All writing is a form of prayer - John Keats

Wednesday, November 18, 2020

Innocent until proven guilty? You must be kidding!

I love a good thriller, and Michael Connelly’s new book The Law of Innocence is one of the best I’ve read in a long time! 

It reminds me of two very important points that we often ignore, or just don’t believe: The presumption of innocent until proven guilty just isn’t true, and never has been; and, defense attorneys have an unfair, uphill fight in U.S. courtrooms. 

I still remember my thoughts, when covering my first trial as a young reporter. “Wow, the prosecutor has a strong edge, here!” But, in my naivete, I just assumed that’s the way it was supposed to be. We want bad guys off the street, right? 

Connelly’s fictional defense attorney Mickey Haller insists that going to trial is really a gamble: The prosecution is always the house in this game. It holds the bank and deals the cards. 

The plight worsens substantially for the accused if that person is poor and/or black. 

Here in Michigan, the situation used to be of the worst in the country. I saw this first hand when I began helping Maurice Carter in the mid-1990s. 

Here was Maurice, an indigent black man from Gary, Indiana, arrested in Michigan on the testimony of a jail-house snitch for a crime he did not commit. His court-appointed lawyer, who had a reputation of falling asleep in the courtroom and of fleecing black people, never even met with him until the day of the trial. The only witness to the crime, who could prove that Maurice was not the shooter, was assured by this lawyer that “everything would be all right.” It wasn’t. Maurice spent the next 29 years in prison! Convicted with no evidence, no fingerprints, no weapon and no motive. All-white jury. 

While I am encouraged by progress in Michigan, I stress that the battle to help poor people facing criminal charges is far from balanced. 

In 2013 our legislature established the Michigan Indigent Defense Commission, which set up very decent standards and insisted that those standards be met state-wide. Dramatic progress has been made. And, good news...there’ll be many more improvements. Good thing, because we have a long way to go! 

BUT, what happens in Lansing and what actually happens in the courtroom are two different things. Especially for that person hoping to prove innocence. 

Fictional attorney Mickey Haller says: There is nothing pure about the law when you get inside a courtroom. It’s a bare-knuckle fight, and each side uses whatever it can to bludgeon the other. 

I conclude with these words of realism from another author, John Grisham: 

“The presumption of innocence is now the presumption of guilt. The burden of proof is a travesty because the proof is often lies. Guilt beyond a reasonable doubt means if he probably did it, then let’s get him off the streets.” 

Sad. But spot on.

Wednesday, November 11, 2020

Can helping prisoners be measured?

“So, how do you measure your success?” 

The question came to us from a potential new staff member. The HFP team and members of our Human Relations Committee were conducting interviews for someone who may be called upon to help us raise funds. “When approaching foundations for money,” she said, “I have learned that they want to see positive results.”

Fair Question. Fair observation. 

I have long held Father Greg Boyle’s opinion, that success is valuable only when it is a by-product of faith. As he puts it, success can be set up by choosing to work with those most likely to produce positive results, rather than those who most need support. In other words, HFP does not choose who it will help in order to stack the deck in the success column! We help everyone who asks. 

The neat thing was the quick response to her question from the front lines...not with numbers, but with stories. 

Susie told of a prisoner who had serious physical issues that made conditions for living with another inmate almost impossible. With a lot of persuasion, we were finally able to get him a single-person room, and he’s beside himself with gratitude. 

Matt told of a grateful prisoner who is being reconnected with his long-lost son, thanks to the hard work of our office. 

I related the fact that I had just signed letters of thanks to 5 prisoners for financial donations to HFP, ranging from $10 to $20. I explained the significance of these gifts, based on the few cents per hour that these people earn at their prison jobs. 

I told of holding the door open for an HFP client who recently stepped into we hugged, no words, silently weeping, not even noticing the cold wind and rain. 

The HFP story is not an easy pitch to a foundation. 

We don’t have records showing that we rescued x number of pets, or served x number of meals, or helped x number of abused women or kids. 

