“When someone says he’s innocent, and he keeps on saying it for the whole time that he’s in prison, you’d better listen to him!”
Famed welterweight prize fighter Rubin Hurricane Carter was sitting in the front seat of my car, as we drove from a visit with the late Maurice Carter (no relation). The Hurricane had come to Benton Harbor twice at my request to assist in raising public awareness about the injustice of the Maurice Carter case. His words carried weight (no pun intended). Rubin had been wrongly convicted for a crime he did not commit. Not once, but twice!
I’m thinking of that today as Matt and I discuss the assistance we are trying to provide to hundreds of prisoners in the Michigan prison system. I was reporting to him about a meeting I had with a prominent criminal defense attorney last week. This high profile lawyer is one of more than 50 professionals who freely and generously give of their time to help us with a multitude of problems and issues. The lawyer gave me two hours of his valuable time, to discuss the cases of five different prisoners. Four of the five involve wrongful convictions! And the terribly frustrating truth of the matter: I’m just not sure how much, if anything, anyone can and/or will do about it! See if those comforting thoughts help you get to sleep at night.
I hasten to point out two things. Number one, that Matt and I are not legal experts, and HFP is not an Innocence Project. And Number two, contrary what you may think and what many law enforcement people like to joke about, all prisoners do not claim they are innocent!
I know that I hammer away at the subject of wrongful convictions rather frequently, but this stuff bothers me a lot, and it should bother you, too.
I just ran through our case list. We have about 800 files right now. I came up with the names of 20 men and women behind bars who, I am convinced, are wrongly convicted! Just add up the number of years that each has spent in prison…one of them has been in over 40! Then think of the injustice of it all: years from their lives that cannot be replaced. Then think about the unnecessary cost of it all: $35-40,000 per prisoner per year, provided they are in good health. Then think about the flip-side of this coin: For every wrongly convicted person behind bars, there’s probably a criminal still out there on the street!
I can hear the hard liners calling me a “do-gooder,” trying to put criminals back on the street. Just the opposite: I want the right people in jail, and the wrong people out!
Doesn’t it bother you to know that there are Innocence Projects in almost every state, and because of the heavy caseloads they are years behind? These aren’t just frivolous claims. They are legitimate pleas for help that deserve careful scrutiny. What a shameful indictment of our system! Here in Michigan the University of Michigan’s Innocence Clinic takes only non-DNA cases, and Western Michigan University’s Cooley Innocence Project takes only DNA cases. I’ll wager money that if you call their main offices today, each one of them is at least two years behind.
Awareness is only the start.
Then must come action.
God help us!