American Justice System Not Just for African-Americans

It’s hard for me to believe in the justice system in America.

The jury system has its good points, but juries have been wrong so often. I cannot shake the hunch that Troy Davis, executed last year, was innocent, but because a jury found him guilty, his fate was sealed. Before he ever got to the jury, though, he was a target in this American justice system which too often hones in on African-American males as “the” people who are always guilty, always to be wary of.

All one has to say is an African-American did something, and the “justice” system buys into the accusation. In the case of Trayvon Martin,  George Zimmerman’s claim that he acted in self-defense, despite the apparent evidence that he approached (stalked!) Trayvon, has resonated with people who are all too willing to too easily throw the book at African-Americans, throw them into jail, and throw the key to the jail away.

So many African-Americans, falsely accused or rightly arrested, are at the mercy of public defenders who too often seem not to care about the fate of their clients.Of course, many young offender, or those accused of offenses, do not help themselves by appearing in court dressed in sagging pants, bling, and other pieces of apparel that feed into stereotypes of who African-Americans are and what African-Americans do.

Everybody knows that it’s easy to get off, or at least get attention deflected from oneself, by pointing a finger at an African-American. Charles Stuart, the man who killed his pregnant wife and then blamed an anonymous black man, knew that, as did Susan Smith, the mother who drowned her two children but lied to the public, saying black men had done something to her children.

The fact of the matter is that, in America, we are still shackled by our past, our rabid, racist past, which will not go away. This country has been successful in setting up the prototype of the “bad black man,” and that image is a part of everybody’s psyche, black and white.

So, when a black and white person are in a skirmish, as in the case of  Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman, in spite of what appears to be pretty clear-cut evidence that Zimmerman approached Martin, there is this huge pool of doubt that this young, 17-year-old African-American youth could have possibly been pure as the driven snow. George Zimmerman’s claim that he acted in self-defense feeds into the fears of too many, that another “bad black person” acted up again. The media has quietly changed the picture of Zimmerman and Martin, Zimmerman’s from a person in an orange jump suit, looking kind of mean, and Martin looking quite innocent, in a tee-shirt, to Zimmerman, smiling, in a suit and Martin in a wool skull-cap, no smile evident.

It is the feeding of racism and racial stereotypes. Zimmerman has been given a bad rap, supporters say.

Never mind that if Zimmerman had been black, and Martin, an unarmed white teen, that the story would be different. Zimmerman would have been arrested on the spot, charged at least with second degree murder, maybe even first degree murder. There would have been no credence given to a claim of self-defense, cuts on head notwithstanding. And there would have either been high bail – maybe $500,000, or no bail, not this paltry $150,000  amount set by the judge today.

At the end of the day, the American justice system has its strengths, but when it comes to treating African-Americans justly, it falls very short, and always has, with few, yet important exceptions. Just today, Judge Greg Weeks of Fayetteville commuted the sentence of Marcus Robinson to life imprisonment, saying that racial bias played a part in the severity of his sentence. Robinson was accused and convicted of killing a white man.

Those types of “admission” of racism within our justice system, however, are few and far in-between. African-Americans still cannot find peace or assurance that within our justice system, they will in fact find justice.

A candid observation …

Nothing New Under the Sun

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.

The Day After a Lynching

I wonder if what I am feeling is what my ancestors felt the day after a lynching.

I am surprised at how deep is my pain over the execution of Troy Davis. I have read plenty about miscarriages of justice toward black people in the South, how judges and courts and juries, without shame, put black people, too many of them innocent to death.

I have read the stories about how too many times, law officials stood aside and let injustice occur, often over a lie about a black person told by some white person, oftentimes a white woman. Just their word was enough to condemn a black person to death.

I have read about how sometimes, mobs would raid jail houses and take accused black people out of jail and lynch them. At least one of the stories I read told of how a mob lynched a black man right outside the jail and courthouse.

I have read of how black people were lynched and white people came to the event, like it was entertainment, bringing lunches and children, taking pictures, and having a grand old time while a human being, who happened to be black, was hung.