Back to Father Boyle again: “Mother Teresa’s take: ‘We are not called to be successful, but faithful.’” 

He goes on: “Jesus was always too busy being faithful to worry about success. I'm not opposed to success; I just think we should accept it only if it is a by-product of our fidelity. If our primary concern is results, we will choose to work only with those who give us good ones.” 

We work with them all, in our little Spring Lake office. Thus, moving, heart-touching stories every day, because we’re staying faithful. 

Prisoners get it. They’re flooding our office with 50-100 contacts a day! 

Now to convince foundations.

Monday, November 9, 2020

Juvie lifers deserve better from the media...and all of us!

Criticizing the media is a real challenge for me. You see, I am a part of it! 

That’s right. Long before I was a prisoner advocate, I was a reporter, and a darn good one! 

Today, I’m fuming about headlines in weekend MLive newspapers. Yet, I must confess that at one time I might have done the same thing! Might have, that is, before I got into this prisoner business. 

Here are the headlines that raised my hackles: “Three young women, bound, raped and strangled.” “The murders in Kalamazoo that summer nearly five decades ago left the community in fear.” “Now, the convicted killer wants to be a free man.”   

The story is that of Michigan inmate Brent Koster who committed the crime when he was 15. He’s 64 now, and was granted a hearing because the Supreme Court has ruled that we can’t send juveniles to prison for life without parole. He’s been in prison for 45 years. 

I voiced similar complaints in 2014 when the same writer, John Agar, gave the same media treatment to the release of TJ Spytma, age 54, who committed a similar crime at the age of 15. Those stories and headlines generated pages of venomous comments from readers. 

Keep in mind that juveniles have always been treated differently at the state level. We prohibit juveniles from voting, buying cigarettes and alcohol, serving on juries, and getting married without parental consent. 

We, and especially the media, would do well to recognize that The Supreme Court did not make this ruling lightly. 

In 2012, the Court ruled that judges must consider the unique circumstances of each juvenile offender, banning mandatory sentences of life without parole for all juveniles. Then, in 2016, this decision was made retroactive to those sentenced prior to 2012. 

I’m hoping for the day when TV News Directors and newspaper editors instruct their news and headline writers to consider both sides of the story, equally, with headlines that reflect same. It would be fair to create some headlines that stress rehabilitation in prison, as well as accounts of personal growth and maturity. Insisting that a person remain behind bars after 45 years for committing a crime at the age of 15 is more than favoring the rights of victims. It’s cruel and unusual punishment...the very thing the Eighth Amendment was hoping to prevent. And, slanted headlines and an imbalance of copy material do not make for fair coverage! 

In a time of chaos and divisiveness, I still believe that advocates for prisoners and victims are not opponents. We’re all in this together!  Rehabilitation, not retribution, is the path of decency and humanity. 

See that no one repays another with evil for evil, but always seek after that which is good for one another and for all people. I Thessalonians 5:15 

And in order to make any progress, we must convince the media as well. 

I speak from experience: I’m on both sides!



Wednesday, November 4, 2020

Post-election: Some new in office, some stay. Wrongly convicted: They stay!

Marcia and I were watching the news one evening last week, prior to the election. The non-stop political advertising was overbearing. TV news was filled with “what ifs;” and, opposing candidates and opposing parties were issuing dire warnings.

I’m an old broadcaster and an old newsman, and all that stuff is ho hum to me. 

But then, Channel 8’s investigative reporter Ken Kolker presented a lengthy expose' on what appeared to be a wrongful conviction. That started my blood boiling. 

Listening to the U of M Innocence Clinic’s fine leader, David Moran, telling a story of shoddy police work and all the other ingredients that led to locking up an innocent man ruined the evening for me. 

The prisoner’s name is Jeff Titus, he’s now 68. He’s been in prison 18 years, convicted in a cold case investigation. The actual crime, the shooting and killing of two hunters in a state game area, occurred 30 years ago. 

