October 9, 2015
To Be Free and Exonerated- In a Fair and Just World
Recently, the New York Magazine published a powerful piece entitled “That’s When I Knew I Was Free: Eight Exonerated Prisoners on Their First Week Outside.” As the title entails, it highlights the first week of “freedom” by 8 individuals who were exonerated, many after spending lengthy years in prison. The time each of the 8 individuals highlighted served ranged from the 16 years Jeffrey Deskovic spent in prison to the 29 years that David McCallum spent in prison, for crimes they did not commit! McCallum is now 46 years old and he was just released last year. He has spent more than half of his life trying to understand how could, in the United States of America, an innocent person spend so much time in prison. I am assuming that that is what he spent a lot of time thinking about. He was 16 years old when he was accused of carjacking and murder- he and his co-defendant could not even drive! Like McCallum, Deskovic was also arrested at the age of 16, accused of rape and murder. Sixteen, their sweet sixteen was the introduction to a criminal justice system that accused them both of serious crimes. Can you imagine being 16 years old and facing a judge, a jury, and then the realities of prison life?
I’ve always said that to get exonerated is like winning the lottery. It is not something that happens easily or quickly. The odds are not in favor of the accused. As many who are exonerated will tell you, there are so many others serving time in prison for crimes they did not commit that the public knows little or nothing about. And, as we saw in the Tim Cole case, among others, death can come before one is exonerated. McCallum was arrested along with Willie Stuckey. Stuckey did not live to see his exoneration. Here is a paragraph from the article:
“I was walking out without Willie Stuckey walking beside me. He was my childhood friend and my co-defendant. He passed away while he was in prison. He was 32. I saw Stuckey’s mom when we were in the elevator together going up to the courtroom. She said to me, “It’s supposed to be two of you.” And she broke down. I was still shackled, so I couldn’t really hold her even if I wanted to. The district attorney and the judge let his mom sit in for him, so we were sitting next to each other while the proceedings were taking place. She said something very profound to me. She said, “You’re my son now.”” http://nymag.com/daily/intelligencer/2015/09/8-exonerated-prisoners-first-week-outside.html#
This is a tragedy and a travesty all the way around. To be a parent of someone in prison is a daily heart ache. Speaking as someone who has a cousin, Rodney K. Stanberry, who remains in prison- 18 years and counting– for crimes he did not commit, I can tell you that there is not a day that goes by when your heart isn’t aching, when you don’t feel a tremendous sense of pain over the injustice and the reality that a person has lost his/her freedom because they system failed them. To be a parent, that is just devastating. One often hears that a parent’s worst fear is outliving their children. Add to this fear the reality that one’s son is innocent and incarcerated. It is a sense of helplessness that is difficult to get over. Willie Stuckey’s mother outlived her son, but she lived to see him exonerated. It is a bittersweet moment, but she will likely forever think about what her son at 32 could have done with his life as a free man. She will likely think about the grandchildren by him that she never will have. And every birthday that comes around, she will remember where he spent his 16th, 18th, 21st, 25, and 30th birthday- in prison. She will forever be reminded that the state took her son at 16 and gave him back to her at the age of 32 to be buried. The system swallowed him up and left him to digest on the juices of injustice.
More Reflections of the Exonerated
The reflections of the men (all men were highlighted in the New York Magazine piece) were powerful. It was told from the vantage point of those who received some sort of delayed justice. But after years, decades even, incarcerated, there must be something akin to a post-traumatic stress syndrome at play. On some level, even the exonerated may wonder if they will ever truly be free.
Imagine the emotional roller coaster of being wrongfully convicted and then finally finding someone or a group that believes in your case and is willing to fight on your behalf. That sense of hope that one may have suppressed becomes stronger. But this hope is fleeting as one set back after another takes place. It is mental torture in some aspects. Let’s return to the McCallum case, for example.
McCallum’s appeals had been exhausted, his attorney asked then Brooklyn DA Charles Hynes to submit it to the Conviction Integrity Unit for review. Hynes claimed that after investigation, there was no evidence to support claims of innocence. When Hynes was defeated in his reelection bid and replaced by DA Kenneth Thompson, McCallum’s attorney asked again for the DA’s office to review the case, and Rubin Hurricane Carter’s dying wish was for McCallum’s case to be reviewed.
