just thrown him a curve ball that would shatter life as he had known it.
They took Hinton to the unmarked car in which they had driven and put him inside, handcuffed. Hinton continued to ask what he had done, and the police officer ignored him for several minutes. When he finally answered, he said that Hinton was being charged with first degree capital murder. Two people at a fast food restaurant had been shot and killed, and another injured. Hinton objected; he had done no such thing, but the officer was unmoved.
“He said I probably hadn’t done it but that he didn’t care,” Hinton said. There were a total of five charges being thrown at Hinton. In addition to the two murders, there was a charge of attempted murder (another person had been shot but had survived) and two robbery charges. “That officer turned to me and said, “You’re going to be convicted, boy. Do you know why? Because you’re black. Because you’re poor. Because the prosecutor will be white. Because the jury will be white. And because the judge will be white.”
The officer was correct. Hinton went to trial. He was appointed an attorney by the court, and, Hinton remembers, the young white man said to him upon meeting him, “I didn’t go to law school to try pro-Bono cases.” Already things were looking bad for Hinton, who, by the way, had been at work when the shootings occurred. His mother’s gun was said by the State to have been the murder weapon; a forensics “expert” had no experience in doing ballistics, did not know how to use the machine used for ballistics testing, and could not see. The all-white jury, in the court presided over by the white judge, supported the case presented by the white prosecutor who had been accused of shoddy work and unjust practices in cases involving black people in the past…and found Hinton guilty and he was sentenced to death.
At first he was too stunned to really conceptualize what had happened to him. “I kept wondering how an innocent man could be in prison sentenced to death,” he said. It didn’t make sense. What he held onto was a faith and the hope that the truth would come out. He meditated on what he said became his favorite scripture, Mark 11:24, which says, “So I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayers, believe that you have received it, and it shall be yours.”
And so he prayed. Fifteen years into his sentence, he heard of Bryan Stevenson, the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative. Stevenson’s organization has a legacy of unearthing injustice in the justice system which puts too many people of color, and too many children, in prison for life or sentenced to die. Stevenson had heard of Hinton’s case, and when he was contacted, decided to take the case on after talking with his newest client.
It was imperative, Hinton knew, to prove that the bullets that killed the two men could not have come from his mother’s gun. He was sure that if that case could be made, no court would deny him justice. He says he told Stevenson, “I know attorneys don’t like for clients to tell them what to do, but I want you to get a ballistics expert.”
Stevenson smiled and said he had every intention of doing that.
But Hinton stopped him. “No,” he said. “You don’t understand. I want you to get three ballistics experts. I want them to be white men. I want them to be from the South. And I want them to be for the death penalty.” Stevenson paused as he considered the brilliance and the wisdom of what Hinton was asking, and knew it was the right strategy. He agreed; he got three ballistics experts, two from Texas and one from Virginia. All three concluded that the bullets that killed the two men did not come from – could not have come from – Hinton’s mother’s gun.
Stevenson and his client thought they were in the fast lane to justice …but they were wrong. For 16 years, every court to which Stevenson presented the new and compelling evidence denied Hinton a new trial. It finally came to the fork in the road that led to the United States Supreme Court. Stevenson told Hinton that if the nation’s highest court didn’t rule in their favor, it would be rough going from then on out.
The Supreme Court did, however, rule in Hinton’s favor and overturned his conviction and granted him a new trial. The Alabama court system, however, decided not to pursue the case, and after 30 years sitting on Death Row in a tiny cell with only a bed and a toilet, cooped up for 23 hours a day, Hinton was released in April of 2015.
We the faith leaders listened in awe. In spite of his horrific experience, Hinton made jokes (he said his sense of humor, plus his faith, helped him survive.) He talked about how he still sleeps in a fetal position, though he has purchased a king-sized bed, because for 30 years, he had to sleep like that on a bed that was too short for his 6’4” frame. He shared how he still gets up at 3 a.m. because on Death Row, breakfast is at 3 a.m. every day. He talked about how his imagination, in addition to his faith, kept him alive and lucid.
He attributed his freedom, so long coming, to God. God, he said, sent Bryan Stevenson. God knew…and God came to him.
“I am a Job,” he said, referring to the Biblical character who suffered unjustly. “I know for a fact that there is a God who sits high and looks low.”
The purpose of the retreat convened by Sojourners was to immerse faith leaders in issues of injustice inherent in mass incarceration, child sentencing, and policing. Hinton’s story was the spear thrust into preconceptions and misconceptions that many faith leaders see deal with in their work in churches and other ministries.