Those who know Doug Tjapkes know that I got into this prisoner advocacy business by getting involved in a case of actual innocence. Maurice Carter served 29 years for a crime he did not commit. 

Many times, when there is a wrongful conviction, the real criminal remains out on the street. That was the situation in the Carter story. Investigators in the Titus case also knew who the believed perp was. That guy, however, died in prison before this case got cleared. 

Here’s what I’m getting at: While participants in our nation’s wonderful system of justice plod along, taking their sweet time to get this Titus thing resolved (there’s little concern, no need to hurry, when one can sleep home every night as a free person), an innocent man remains behind bars. 

The national election is over, some races are still undecided. The late results and the ensuing challenges will go on ad nauseum. 

BUT, no matter what happens, the State of Michigan and the United States of America will continue to function. It may not be the way I like it, or the way I wish it were, but there’ll still be business as usual. 

Not so for Jeff Titus. 

Who knows when he will be freed? Who cares? 

I can tell you this. There’s an average of 38 innocent people sitting in each one of Michigan’s state prisons right now! Two of those facilities are 7 miles from my house. That means that, not 10 miles from where I sit, 75 guys are looking out through the bars wondering when and if they’ll ever get out. One thing is for certain: It won’t be in a hurry. 

I’m sickened by politics and unsavory public officials. 

I’m enraged by wrongful convictions. 

You should be, too.

Friday, October 30, 2020

Would I be concerned about others? I wonder.

The report of Reggie’s death got me to thinking. 

Reggie was not only old, but he was an old-timer, having received a sentence of life-without-parole back in the 70s. He was never going to get out of prison. He passed into glory the other day. 

I got to wondering what I would do, how I would behave, if I knew that I was going to spend the rest of my life behind bars, due to my own foolishness, without even a glimmer of hope. 

My preacher friend Al used to say that if he ever got locked up for a crime he did not commit, he would be a “raging bull” in prison. But Reggie was guilty. He was contrite, but that makes little difference with a life sentence.

Seems to me like it would be quite easy to assume a pretty dark view of everything. To be angry at the world, as well as myself. To assume a pretty selfish wishes and desires come first, to hell with anyone else. To reject any programs for self-improvement. What would be the point? Who could care? Who would know the difference? 

We actually know people in prison who think like that. Back to Reggie again. 

Reggie served as chairman of the National Lifers of America chapter in his prison...a post he had held for many years. And the time is past due that I pay tribute to the men and women who are members of and work in this organization. Formed back in the 80s, the NLA is a strong in-house advocacy agency. Most prisons have a chapter. These people communicate with legislators, the Governor’s office, and the Department of Corrections. They meet, they discuss, they take action...all the types of things that I wonder whether I might even consider if I were to end up in prison for life. 

I’ve had personal experience with this organization. They’ve invited me to come and speak. I was even invited to sit in on an NLA Board of Directors meeting. I was so impressed! 

The NLA members destroy the typical stigmatized impressions that go through our minds about a rowdy, scary, scruffy bunch of heathens. If you didn’t see their prison blues, and feel the ominous staring of guards, the atmosphere of intelligent discourse and of kindness and consideration would seem much like that in civic or church meetings. Perhaps even better. Their goals reach beyond their personal plight. They are thinking of others. 

A rich lesson, important reminder, for all of us,...especially right now.

Reminds me of these words in an old gospel song:

Lord, help me live from day to day

In such a self-forgetful way

That even when I kneel to pray

My prayer shall be for others. 

RIP, Reggie. Bless you and your NLA friends for thinking of “others!”


Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Now let me tell you about Mark!

It’s funny how things work.

Two days ago I wrote a piece for this column about my brother Maurice Carter, a black man from Gary, Indiana, who spent 29 years in the Michigan prison system for a crime he did not commit. I spent the last decade of his life at his side, trying to get him out of there. And when that finally happened, he lived for only three months. Maurice died exactly 16 years ago. 

Reliving that experience over the weekend, however, left me in a melancholy mood that wasn’t easy to shake. 