I have read the story of Emmett Till, how this young boy from Chicago, was lynched because he reportedly whistled at a white woman. I read the story about the horror of Rosewood, a town demolished because of a white woman’s lies.

I have read much, but not until yesterday did I viscerally feel what our ancestors must have felt the day after a lynching.

I cannot for the life of me figure out why our sophisticated justice system could not have found a way to hear Troy Davis’ case again, to remove the mound of doubt surrounding his case. I cannot figure out why someone didn’t risk his or her life or job to save a perhaps innocent person. What harm would it have done?

I cannot stop weeping. Every time I think of what our country did last night, it makes raw my knowing what our country has done throughout history, allowing innocent black people to be lynched.

I learned, in studying lynching, that it wasn’t just “hanging” that was considered to be lynching. It was any form of unjust murder -a beating, drowning, burning – whatever – of a person.

That’s what happened last night, or at least that’s what my gut and spirit are telling me.

This I know: we cannot stop trying to find out the truth about what happened the night that the off duty police officer was killed. Surely, we cannot stop. There are people all over the world, white, black and brown, who are disturbed about what happened last night in Georgia.

But I, for one, am wrestling. Maybe I was supposed to not only intellectually know what lynching was, but what it must have felt the day after a lynching …because this is painful beyond belief. If we cannot believe in and trust our justice system, what do “we the people,” who are not white and wealthy, really have?

It is a sobering and disturbing question, and it is a candid observation.

America Should Be Ashamed

In less than two hours, Troy Davis is scheduled to be put to death by lethal injection.

In less than one-half hour, Lawrence Brewer, the man convicted of murdering James Byrd, will also be put to death by lethal injection.

In the case of Davis, he has maintained his innocence for over 20 years. Just today he asked to be given a polygraph to prove his innocence. He was convicted on the testimony of so-called eye witnesses. Seven of those nine eyewitnesses have recanted their stories.

In the case of Brewer, news reports said today that he boasted that he “would do it again.”

Davis was convicted of killing a police officer. Brewer murdered Byrd by beating him and then dragging him along a Texas road, even as the man was still alive. When it was all said and done, the dragging resulted in Byrd being decapitated and losing an arm.

I don’t like the death penalty. I am not rejoicing that Brewer will be put to death. But I am especially sickened that prosecutors, judges, and courts have refused to give Davis a fair chance. It is beyond me that any state could execute a man when so much doubt about his guilt exists.

In the case of Brewer, there is no such doubt, and that, coupled with Brewer’s apparent pride in what he did leaves little doubt of his guilt.

But in the case of Davis, there is a huge difference. There was no DNA evidence, no physical evidence, according to reports. Troy has never said he committed the crime, in spite of the real probability that he was pressured to do so in order to get a lighter sentence.

And then – these seven of nine eyewitnesses recanted their testimonies. There was a woman on television today who said there was a man who told her he actually did the killing but is content to let Troy Davis take the rap because he, the free man, “has kids to raise.”

Do tell.

Doesn’t the state of Georgia have a moral right to investigate such a possibility? If the American justice system is about justice, then isn’t it a responsibility for those who are in charge of securing justice …secure justice?

This whole debacle has shaken what little faith I had in the American justice system. The state of Georgia, the courts, the prosecutors – all of those who have lent closed hearts, minds, and ears to the possibility of an innocent man being murdered for a murder he most likely did not commit – should be ashamed.

I am ashamed.

How can we even shape our mouths to say we are going to fight for justice for people in other countries, when we seemingly do not care about providing justice for our own?

It boggles my mind and sickens me in my spirit.

What is about to happen to Troy Davis is wrong.

That is a candid – and painful – observation.

I wanted to believe the Georgia Parole Board would grant clemency to Troy Davis, who is scheduled to be executed tomorrow for a crime he says he did not commit, but I didn’t believe it would …and it didn’t.

For some, Davis’ execution is the right thing; those people will applaud the fact that another “bad guy” has been taken out. That is justice in the eyes of many: an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.

