Maurice Carter would be 72 years of age today. Thanks to the State of Michigan, his life was cut short. We lost him in the autumn of 2004, after only 3 months of freedom. Maurice had served 29 years for a crime he did not commit, almost one half of his entire life here on earth.
Yesterday, one day before Maurice’s birthday, I spoke to a group of high school seniors in Grand Haven. As we neared the end of the hour, one beautiful young woman who was completely getting the picture asked me, “After 15 years of working with the system, do you see any improvement?” The question caught me a bit off guard. That’s not one that I’m used to hearing. And my answer reflected that…I stumbled and bumbled. As I recall, I think that I answered that I haven’t seen much improvement, but that I was cautiously optimistic.
I’m wondering what change Maurice would see if he were sitting beside me this morning.
I don’t think the number of wrongful convictions has changed. It’s still happening. What has changed is our awareness of them, and our concentration on reversing them. But, having said that, here are the things that unfairly put Maurice away and unfairly kept him behind bars.
Tunnel vision. Once police decided that Maurice Carter was the perpetrator of a crime in Benton Harbor during the Christmas season of 1973, they didn’t look any further. It took two years to make the arrest, but that, in their mind, closed the case. Never mind the facts. Police and prosecutors are still afflicted with this disease today.
Jailhouse snitch. An actual acquaintance of Maurice was the person who brought about the arrest. Wilbur Gillespie, in jail and facing serious drug charges, was promised a deal if he fabricated a story and signed a statement implicating his buddy Maurice. Even though he recanted later, the damage was done. Prosecutors seem to be more careful in the use of jailhouse snitches now, but it’s still happening.
Faulty eyewitness identification. Testimony by eyewitnesses at one time was seen as the most effective way to convict a defendant. Finally, that is changing, thanks to the efforts of some nationally-known experts on the subject, and public programs by people like our dear friends Jennifer Thompson and Ronald Cotton, authors of the book PICKING COTTON.
Ineffective counsel. The court-appointed attorney for Maurice had a terrible reputation. The court was well aware of that when James Jesse was appointed to represent this indigent black man from Gary, Indiana. Who cared? I was told last week that this is changing. A member of the Governor’s Commission on Indigent Defense tells me that new recommendations for improvement are imminent. Thank God!
Parole Board power. Michigan’s Parole Board effectively kept Maurice in prison far beyond the number of years he should have served on a charge of assault with intent to commit murder. At that time, the Chairman of the Board was a former sheriff of Berrien County. And, the victim of the crime for which Maurice had been charged, had become the chief investigator for the Berrien County Prosecutor. The Prosecutor’s Office can and did strongly protest any possible parole. Michigan’s current 10-member board still has far too much power, and controls the destiny of far too many prisoners. The system is crying for Parole Board reform.
Inadequate prison health care. Maurice had contracted Hepatitis C while not taking sanitary precautions as he worked with ailing geriatric patients in prison. He was diagnosed with Hep C back in 1995, but nobody bothered to tell him…presumably because then they’d had to treat him. He didn’t learn that he had the disease until he collapsed in his cell in 2003. By then, it his Hepatitis C/end stage, and only a liver transplant could save his life. Our office continues to hear prison healthcare horror stories.
To answer the student’s question, I think change is coming. It’s going to happen very slowly, because we’re dealing with a huge system. But thanks, in part, to this organization---formed and based on the dream of Maurice Carter---there is increased public awareness, and the more people know, the more we can expect eventual change.
On that bright note, I wish you Happy Birthday, my brother Maurice!
We’ll meet again.