“In August 2013, Hynes’s office informed Michelen that the office had concluded there was no evidence to support McCallum’s claim of innocence.
In the fall of 2013, after Hynes was defeated in his bid for re-election, Michelen wrote to Kenneth Thompson, the newly elected District Attorney, imploring him to take a fresh look at the McCallum case.
In April 2014, Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, a well-known middle-weight prize fighter who was cleared of a wrongful conviction for murder in 1985, died of prostate cancer. Before he died, Carter sent a letter asking Thompson—as a dying wish—to review McCallum’s case anew.
On October 15, 2014, Thompson moved the Kings County, New York, Supreme Court to vacate the convictions of both McCallum and Stuckey. The motion was granted and the charges against both men were dismissed. McCallum was released immediately.
Thompson said the confessions clearly were false. He also was harshly critical of his predecessor, Hynes, for failing to seriously address claims of innocence. Thompson declared, “I inherited a legacy of disgrace with respect to wrongful convictions.”
What a difference a district attorney makes. Far too many district attorneys are content with getting a conviction on questionable evidence and maintaining the conviction simply for the sake of maintaining the conviction. More district attorneys such as Ken Thompson and former Dallas County, Texas District attorney Craig Watkins are desperately needed as they recognize that justice is far more important than simply maintaining a conviction. There are far too many district attorney offices where there is, to quote DA Thompson again, “a legacy of disgrace with respect to wrongful convictions.”
What About Those Who Haven’t Been Exonerated?
The second annual Wrongful Conviction Day was October 2nd. According to the Innocent Project’s website, “The purpose of Wrongful Conviction Day is to set aside a day to focus on and discuss the causes and remedies concerning wrongful convictions, an issue that affects and devastates individuals, families and societies worldwide. In recognition of the day, innocence groups from around the world will hold events and host a range of activities to raise awareness about the many cases of people who have been convicted of crimes they did not commit.” http://www.innocenceproject.org/news-events-exonerations/october-2-is-wrongful-conviction-day
It is very important to recognize Wrongful Conviction Day because the public needs to be aware of how easy it is to convict and innocent person in this country. And that once an innocent person is convicted, it may take years, if not decades, for that person to be exonerated. That is a sad and painful reality. Recently, the Equal justice Initiative (EJI) announced that their client, Beniah Dandridge, was exonerated after spending 20 years in prison on a murder charge. Apparent poor forensics by the Alabama Bureau of Investigations and the use of a jail house informant helped to convict an innocent man. For 20 years Dandridge languished in prison wondering if he would be a free AND exonerated man. I would like to see prosecutors in this case and so many others to respond to questions about what is it like to see someone that they either sent to prison or worked extremely hard to keep that person in prison to be exonerated. Do they care? Does it matter how justice seems perverted when prosecutors engage in tactics that lead to wrongful convictions? Will they try hard to prevent these types of convictions? Would they establish a Conviction Integrity Unit? And so on. There are so few prosecutors that would acknowledge what DA Kenneth Thompson acknowledged: “I inherited a legacy of disgrace with respect to wrongful convictions.” Justice should not depend on which district attorney is prosecuting one’s case or with judicial district one is in, it should depend on prosecutors going beyond the extra step to ensure that the actual culprits are convicted and working for, not against, efforts to free innocent people.
I would also like to see articles featuring voters who are also asked how they feel when they watch the news and learn that an innocent person had been exonerated after 5, 10, 15, 20, 36 and more years in prison. And in these articles there should be an understanding of how district attorneys handle these cases and whether district attorneys are elected or appointed. In most jurisdictions, district attorneys are elected and, therefore, these voters should be asked if it is a responsibility of theirs to hold district attorneys accountable for their actions. It costs a lot of money to incarcerate an inmate, imagine the amount of money a state has to spend keeping an innocent person incarcerated. Taxpayers have a vested interest in seeing that prosecutors pursue justice, not theories and false information. No one wins when there is a wrongful conviction, except for prosecutors who build their careers on the quantity, not the quality, of convictions. Wrongful convictions are not pro-victim, they are pro-prosecutor and we need to be aware of this reality.
