Memories: Wrongful Convictions Should Not be Forgotten, Nor Sanctioned
There was a piece in The New York Times last year entitled “Suppressing Facebook’s Memories.”
There remains a concern among some Facebook users about being reminded via photos of loved ones and pets who have died. We keep these memories with us daily, but sometimes when they pop up on Facebook, they can open up a fresh wound in which we were not prepared to confront at that moment. I generally like the Facebook memory feed, but they have been painful. My Facebook Memories on any given day features about 20 of my posts and about one third to one half of those posts are about my cousin, Rodney K. Stanberry. I am sharing blogs that I’ve written, articles, and general activist stuff. I once posted a blog entitled accidental activist (http://freerodneystanberry.com/blog/2012/10/15/a-day-in-the-life-the-pursuit-of-justice-and-the-agony-of-defeat/) I wrote this blog after finding a notebook of mine when I was in DC that featured my day to day schedule- work, graduate school, working on Rodney’s case, it was nearly a 20 hour a day schedule. My commitment to my cousin’s freedom and exoneration began in 1997 and I’ve been all in since then.
The FB memories are particularly painful on anniversaries of specific dates; the date the crimes for which he is accused took place, the day of his conviction, his parole denial dates, the day his mother died and her funeral, and so on. This past year we were optimistic for an early release until the Alabama Department of Corrections (seemingly) arbitrarily changed a policy. This past summer, the Alabama Department of Corrections announced that they would be ending their supervised release/reentry program effective immediately. Needless to say, this would have been an opportunity for Rodney to be released 6 months before his scheduled release. It was very disappointing to learn of the abruptness to the end of the program. I contacted Alabama State Senator Cam Ward, Steve Watson (who oversaw the program), Alabama PrisonCommissioner Dunn, along with individuals in the media seeking an explanation, and the Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles in the hopes that Rodney could have another parole hearing given that the SRP ended. Needless to say, this got me nowhere, except for a sympathetic ear. Watson said you seem to know a lot about the system. I shed a few tears because I would have preferred to not know as much as I do about how our system of justice can work.
Feeling Like a Failure
There were many times over the years when I felt like a failure for not being able to do more to secure Rodney’s freedom. I feel this way even though I know that it is honestly rare for someone to be exonerated once convicted-the system is stacked against the innocent, but the feeling is there, nevertheless. So as I try to fall asleep at night, my heart is so heavy, it is an awful feeling. And then there is morning, I look out my window, see a beautiful day, kiss my dog, and then go to Facebook and I see my memories of the day, I click on them, and I see years of activism that has not freed my cousin, and I think about him, so many decades (since 1992 for him when the crimes were committed) dealing with being wrongfully accused, wrongfully convicted, and still incarcerated. The crimes for which he is accused of committing took place in 1992, he was convicted in 1995, and he began his prison sentence in 1997. He’s had three parole hearings, each time denied, even though he has had everything parole board’s ask for—a work plan, family support, a good record, and so on. What he did not have is what they want, remorse. Yes, Rodney is extremely sad and angry that a horrible crime occurred. But he cannot take blame and show remorse for what did not do. Parole boards want a defendant to say he/she is guilty and that they are remorseful. In Alabama, getting parole over the past decade or so has already been very low. As Beth Swartzapfel wrote in an article entitled “How Parole Boards Keeps Prisoners in the Dark and Behind Bars,”
“ “The vast majority of the nation’s parole boards are required to hear victim input before making a decision, according to the 2008 survey; 40 percent said victim input is “very influential.”
In Alabama, it’s almost unheard of for the board to grant parole over victim opposition. The board also routinely receives letters opposing parole from the governor, the attorney general and other elected officials.
“That’s going to impact the disposition when they protest, almost universally,” Alabama board Chairman Robert Longshore said. “You’ve got a very politicized victim community in the state of Alabama.”” https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/the-power-and-politics-of-parole-boards/2015/07/10/49c1844e-1f71-11e5-84d5-eb37ee8eaa61_story.html?utm_term=.69f5d1034247
In Rodney’s case, the victim’s son, who is now an attorney, has been steadfast against Rodney being released. One can understand where he is coming from, his mother suffered from a brutal crime and I am sure that Joe Carl “Buzz” Jordan, former prosecutor with the Mobile District Attorney’s Office, who prosecuted Rodney has continued to convince him that Rodney is guilty (see http://bostonreview.net/us/who-shot-valerie-finley). In fact, soon after Rodney’s third and final parole hearing, Jordan and the victim’s son were co-counsels for a very important case involving a member of the victim’s family (http://blog.al.com/live/2013/11/jury_rules_maysville_woman_was.html ). Jordan invoked his work on my cousin’s case when talking about how he knew the family: “At the start of the trial, Buzz Jordan, who led the defense, introduced himself as someone who had known Patrick since she was 9 years old, when her mother was the victim of a shooting that left her paralyzed.”
