Chapter 11 – Miscarriage of Justice

To be accused and blamed for something you did not do is an awful and restless feeling. Still, that descriptiveness is by far a travesty to an understatement. One can probably almost equate it with paralysis when knowingly being buried alive – and while being fully conscious yet is unable to afford even the slightest sign or whimper to alert the undertakers. Figuratively, that’s the extremity of helplessness one, in such a situation, would mindlessly feel.

From the time one is being wrongly accused, he or she would already be consumed by a strange nightmarish world as if being overcome by the compression of the mythical demonic Succubus coming upon you but still you’re unable to awake yet fully aware of what’s going on. When you are the accused, you may predictably find that your “relatives and friends” start to keep a wide berth as if you have been contagiously stained and it would be a steep downhill slide thereon.

More appallingly unimaginable is to be imprisoned for a crime you didn’t commit. To have your liberty wrested or just snatched away is in essence feculent injustice beyond words. This may be the very reason why “you should not bear false witness against your neighbour” was included in the 10 Commandments some 3,300 years ago. Being innocent but having to succumb to a life of incarceration within a cage is a fate best described as living death!

“The scales of justice require frequent recalibration”

To add insult to injury, it’s disturbingly soul scrubbing – if not eerily chilling, to think about the reality of just how many among those millions of people incarcerated are actually innocent of the crime they have been convicted for. These people are basically everyday folks no more or lesser than you and me. Furthermore, what’s more abysmal is that some of them are eventually executed; and that too after having languished in prison for years on end before their lives are instantly snuffed out.

As a conscience-prick, take the case of Askari Abdullah Muhammad, aged 62. He was on death row for 40 years before he was finally executed by lethal injection January 7, 2014 by Florida’s Department of Corrections. That means that he had been in isolation behind bars since 1974 and thereon awaited execution which finally came 4 decades later. In reminiscence, the United States was still embedded in the Vietnam War then. More cynical and unspeakably grave is that some executed inmates are posthumously exonerated. Justice seemed to have been blinded by man’s follies as well as used to quench man’s perversion for predation.

“There is a higher court than courts of justice and that is the court of conscience. It supersedes all other courts”.  

* Mahatma Gandhi

Consider the “Parole Deal”, where if you admit guilt even though you are innocent, you could have your sentence reduced or you could receive an early parole. However, should you stick to your plea of innocence and even though you may actually be innocent, you are likely to remain in jail far longer while you’d need to wrangle tiringly with the legal processes to receive due liberty. With such wheeling and dealing justice can be interpreted as being negotiable – no better than a commercial or concessional arrangement. Justice can be bargained and traded.

Still, some people, and even though knowing of this perverted reality that we thrive on, steadfastly opt to vehemently declare their innocence. There have been many cases where innocent prisoners faced this ignoble choice but declined it – where some have even died in prison while awaiting the day of emancipation that never came. Their courage and unrelenting evocatively rekindle our faith and hopes in human spirit and dignity.

This has been appropriately referred to as “the innocent prisoner’s dilemma” by American law professor Daniel Medwed. What’s disturbing is that should the innocent prisoner opt to “admit” guilt, a parole hearing could prevent future investigations and attempts to prove his or her innocence. Hence, they are confirmed to be guilty even though they are purely innocent. It’s more like a matter of man serving law and not law serving man. In the UK, an organisation called the Innocence Network UK has this to say: “Those prisoners are unable to achieve parole unless they undertake offense-behaviour courses that require the admission of guilt as a prerequisite”.

A notable case involved a British sailor named Michael Shirley who was sentenced to life in prison after conviction for the murder of Linda Cook in December, 1986. After the minimum of 15 years served, he could have been released through parole had he confessed to the murder but he refused. His sentence was eventually quashed by the appeals court in 2003 owing to DNA evidence. That was a disdainful miscarriage of justice and he was only 18-years old when he was sentenced. In truth, he was mercilessly robbed off 17 years of his youth. According to him, he was prepared to die in prison rather than to admit to a murder he never committed.

Michael Shirley. Image-Birmingham Mail

Perhaps the longest of such cases in British history was that of 17-year old Stephen Downing who was convicted of murdering Wendy Sewell – a 32-year old legal secretary. He was sentenced in 1974 but was eventually found to be innocent in 2002. By then, he had already served 27 years behind bars. The irony of it all was that had he admitted guilt, he could have been out a decade earlier.

