Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Justice Gone Awry

A judge I spoke with recently told me that without the use of plea bargaining, where a deal is reached in which a defendant receives  a lesser sentence in exchange for a guilty plea, the courts would be hopelessly backed up with more cases than they could handle.

When a defendant is actually guilty, I can see such an arrangement saving time and court costs and perhaps living up to its name as a “bargain.”  But when a defendant is not guilty, should he or she, while under oath to tell “the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth,”  feel coerced into giving up their right to due process that might exonerate them, simply because of the threat of receiving a dreadfully long prison sentence?

It reminds me a little of a practice once known as "tavern justice," where the attorneys on both sides of a case would get together with the judge over some ale the night before a trial and work out some kind of agreement without the defendant actually being present. They would then go through the motions of a hearing the next day with the outcome already determined.

A sobering case of injustice that made national news earlier this month involved Cornelius Dupree Jr., who on the basis of DNA testing (made possible by the Innocence Project), was finally released after spending 30 years in a Texas prison. 

Dupree had refused to plead guilty when convicted at age 20 in a Dallas rape and armed robbery case because he knew he wasn’t guilty--even though that would most likely have resulted in a lesser sentence. And as a model prisoner he had several opportunities to make parole if only he would admit he was a sex offender. For example, in 2004 he was all set to be released, but he was told he would have to attend a sex offender treatment program based on "four R's," recognition, remorse, restitution and resolution. He couldn't get himself to agree to even the “recognition” part, knowing he hadn’t committed the crime.

After his release, a dozen Dallas men who had also been exonerated after having served a collective total of over 100 years of time for crimes they didn’t commit came out to celebrate his freedom. In each of their cases, like Dupree’s, they were convicted on the basis of eyewitness misidentification in a police lineup, a common cause of wrongful conviction.

And might Dupree’s original sentencing also have been influenced by his race? There is no way to know for sure, but according to an article in the February, 2011, Sojourners magazine, there are more African-Americans in prison or on probation and parole than the total number that were enslaved just prior to the Civil War. And while people of all colors use and sell illegal drugs at similar rates, African-Americans are ten times more likely than whites to go to prison on drug charges.

To add to a list of concerns about our justice system, the Human Rights Watch organization recently estimated that there were currently three times the number of people who are mentally ill in U.S. prisons there are in U.S. mental health hospitals. Given the emotional stress a prison environment creates for even mentally healthy people, imagine what it must be like for  people with paranoia, a bipolar or anxiety disorder, or suffering from clinical depression.

In graduate school I remember once having to meet in a small, narrow classroom where a large marker board took up most of the wall space at the end of the room from which the professor spoke. One day the board in question was badly tilted, with one end being lower than the other by at least six inches. I found myself so distracted by that crooked, askew marker board in my view that before the hour was over, I felt nauseous.  My world was not square and upright in the way I was used to.

Which reminds be of a plumb line the Biblical prophet Amos once used as an illustration of his nation’s loss of integrity. She was no longer acting in conformity to the standard of divinely inspired justice. She was off center, leaning away from the plumb line of  uprightness and integrity, favoring the rich at the expense of the poor, the powerful over the powerless, the haves over the have nots.

When that happens, we should all become sick to our stomachs, and actively join the prophets in calling for “justice to roll on like a river, and righteousness like a never-failing stream.”

P. S. As a dedicated supporter (and board member) of Gemeinschaft Home, a residential re-entry and recovery program in Harrisonburg, I invite you to join me in becoming a "Friend of Gemeinschaft" by writing a check of $50 or more and mailing it to Gemeinschaft Home, 1423 Mt. Clinton Pike, Harrisonburg, VA 22802. Or you can contribute online at as a way to personally help recovering people get a new start.

Thanks for your help!  

P.S. Here are the lyrics to one of my son's recent songs on the subject:
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