I am interested in this subject matter because I have a cousin who is in his 18th year in prison for crimes he did not commit. He was prosecuted by Joe Carl “Buzz Jordan who worked for the Mobile District Attorney’s office. Subsequent Mobile District Attorneys John Tyson, Jr. and Ashley Rich (the current DA) refuse to acknowledge that Rodney did not commit the crimes for which he is accused. I will not get into Rodney’s case here, but please read this blog about whether Rodney could be two places at once, this investigative report by Beth Schwartzapfel that was published in the Boston Review and go to this website www.freerodneystanberry.com. When DA Ashley Rich was campaigning to replace retiring DA John Tyson, Jr., this is what she said in response to a question:
“Integrity is something that is so important because when you are a prosecutor, you not only have the duty to prosecute people and to put people in jail, but you also have a duty to uphold the law. You have the duty to do that with integrity and with the ethical standards in place… You must disclose exculpatory evidence because if you don’t, nothing good comes from it and essentially you have prosecuted someone who may not have committed the crimes because you didn’t disclose exculpatory evidence. Candidate Ashley Rich (September 16, 2010 ) Ashley Rich is now the Mobile County District Attorney after winning the election to replace former DA John Tyson, Jr. http://freerodneystanberry.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2012/07/u7am0916AshleyRich1.mp3
In spite of the concern DA Ashley Rich expressed about lessons that the Duke LaCrosse case provided, Rich has been silent when she was presented two cases (Toby Priest and William Ziegler) where judges called her office out on prosecutorial misconduct by prosecutors in her office. Ziegler was finally released after spending 15 years in prison, most of it on death row. Here is an interview immediately following his release. The William Ziegler case was particularly disturbing, but Chief assistant district attorney Deborah Tillman, nor DA Ashley Rich, expressed any regret or fault in the way his case was prosecuted (http://freerodneystanberry.com/blog/2015/04/23/who-will-hold-prosecutors-accountable-for-their-actions-the-case-of-william-j-ziegler/). Withholding exculpatory evidence was suddenly not a matter of integrity for DA Ashley Rich. District Attorney Ashley Rich is campaigning for reelection. Her primary is in March. District Attorney is a very law and order, tough on crime district attorney. One can be a very law and order, tough on crime district attorney AND pursue true justice for the victim (s) of crimes, even if it means not getting a conviction and even if it means working to release innocent people. It doesn’t have to be one or the other. I wish DA Ashley Rich the best, I know she wants to make the community safer, but she can do this while also doing what is right, fair, and just when it comes to wrongful convictions. She doesn’t entertain the idea of establishing a Conviction Integrity Unit because she believes her prosecutors use safeguards to prevent such actions. If the safeguards were in place for the Priest and Ziegler case, they failed miserably. In my cousin’s (Rodney K. Stanberry) case, there was a confession made in front of prosecutor Buzz Jordan by the person actually involved in the crimes, but he dismissed and suppressed the confession. Jordan traveled to Rikers Island Prison from Mobile, Alabama to interview someone he said was the shooter, but claimed he did not take notes because he was on vacation!!! My cousin had evidence that he was at work when the crimes took place, but there was then a manipulation of the time frame of the crimes to pursue Jordan’s theory, there was lost evidence, and so on and so forth. But DA Rich isn’t concerned with the actions in Rodney’s case either, so I am not sure what was the lesson she learned about the Duke Lacrosse case, other than, unlike Mike Nifong (Duke Lacrosse prosecutor),it is rare that a prosecutor will be sanctioned for engaging in prosecutorial misconduct (http://freerodneystanberry.com/blog/2015/06/21/prosecutorial-accountability-and-state-bar-responsibility-when-will-it-become-the-norm/0 That lesson does not bode well for the integrity of the system.
Rodney K. Stanberry is on the the extremely long list of people who are innocent, but who may never be exonerated. If we were to look at the estimates of those who are innocent and incarcerated (http://www.innocenceproject.org/faqs/how-many-innocent-people-are-there-in-prison), then we will see a long list of people trying to maintain hope and hoping that this country that has in its pledge of allegiance “with liberty and justice for all” will find more prosecutors pursuing actual justice and the integrity of the system. Prosecutors should understand that upholding the integrity of the system should not be paused when they are pursuing and maintaining questionable cases.