Hinton’s story served as a reminder that “the least of these” are in front of us, under the guise of justice. As Hinton finished his story, wiping tears from his eyes, so did we, the faith leaders, as we stood on our feet to applaud – his survival, his stubborn, crazy faith …and the reminder that their work to fight injustice is every before us.
A candid observation …
During the height of the Civil Rights movement, Ella Josephine Baker said, “Until the killing of black men, black mothers’ sons, becomes as important to the rest of the country as the killing of a white mother’s son, we who believe in freedom cannot rest until this happens.”
That was in 1964.
Surely, Ms. Baker would be reminding us of that thought as the alleged killer of a 17-year old, unarmed African-American teen has still not been arrested.
George Zimmerman, who has said he shot young Trayvon Martin in self-defense, is free, and despite how difficult it is to believe how this tragedy could in any way have been self-defense, the authorities have chosen to believe him, saying there is “no probable cause” to arrest him.
It’s this sort of thing that taps into the rage of African-Americans, who for too long have been exploited and mistreated by the justice system. In fact, when it comes to African-Americans, historically there has been little real justice.
The foundation of America is one that was built on racism, and on the belief that African-Americans were not really human. It is documented history that African-Americans could be and were accused of crimes with very little to no evidence, and jailed and or executed for the same. No justice system, local, state, or national, seriously intervened to protect the rights of African-Americans.
The accused killers of young Emmet Till, Roy Bryant and John Milam, were acquitted by an all-white jury after only 67 minutes deliberation. It is recorded that one of the jurors said they would have announced the verdict sooner had they not stopped to drink a pop.
And then there are the countless numbers of unknown African-American youths and men who get swallowed up in the “justice” system on a daily basis, challenging the ability of the African-American community to believe in justice in this country.
In the case of Trayvon Martin, the claim that his murder was done in self-defense is as insulting as it is angering. The young man was walking to his house; Mr. Zimmerman obviously had to approach him. Because the 911 tapes have not been released, nobody can talk about what really happened, but it seems very clear that Mr. Zimmerman provoked an encounter with this young man.
So, why the hold up in arresting Zimmerman? Is it because, as Ella Baker and so many others have noted, that the life of an African-American, and the loss of that life, just isn’t a big deal to the powers that be? There is no overt racism, or not like there used to be, but this is racism, clearly and surely. What’s going on is saying to those who think that way that it is all right to kill someone who “looks suspicious.”
What is really being said is that it is still free season on the killing of African-Americans. Make up a reason, any reason, and go for it.
As I study the history of justice in this country for African-Americans, I just get sadder and sadder. This is a country that would not even declare lynching to be wrong. The lynching era in this country lasted from 1865 to 1920, and the United StatesCongress would not pass a law outlawing it.
Over and over, all-white juries convicted African-Americans with little to no proof, and crimes committed by white people toward blacks were pretty much ignored.
And so here we now sit, in the 21st century, with more of the same. An unarmed African-American male youth, who carried only Skittles and a can of iced tea, is dead, and nobody, I mean in the justice system, seems to care.
It is hard to watch, and even harder to admit that America still has a long way to go…Ella Baker’s words still ring true. We cannot rest; the killing of black men and black mothers’ sons is still not as important to the rest of the country is the killing of a white mother’s son.
A candid observation…
While the country, or parts of the country, express justified rage and anger toward Rush Limbaugh and his hideous and inappropriate statements directed at Georgetown Law School student Sandra Fluke, another outrage is being allowed to move forward, quietly but steadily.
In a February 14, 2012 article posted on The Huffington Post, the story was told of how a private corporation, Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) is offering cash-strapped states big money for their prisons. The article, by Chris Kirkham, said,”As state governments wrestle with massive budget shortfalls, a Wall Street giant is offering a solution: cash in exchange for state property. Prisons, to be exact.”
CCA is a for-profit operator of prisons. That means the corporation, and others like it, exist because there are prisons; their financial success depends upon prisons continuing to exist and continue to be filled. According to Kirkham’s article, CCA is “a swiftly growing business,with revenues expanding more than fivefold since the mid-1990s,” as the “War on Drugs” became a major issue in America.
Harley Lappin, who retired as the head of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, is the Chief Corrections Officer (CCO) of CCA, and Board members include only one African-American, Thurgood Marshall, Jr., the son of the late United States Supreme Court Justice, Thurgood Marshall.
