Lessons from “The Middle”

Inaugural Blog for www.freerodneystanberry.com/blog   

On a recent episode of the ABC hit show “The Middle,” one of the sons was constantly leaving socks around the house. The father warned him on numerous occasions to stop this practice.  The son ignored the warnings. Finally, after being frustrated by being ignored by his son, the father said that if you leave one more sock on the floor, then I will take away something that is very important to you. Well, the next day the father found another sock on the floor. He told his son that he will not be able to play in his final basketball game of the season.  When the son appealed to the mother, the mother said that your father is right, you need to be punished for disobeying him.  But in the next scene, we find that the mother actually disagrees with the father and the father also disagrees with his decision as it was too harsh, but they believe that they can’t rescind the punishment as it would serve undermine their authority.  So they stick with the punishment even as it creates much agony between them, even as it hurts their son.  In the end, they allowed their son to play, they are happy, and the father and his son actually become closer.  The father is content that he made the right decision and by giving his son a reprieve from the punishment, it actually strengthened the family.   

As I was watching this, I was thinking about John Thompson and the district attorneys in New Orleans and about Rodney K. Stanberry and the district attorneys in Mobile, Alabama.    John Thompson spent 18 years in prison for crimes he did not commit. After he sued the New Orleans District Attorney’s office, he was awarded $14 million by the jury, one million dollars for each year he was on death row (you can’t put a price on the time an innocent person spends in prison). The Supreme Court rejected the ruling of the lower court, ruling that Thompson and others cannot sue district attorney’s office for failing to train its prosecutors on the Brady rule. Here is Thompson’s op-ed entitled

 “The Prosecution Rests, But I Can’t”: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/04/10/opinion/10thompson.html?pagewanted=all.  The aforementioned program “The Middle” addresses sticking with a decision even though you know the decision is wrong and could do more harm than good.  For prosecutors, it is focusing on getting a conviction, even though you may be prosecuting the wrong person. Can you imagine the mindset of the first prosecutor who withheld exculpatory evidence in John Thompson’s case, evidence that would have proven his innocence, and the subsequent prosecutors who also went along with the decision to withhold the information, rather than being about justice for Mr. Thompson. Thompson was on DEATH ROW for 14 years. As he mentioned, he was close to being executed.  He spent 18 years total in prison. If you ever doubt that the mind of the prosecutor (DA) is to convict at all costs and to maintain a conviction at all costs, review the Thompson case and the cases of many who were exonerated.  Further, Thompson was convicted based on eyewitness misidentification.  This is another demonstration that the DA’s office will rely on an eyewitness that they know may be mistaken, while hiding and/or ensuring that the jury does not have access to contradictory evidence that proves innocence.  Rodney K. Stanberry was convicted based on eyewitness misidentification. The Prichard Police Department “lost” evidence-mask and gloves, bullet fragments from weapon believed to be used in the crime-, didn’t fingerprint weapons, and otherwise gathered very little evidence. (See Mobile Assistant District Attorney  Buzz Jordan’s statement to the jury asking if they’d be willing to convict an individual based on no physical and scientific evidence, no weapons, no fingerprints and so on. ) Rodney K. Stanberry had evidence that he was at work when the crimes occurred, the prosecutor knew this. In fact, during the trial as Rodney’s co-workers further provided this information, the DA’s factual witness changed the time that she and the DA’s office said the crimes had occurred! The conviction mattered more than the truth. Rodney is being punished for something the prosecutor his his case thinks happened, his theory.

The Mobile District Attorney’s office had a confession by another individual who actually committed the crimes, but made sure that the jury did not hear the confession and that other evidence obtained to prove Rodney’s innocence was treated as hearsay and thus not allowed to be heard by the jury.  There is more to write about prosecutorial misconduct in Rodney K. Stanberry’s case.

After Jordan left the DA’s office, subsequent Assistant District Attorneys and District Attorneys continued to operate under the mindset that evidence of innocence does not matter, it is the conviction.  It is very difficult to imagine how human beings, especially those sworn to uphold the law, can develop this mindset.  I attended a forum that included people who were wrongfully convicted, and later exonerated, including Darryl Hunt, who spent 19 years in prison. The question of why prosecutors opt to ignore evidence of innocence and why prosecutors rationalize keeping innocent people in prison was considered.  One of the attorneys speculated that prosecutors believe that if they prosecute 100 really bad people and one or two innocent people are caught up in this, then they have done more good than harm.  I think the opposite, I think it does the system is harmed when the “convict at all costs” and “maintain conviction at all costs” mentality is allowed to prevail. The Supreme Court has let district attorney offices off the hook, but every district attorney should decide say, “I don’t want that to be me, I don’t want my office to be like that.”  Mobile District Attorney Ashley Rich was asked during her campaign for the DA position if she’d consider establishing a convictions integrity unit in Mobile DA’s office if she is elected. This would allow a collection of individuals, including those outside the DA’s office to review a case (http://www.dallasda.com/conviction-integrity.html ).  She simply said that “we review all cases where there are claims of innocence.”  I don’t have to tell you what’s wrong with that, but hint, refer to John Thompson’s case.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg said in her must-read dissent in Connick v. Thompson:   “The role of a prosecutor is to see that justice is done. Berger v. United States, 295 U. S. 78, 88 (1935). “It is as much [a prosecutor’s] duty to refrain from improper methods calculated to produce a wrongful conviction as it is to use every legitimate means to bring about a just one.” Ibid.”

If only District Attorneys can emphasize this to their staff. The prosecutors in Rodney’s case and in Thompson’s case definitely did not hold this belief.



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