“Factual innocence” in the United States is not enough for the justice system to release someone from prison. This is a legal term for the reality of a person being innocent. It’s extremely difficult and highly improbable to get a verdict overturned in the United States as that’s just the way the system works.

According to an organisation known as The Innocence Project, it’s estimated that between 2.3% – 5% of prisoners in the U.S. are innocent. This translates to anything from a substantial 52,900 to 110,500 people wrongfully imprisoned. Figuratively, the numbers are big enough to populate a small city. What’s disturbingly compounding and aggravating is that DNA testing which often clears suspects before they are convicted can be carried out on only 5% – 10% of criminal cases. It’s telling when the U.S. Department of Justice agrees that people have been improperly sent to prison owing to a misunderstanding of federal law.  A U.S. District Judge in Charlotte turned down petitions by two men to have their convictions overturned even after the prosecutors filed papers to say that these men were “convicted for conduct that we now understand is not criminal”.

Consider the case of a person named Herbert Murray who was convicted of murder in 1979. The judge believed his alibi but was compelled by law to respect the jury’s decision. After 19 years, he continued to defend his innocence to the Parole Board. He appeared four times but still steadfastly denied he was guilty. Alas, having become sorely weary after so many futile attempts, he compromisingly admitted guilt by the fifth hearing. Be that as it was, he wasn’t released. Finally after 29 years, an organisation called Medwed’s Second Look assisted in his eighth parole hearing and got him freed. Despite the fact, he can’t ever attempt to overturn his conviction because he had admitted guilt in his fifth hearing.

Afro-American military vet Timothy Cole was sentenced to 25 years in 1985 after being found guilty of rape. He insisted he was innocent and was subsequently offered parole if he admits “guilt” but he turned it down preferring to fight to be completely exonerated. Sadly he died in prison after serving 14 years at the age of only 39. Another person had admitted to the rape in 1995. This again was foully aggrandized by the victim claiming investigators withheld information from her. Finally, DNA tests proved that he was innocent after all. He was ultimately pardoned posthumously.

Timothy Cole. Image

The Innocence Project tracked 891 cases of exoneration since 1989 – the year the first exoneration came about with the aid of DNA.

Wrongful execution is another debasement of human dignity and of the human soul. It’s no better than orderly cum sophisticated lynching. To be robbed of your precious life by a blood-thirsty mob of supposedly civilized, religious and cultured hoard is no better than murder in refinement.

Quite a number of people were viewed as being innocent but nevertheless executed. DNA testing, available for only a fraction of death-penalty cases has also exonerated over 15 death-row prisoners in the past 20 years in the United States alone. A number of them have also been released owing to weak cases and other factors; while The Death Penalty Information Center has named 10 people executed but possibly innocent; and with 39 executions accomplished albeit with evidence backing innocence and serious doubts having been rendered.

The UK pardoned one and exonerated three between 1950 and 1953 and paid compensation as well – and at a time when Wales and England averaged 17 executions per year. Between the 1970s and now, there have been nearly 150 documented cases of people exonerated from the death penalty with most of them in the United States.

The New York Times in an article published back in 23 April, 2008 stated that the United States with only 5 % of the world’s population has a quarter of the global prison population. Counting adults alone, 1 in every 100 adult or 751 per 100,000 population are in prison. Other reliable reports are similar with almost 9% of these prisoners being women. All in all, there are 2.3 million prisoners in the US with an occupancy level of 107%. Naturally, figures keep changing and most notably on an upward trend. Second in terms of prison population is China followed by Russia, Brazil and in fifth place is India. According to Amnesty International, the world’s death row prison population was at least 18,750 at the end of 2011. Expect more current figures to have grown since.

Imprisonment by and in its very nature is utterly cruel but it’s nevertheless a necessary evil. It starts to become unforgivable when it’s abused and utilised as a tool of convenience to shut away those branded as “enemies of civilized society”.

Often, it’s abused for political purposes as well and perhaps as often too, a result of vicious victimisation. It’s not prodigious knowledge that man is born to be free and liberty is an inherent birth right. Certain civilisations have resorted to banishment instead as a more seemingly humane way of dealing with the problem. Also, the threat of consequential imprisonment does not necessarily serve as an effectual deterrent for those who are doggedly bent on breaking laws to injure and to dispossess others. Some perversely view laws as an invite to challenge the system by outwitting, circumventing or triumphing over the laws that were after all enacted by their fellow beings – mere humans.