What’s the big deal, you ask? The big deal is that America cannot seem to let go of its plantation system. With money in the picture, as the driver of how prisons are operated, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that there is a big incentive for America to keep its prisons filled. CCA is doing business; it is not interested in rehabilitating people. In a recent letter to governors of 48 states, Harley Lappin wrote “…CCA is earmarking $250 million for purchasing and managing government-owned corrections facilities. The program is a new opportunity for federal, state or local governments that are considering the benefits of partnership corrections.”
In that same letter, Lappin said that on January 12 of this year, CCA assumed ownership and management responsibility in a transition described as seamless. This transfer culminated a process that, according to state officials, generated more than $72.7 million in proceeds for Ohio taxpayers (he was talking about the purchase of an Ohio prison),about $50 million of which was allocated for the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction.”
What does all of this mean? It means that the “new Jim Crow,” as Michelle Alexander has so excellently written about in her book by the same name, is alive and kicking. Who will fill the prisons? Black and brown people mostly, as has always been the case. What Alexander describes in her book as “military policing” will increase in urban neighborhoods, so as to make sure the source of profit for those who are buying the prisons, does not disappear.
Clearly, the target of prison inmates, since the Reagan Administration’s declared “War on Drugs” has been black and brown people, primarily men, who are addicted to crack cocaine. From the time the “war” began, there was money to be had for state and local law enforcement agencies for the numbers of people they arrested. Now, with this blatant “prison for profit” industry rising as one of the, if not the, fastest industries in America, there will be even more money earned on the backs of America’s black, brown, and poor people.
CCA has recently found an additional source of revenue-makers: illegal immigrants. The HP article said that CCA has found a “new opportunity in the business of locking up undocumented immigrants.” It’s business, not personal, right?
While the politicians are mouthing off about contraception, nobody talks about this unethical use and misuse of law enforcement; in fact, the very existence of this “in-your-face” modern day plantation system leads one to muse, “what law enforcement?” If the focus of arrests and imprisonments were all drug users, prescription drugs and powder cocaine as well as street drugs, there would be much less room for cynicism. As it stands, however, under the guise of “law and order” and “protecting the taxpayers,” black and brown people are disproportionately going to be the ones who help CCA and other for-profit prison corporations get wealthier and wealthier.
There is so much that goes on in this country that “we the people” know nothing about. It is by design. If we do not know, “they” can do what they want. And in this instance, that is exactly what is happening, and what has been happening since the Conservative darling Ronald Reagan declared this infamous “war on drugs.”
With the war on women being waged in this GOP presidential nominee battle, as well as the war on voting rights, primarily for black, brown and elderly voters, and this unsavory ploy to keep prisons filled with only certain offenders, it makes me wonder about all this talk about “values.” The term seems to have a very narrow focus, but then, that is nothing new. From the beginning, “we the people” was a very narrowly defined group of white, male property owners, and the fight going on today seems intent on trying to keep that vision from slipping into obscurity. Women have pounced on the attack on themselves and their rights, but black and brown people, and now, undocumented immigrants, need to pounce on the very sneaky attack being waged on their very capability to remain free and eligible to become a part of “the American Dream.”
If CCA continues to have its way, the number of black and brown people who are in reality off of the plantation will be greatly decreased, and the new “massa,” big business, will go merrily on its way.
A candid observation …
The lump in my throat that had been there since the execution of Troy Davis on September 21 had just about dissolved when I looked on my Facebook page and saw a piece written by Reuters News Service that said the parole board in Georgia had spared the life of a convicted killer hours before his scheduled execution.
Samuel David Crowe, 47, was to be executed on Thursday, but his sentence was commuted to life in prison without parole.
Crowe has been convicted of murder and armed robbery. He admitted the same.
And he is white.
The story said that Crowe admitted killing a lumber store manager, shooting him three times and beating him.
The story said that Crowe “takes full responsibility of his crime and has shown …remorse.” His sentence was commuted, apparently, because of his remorse and because he has been a good “model prisoner.” His attorneys argued that when he committed his crime, he was suffering from symptoms caused by cocaine withdrawal.
The lump in my throat has come back. Now it’s not a “sad” lump. It is an “anger” lump. The more things change, the more they stay the same. Race continues to matter, and matter big time, in this country.
Why, how could the Georgia parole board be so able to grant clemency to this white man, in a case where there is, apparently, no doubt about his guilt, and yet refuse to grant clemency for Troy Davis in a case in which there was substantial doubt?
Something is terribly wrong.
There is nothing new under the sun. In the Bible, “The Preacher” in the Book of Ecclesiastes proclaims the same. “The Preacher” was distressed. So am I.
This candid observation gives me goosebumps. And it makes me really angry.