I believe that those who do wrong need to be punished, but what I am concerned with is what I see as an apparent disconnect in our justice system, a system which is apparently deaf to the possibility that prosecutors, judges, juries and eyewitnesses can be wrong, and its unwillingness to entertain error on its part.

What if Troy Davis is innocent? What if he didn’t shoot the person he has been convicted of shooting? What if “the system” is dead wrong?”

I just finished reading False Justice: Eight Myths that Convict the Innocent” by Jim and Nancy Petro. Earlier this year I read The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander. I had always had issues with “the justice system” because of things I have seen happen and instances of injustice perpetrated by and through the justice system that I have read about over the years.

Many people would tend to disregard the books I just mentioned, labeling the authors as bleeding heart liberals. Not so. Jim and Nancy Petro are bona fide, card-carrying Conservatives, and Petro is the former Attorney General for the State of Ohio. Alexander is a professor of law at The Ohio State University.

The books are different in their purposes, but both point to the holes and issues in and of the American justice system. People don’t want to hear that. We seem to need to believe in myths, and, in this case, the myth that “the justice system” is right and just all of the time.

But that is not true. It is not nor has it ever been. The Petro book lists, as the title suggests, eight myths that convict innocent people, including things like “only guilty people confess,” “our system almost never convicts an innocent person,” “an eyewitness is the best evidence.” Both Petro and Alexander describe how people who are being interrogated will often break down and say they are guilty because they think “the truth” will eventually prevail, or that if convicted, they’ll get an easier sentence. Those beliefs do not play out, and results in innocent people being incarcerated and sometimes killed, for things they really did not do.

Both Petro and Alexander talk about prosecutors who are more interested in “being right” and in getting convictions than they are in making sure justice is done. The descriptions of how evidence is too often suppressed, or how, after a conviction, it is so difficult to get prosecutors and judges to consider exculpatory evidence, is disheartening.

Appeals are often exercises in futility as well. It is as though once convicted, a person might as well accept his or her fate, no matter what comes up that proves the conviction was wrong.

In the Davis case, all but two witnesses who said he shot his victim recanted their testimony. Recantations are common, yet not very much respected. What makes me have serious issues with our justice system is that the “reasonable doubt” phrase, while nice to hear, only seems to have power and presence in the courtroom. If such reasonable doubt comes to light after the conviction, it seems that it is virtually ignored.

I don’t think that is justice.

The United States incarcerates more people than any other country in the world. There is something uncomfortably wrong with that. Petro says that Americans ought to be connected to the justice system, get to know its strengths and weaknesses, and advocate for changes. Were it not for a few individuals, and organizations like The Innocent Project, who knows how many people would have no hope at all?

In a report which I read on an NPR (National Public Radio) site last week, the author cited the belief that the American criminal justice system, with its high incarceration rate and support of capital punishment, is actually an extension of American slavery, and is a means to keep people, specifically African Americans, “in their place.” Our criminal justice system, in other words, is a tool of control, not a tool of and for justice.

Its “deaf ear” approach to post conviction reasonable doubt, however, extends to and affects people of all colors, though that affectation is higher for people of color. America, seriously? We’re fighting (and are in tremendous debt) trying to assure justice for people in other countries while we are denying real justice to our own people? Something is wrong with that.

I cannot imagine being Troy Davis, sitting in prison, knowing that tomorrow, he will die, for something he swears he did not do. The thought of it woke me several times last night. From what I have come to understand about this case, justice has not been done.

Petro says that the public needs to be aware of the weaknesses of the justice system and “demand improved outcomes.” We need to be a little more diligent in electing prosecutors. Petro says that we, the American public, “have placed on prosecutors a mandate to win convictions,” but we need to also place on them a mandate to secure justice, and be able and willing to admit error, when there is “reasonable doubt” that serious errors have been made.

I am sick about Troy Davis, and others, some who have already been killed via capital punishment for crimes they did not commit, and others who are scheduled to be executed. There is something seriously wrong, and we need to become aware. It is Troy Davis today; it could be any of our children at a later time.

That is…a candid observation.

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