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News, notes, and observations from the James River Valley in northern South Dakota with special attention to reviewing the performance of the media--old and new. E-Mail to

Friday, April 22, 2022

For some U.S. citizens there is no America

The feature editor devoted a full newspaper page to an interview with a juvenile delinquent and his experience with the justice system.  It received so much response that the managing editor decided to do a series on criminal justice.  I was assigned to interview a prison chaplain. 

The chaplain had been involved with gangs as a youth and had been sent to prison.  While there, he joined a religious brotherhood and studied to be a priest after he served his sentence.

The chaplain had some harsh perspectives on criminal justice.  He said prisons were self-defeating.  Sending offenders to prison was like sending them to graduate school in crime, he said.  Prison did not rehabilitate some convicts as much as educate them in how to be more adept criminals.  He said once people are branded as convicts, their opportunities are limited when they are released from prison.  In order to resume a life, they often revert to criminal activity because they are denied better opportunities.  He said those recidivists are termed habitual offenders, when in fact society rejects them and they must scrabble to find a way to stay alive.  

The priest was adamant about the failures of the criminal justice system, and he spoke often about criminal justice and prison reform. I asked him about who were the most dangerous people he encountered in prison.  He said the wrongfully convicted.  He told of men who became model prisoners so they could get out and avenge themselves on the society that had wrongfully placed them in prison.  He said that a wrongful conviction to some is irrefutable proof that society is malevolent and the idea of justice merely makes the gullible unwary about how the people around them are looking for people to victimize.

Wrongful convictions are dangerous for society as a whole.  They undermine trust in government.  They are failures of justice and convince some people that there is no such thing.   That interview with the prison chaplain was more than 55 years ago, and it sparked a concern among fellow journalists.  While there are many innocence and justice projects throughout the nation largely organized by lawyers, early efforts at exonerating the wrongfully convicted were made by journalists.  One of the first organizations to investigate wrongful convictions began in the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.  But long before the formal organization was created, journalists were confronted with claims of innocence by incarcerated individuals.  The news media was the court of last resort, and that series on criminal justice published by the newspaper I worked for almost 60 years ago raised a great deal of controversy.  

Readers were disturbed by the idea that there were wrongful convictions.  Although the story had just mentioned wrongful conviction and contained no conjecture about its frequency, the reactions were intense.  Many people took refuge in the cliche that most convicts claim they are innocent.  Some, especially from law enforcement, were indignant at the suggestion that the criminal justice system could make frequent errors. There was a hysterical reaction among a few that a wrongfully convicted person had completed his sentence and was on the prowl in society looking to avenge himself.  

That idea of a vengeful, innocent ex-convict produced such intense reactions that the editor had me call the prison chaplain to see if he knew of any such men who had gotten revenge.  He said he was not aware of any cases in which a violation of law was involved, but he knew of a couple in which the former convicts dedicated themselves to digging for incriminating information on the people who accused them.   However, he re-emphasized that the convicted innocent had good reason to be cynical about criminal justice because they were living proof that the innocent were undeservedly punished at times.  They can sue the state for the damages they incurred, but they have good reason not to trust the courts.  The chaplain said that the wrongfully convicted who were released from prison tended to fall into two extremes: those who were grateful and happy to regain their freedom, and those who were bitter and resentful over their false conviction.  Those latter were the dangerous ones because they harbored a hostility and contempt toward society and tended toward antisocial activities.  He said a few of the exonerated were so embittered that the wardens were fearful about releasing them.  Some exonerated seemed to think that they had paid for a crime, so now they owed it to society to commit it.  However, the states have seen the need for extensive rehabilitation measures in such cases to provide some mitigating services to the wrongfully convicted. 

When DNA technology developed as a tool in criminal justice,  the number of wrongful convictions discovered increased markedly.  There are studies on how and why wrongful convictions occur:  "Wrongful convictions statistics show that the main reasons many end up behind bars are misidentification, official misconduct, false testimony, perjury, false accusation, and false confession."   The number of organizations devoted to the investigation and prosecution of wrongful conviction cases has also increased.  The public seems largely aware that wrongful convictions occur, but thinks little about the consequences as they affect general society. 