But, as the old gospel songwriter exclaims, Joy Comes in the Morning. 

On this dark, cold, rainy morning, I found myself in the car heading for Ionia, Michigan, and the Richard A. Handlon Correctional Facility. Pastor Nate Visker and I would be there to greet another very special friend, Mark Hartman, as he tasted freedom for the first time in nearly 12 years. 

But here’s the kicker: I would never have met Mark Hartman if it hadn’t been for Maurice Carter! 

I’ll give you the short version. 

Mark, a businessman from New York State, had no prison record. As he sat in the Earnest C. Brooks CF in Muskegon wondering how life had taken such a sour turn over a trumped-up charge in Berrien County, a fellow prisoner handed him a copy of my book SWEET FREEDOM. 

Two guys getting railroaded into prison in the same county caught his attention, and he decided to pursue that white Hollander who had helped Maurice. That was in 2009. Some weeks later, I paid Mark a visit at Brooks, we met face to face, and the rest is history. 

I introduced him to a couple of my friends in the clergy. One thing led to another, and Mark enrolled in The Urban Ministry Institute (TUMI) by Prison Fellowship. Upon completing that three-year-program he was accepted as one of the very first prisoner/students in the Calvin Prison Initiative. He graduated this year with a bachelor’s degree!

Mark is a free man today. We celebrate that good news! 

His words: “I have long envisioned myself sharing the story of how a merciful God answered one of my most fervent prayers---offered up in the Berrien County Jail---manifested by the Lord’s refusal to abandon me following an arrest and malicious prosecution in the twin cities of Benton Harbor and St. Joseph, Michigan---the same towns where an out-of-state stranger named Maurice Henry Carter was once treated less than human…all for doing nothing, really, except just being there, an outsider, like me. And sadly, being an African-American, unlike me. The Maurice and Doug story still resonates loudly, particularly in today’s troubled times. It is clear to see that not only do ‘black lives matter’ to Doug and Humanity for Prisoners, but all human lives matter.”

Including Mark's life.


Sunday, October 25, 2020

Maurice Henry Carter March 29, 1944 – October 25, 2004

Some things were never the same after that memorable October 25, 16 years ago. Some things never changed.

What changed the most was my life! 

My two careers had centered on two of my favorite things: radio and music. My 29 years as a radio broadcaster, and 21 years as a church organ salesman were just exquisite. But that all changed in the mid-1990s when I met an indigent black man from Gary, Indiana, sitting in the Michigan prison system and claiming wrongful conviction. No big deal, right? All prisoners say they’re innocent, right? 

Well, the old news reporter in me smelled a rat, and I wasn’t wrong. This was an innocent man who had been caged in the hoosegow since the 1970s for something he didn’t do. Thus began a 9-year effort to free a wrongly convicted prisoner the likes of which had never been seen in the State of Michigan. 

Sadly, Maurice Carter, who over time became my brother and a member of my family, was never exonerated. His release in July, 2004, was granted by Governor Granholm because he was dying of Hepatitis C. His freedom lasted only three months, to the day. 

The bad news first. 

-Prisoners are still being wrongly convicted.

-Prisoners are still being denied adequate health care.

-Tommie Lee, the thug who actually committed the crime, is still free, laughing and boasting how he shot “that white cop.”

 Now the good news. 

-When I met Maurice, he was a forgotten man, and had few friends. When he died, he was a celebrity, and surrounded by love.

-His story, now being told in book form and a stage-play, has inspired and continues to inspire thousands.

-The project we started at his behest is now a leading prisoner advocacy agency in the State of Michigan, responding to nearly 2,000 calls a month and touching the lives of prisoners daily!

As I reflect on this today, in my own sunset years, I find the words, scribbled in a note to me by my dear friend and former pastor Keith Tanis, still relevant: 

It was an amazing year---Maurice getting outta jail, and then outta here altogether.

Heaven is closer. Life is precious!

Keep praising the Christ.

Drink good wine.

Laugh a lot. 

RIP, my brother Maurice. We’ll meet again.