If you are a prosecutor who never wants the victim’s family to question your integrity, you follow Jordan’s game plan. Please understand that Buzz Jordan had a confession from an individual who actually committed the crimes two years BEFORE Rodney’s trial, but he ignored it because it didn’t fit his theory. Jordan travelled from Mobile, Alabama to Rikers Island Prison in New York to visit the person he claims was the shooter, but said he was on vacation so he didn’t take nor reveal any notes- talk about suppressing exculpatory evidence. But, as I’ve written over the years, the Alabama State Bar and other State Bars so do not seem to want to address this. The Texas State Bar did a rare thing in bringing up two attorneys on charges-attorneys that were responsible for keeping Michael Morton in prison for nearly 25 years and for keeping Anthony Graves in prison for nearly two decades (http://freerodneystanberry.com/blog/2013/04/22/when-texas-gets-it-right-former-prosecutor-held-criminally-responsible-for-putting-innocent-man-in-prison/). As I stated in another blog:
“Collectively, Michael Morton and Anthony Graves spent a total of 40 years in prison for crimes they did not commit. This doesn’t include the arrest date, trial date, and conviction date. 40 years!!!! During their years in prison, their prosecutors went on to have productive careers; Ken Anderson even went on to serve as a judge. Imagine spending these years in prison wondering how are prosecutors able to blatantly ignore, withhold, suppress evidence that proved that you were innocent. While you’re sitting in prison wondering how can the system be so messed up, the people playing a role in keeping the system messed up are rewarded.” http://freerodneystanberry.com/blog/2015/06/21/prosecutorial-accountability-and-state-bar-responsibility-when-will-it-become-the-norm/
So here we are, the first month of 2017, less than two months before Rodney is released from prison after serving 20 years for crimes he did not commit. Rodney began serving his prison sentence on March 24th, 1997 and his scheduled release date is March 13th, 2017. Twenty years in prison for crimes he did not commit. Rodney is fortunate in that people from around the country and world (yes, world) know about his case. The parole board and Mobile District Attorney’s office have received tons or telephone calls and petition signatures over the years. During Mobile District Attorney Ashley Rich’s first month in office, she received so many phone calls that her Chief Investigator returned calls to inquire why all the calls about Rodney. Kirsten West Savali was able to get him on record about the actions of Buzz Jordan (https://newsone.com/1809115/rodney-k-stanberry-is-alabama-still-the-land-of-jim-crow/.) So we have had these moral victories, they came about as a result of having to put in a lot of work to contact people about Rodney’s case, talk to them about it, convince them that this is a case worth writing about, asking you all to sign petitions and so on. But at the end of the day, what matters is his freedom and his exoneration, and the decision by the Alabama Department of Corrections keeps him in prison until March 2017. At Rodney’s third and final parole hearing, the victim’s son said that when he serves his 20 years, we (he and his family) will not protest. Rodney is on track to serving the entire 20 years and we would not be doing the system any justice if we did not fight to reform the system and to continue to push for the freedom and exoneration of others. Columnist Leonard Pitts wrote a piece a few years ago about victims in the system. His piece was about the death penalty but there were two paragraphs in particular that stood out to me:
‘So how can a state that gets it wrong at least one time in every four want to speed up the process? Does no one care about the increased likelihood of executing someone who committed no crime?
We are always called upon to be solicitous of the pain suffered by victims’ families. Where is our solicitude for innocent people, wrong place, wrong time, people — usually indigent people of color — who are rushed, perjured, bumbled, erred and “oopsed” onto death row? Why does their pain affect us less? Why are they less deserving of our compassion? Are they not victims, too? “http://www.richmond.com/opinion/their-opinion/leonard-pitts/article_b9d75709-e878-5247-9f2e-8c98c8627856.html
Memories are painful; the system breaks our heart, and when there is no separation or time to really heal, the heartbreak remains. But as I said on Rodney’s most recent birthday: “This ordeal did not rob Rodney of his integrity. He remains a very strong person. When he is released, he will continue to live his life as a hard-working, fun-loving, family-oriented individual. Rodney and I were not close growing up; this ordeal has brought us together for these past 19 years. I hate with a passion what has happened to Rodney, but I am grateful to have gained such a close and dedicated relationship with an incredible individual. I am not sure that I could endure what he has endured, so he has given us all strength.”
He and justice are worth fighting for.