Netflix has a series of documentaries covering wrongful convictions and how they devastate people touched by them.  One is an 8-part feature entitled Trial-4.  Another is the 10-part Making a Murderer.  They both examine the dysfunction of our justice system.  Although the films do not focus on the harm a wrongful conviction does to the society around its subjects, it is clear in the films that wrongful convictions leave a toxic residue on our communities.  But they also grow out of the of prejudice, malice, and dishonesty that our communities harbor.  "Making a Murderer"  includes the story of a 16-year-old boy with a low IQ whose confession is dubious in the extreme but is a key factor in the conviction of him and his uncle for murder.  One of the lawyers in the case contributed to an article in the Chicago Tribune that explains how false confessions are solicited from the young and vulnerable: 

Consider the case of Trevon Y. of St. Clair County, Illinois. In 2013, Trevon was a 17-year-old Black teenager with no criminal history but with developmental disabilities that rendered his mental functioning akin to a much younger child. After a tipster implicated someone named “Trevon” in a local armed robbery, police brought Trevon Y. in for questioning.

The ensuing hours long interrogation was captured on tape — and what the tape shows is disturbing. Even though Trevon tearfully asserted his innocence more than 35 times, detectives relentlessly insisted that they “knew” he was involved. At least 40 times, they falsely told Trevon that witnesses had identified him as the perpetrator. He was trapped, the police insisted, and the only way out was to confess. Indeed, the investigators falsely promised that if Trevon confessed, he would be viewed as “just a young kid who made a bad decision” and avoid incarceration.

Relying on his interrogators’ assurances, Trevon agreed to confess and repeated the story officers fed him about the crime. He spent nine months in jail, facing the possibility of a decades long armed robbery sentence, before prosecutors watched his interrogation video, realized his confession was false and dropped the case.

Trevon is hardly alone: Illinois has been home to more than 100 false confessions across the state...

We Americans like to decry Nazi concentration camps and the Russia of Putin which jails people who speak out against him.  But we live in a country that in its mass incarceration pogrom jails blacks at five times the rate it jails whites.  And as the documentaries show, the criminal justice system likes to beleaguer the poor.

For many people, and especially the wrongfully convicted, America is no different or better than Nazi Germany or Soviet Russia.  Or ante bellum America.  If the country fails for the wrongfully convicted, it fails for everyone.  

 America, the beautiful?  Get real, patriots.  America, the failure.

Friday, April 1, 2022

The bitch-slap heard 'round the world

Will Smith strode across the stage at the Academy Awards ceremony, and bitch-slapped Chris Rock right in the face.  I come from a time and place where if that had happened on the street, Will Smith would have been the target of a well-honed knife blade or razor, and spectators would be yelling to call an ambulance because a lot of blood was about to be spilled. A slap on the face conferred disrespect and humiliation on the recipient, who would be expected to retaliate with vigor.

While in high school, I had a part time job as a stock boy in a  department store.   There was a fire station across the alley, and some of the firemen worked in the store receiving department on their days off.  The firemen had a bossy attitude toward the stock boys. One day when a fireman told a stock boy to do something, the boy responded with, "You aren't my boss," and the fireman slapped his face.  The boy grabbed a wooden 2-by-2 used as a guide for cutting wrapping paper and whacked the fireman on the side of the head with it.  The fireman, resorting to his city hall connections, called the police, who showed up quickly.  The problem was that there were a number of witnesses who said the stock boy was acting in self-defense, and the police called their headquarters for advice on how to handle the situation.  They were told that the stock boy was acting under extreme provocation and if the fireman hadn't been severely injured to drop the matter, which they did.  The fireman was the aggressor.

The manager of the receiving room changed the work schedules so that the fireman and the stock boy were never working at the same time.  He eventually eliminated the fireman from the schedule altogether.  He said he didn't want to have to deal with the kind of employee who went around slapping people in the face.  And other employees didn't want to work with the fireman, either.  

The kind of person who uses a face-slap to deal with some issue raises an attitude of contempt in most people.  The act says more about the slapper than it does the slappee.  Even if the slapper is responding to a verbal insult, the physical act of slapping denotes a person out of control.  A slap in the face is an invitation to fight.  It settles nothing, but leaves spectators waiting for the next blow and wondering what form it will take.

And so, we wait for the next blow.

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Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States