Dr. Chia Thye Poh

Differences in political ideology can also land a person long prison terms – with some having spent over 20 years in jail and worse still, some others have been hanged. Dr. Chia Thye Poh is the world’s longest political prisoner. He was detained for 23 years without charge or trial for allegedly conducting pro-communist activities. Even after release, he was placed under house arrest conditions for another 9 years.

In certain countries, a person could be sent to the gallows for possessing 100 grams of cannabis. That’s like 2 pouches of hand-rolling tobacco you buy from the tabac-shop. On the other hand, many countries have begun to loosen up on prohibition of marijuana possession for recreational use – or mete out light sentences like fines. A number of countries have decriminalised pot possession for personal use as well.

More so, in some American states, marijuana is medicinally prescribed thus seen by some as “eating” into the underground business sector criminally run by drug lords and cartels. To top it all, various states like Colorado and Washington have legalised recreational smoking where you can get to a pot-provider and choose from among the hybrids which are 6 times more potent than generics. For enthusiasts, their wish for quality-control may have finally been formalised. THC has since assumed other meanings including Transcendence Heavenly Consciousness onto That High Chemical onto Total High Count. .

So where is the justification or logic in sending someone to the gallows for possessing herbal stimulants that advocate claims to be less detrimental than alcohol and tobacco?

In certain countries again, severe punishments are meted out on homosexuals and even those engaging in heterosexual anal sex. Naturally, this covers LGBT in entirety where prison terms of up to 20 years – which incidentally is longer than what one would typically serve for culpable homicide – can be prescribed under archaic but still prevailing laws. In stark contrast, gay marriages are allowed in a number of countries.

Alas the subject of imprisonment and whom to imprison shall always be contentious issues. This brings to mind draconian “preventive detention” or “detention without trial” as practiced by certain regimes. The Rule of Law and fundamental human rights are being brazenly violated in such instances and the clichéd “innocent until proven guilty” merely becomes a cynical buzz word.

Justice is never promised to all. Mostly justice can cause you grave punishment and lots of money. When the state is charging you in a court of law, they act as the people versus you. The masses are after your hide where they have unlimited resources to fight you. You are innocent until proven guilty and don’t enjoy any benefit of doubts and once you are charged, only something of monetary value can lend you temporary freedom in an arrangement they coyly call bail. Besides, what if you are being charged under an offence where bail is not allowed. Then you would be forcibly detained in a jail or what they congenially call a correctional facility.

What this equates too is you are “guilty until proven innocent” – which is why you are already serving time that could be deducted once you are confirmed or proven guilty. For the time being you would be “pre-guilty until proven guilty”. You are not entitled to compensation from the state upon being found innocent unless you can prove malice by the agents of the people, so to speak. All in all you can consider it a misadventure and thank your lucky stars you have been freed after an extended tour of an incarceration facility. Liberty for the common man is paper-thin. For the affluent, they are far better off because they have the financial resources to help smoothen the impact of any potential ordeal and afford a competent team of legal advisers.

The individual is incessantly and perilously vulnerable to the appeasement and gratification of the mass. Hence, the Laws of the Jungle do prevail under civilized cloak. We live in a predatory world and numbers equate to power. Gangsterism is born out of this primitive awareness aided by a bloated predation confidence.  Yet, the world is largely ruled by gangsters that operate under varied guises. There are such things as legal and illegal gangsters. In real-life context, governments can be visualized as legal gangsters and criminal gangs as the illegal ones.

They both operate in groups consisting of numerous personnel. Obviously the more personnel you have the stronger you are going to be. It’s the basic principle of arithmetic. Then, there are the commercial gangsters which come under the distinction of mega-corporations. They are out to influence the masses for commercial profitability.

A truce can always be worked out. Even in the Serengeti plains, crocodiles and hippos share the same water and they co-exist amid some semblance of harmony and balance. This is all a compromise for the sake of self-preservation or survival. We the individuals are preoccupied with self-preservation too but we exist very much like members of a herd. The only difference is that the herd does rarely understand that unity is strength. The irony however is all it takes is only one shepherd – no matter with two or four legs – to steer a herd.

So justice is in actuality largely elusive and unwarily illusive.


Author: J. Sam Barr

Greetings from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

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