I was sitting in the front row.
Some 100 people had gathered in the meeting room of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Greater Lansing. Michigan State University Drama Professor Lisa Biggs had put together a group of actors from the university, the church and the community, in order to present a stage reading of some excerpts from JUSTICE FOR MAURICE HENRY CARTER. This is the powerful and moving drama, written by award-winning Toronto playwrights Donald Molnar and Alicia Payne, which tells the story of my friendship with Maurice. For those few who may still not be aware of his plight, Maurice served 29 years in the Michigan prison system for a crime he did not commit.
This was not the first time I had heard parts of the play. Marcia and I were privileged to hear the first reading in a small room on the second floor of a Toronto theatre in 2008. Since that time we have heard actors telling the Maurice Carter story in many venues. Perhaps the most meaningful was a stage reading inside the prison walls of the Earnest C. Brooks Correctional Facility in Muskegon. A group of thespians in an organization called Shakespeare Behind Bars worked for a year on the production before presenting it to a small audience, including Marcia, me, some of our Board members and some special friends.
Sorry I’m getting so wordy here, but I just wanted to explain that the East Lansing experience last Sunday wasn’t my first rodeo.
It was near the conclusion when something most unexpected occurred: I started weeping. I was listening to the lines about Maurice Carter eventually being freed on a compassionate release because he was terminally ill. He was enjoying his freedom. He met his mother outside of prison for the first time in nearly 30 years. He was savoring the taste of a real hamburger, prepared on an open grille. I didn’t realize the tears were flowing until I touched my face. My cheeks were wet. What the…!!! I’d heard these lines many times before. What was the big deal?
And I’ve been thinking about it since then.
I’m deciding that it wasn’t just the memory of that glorious day, that wondrous event. It wasn’t just the fine presentation by this group of non-professional actors. It was the bigger picture that was getting to me. You see, since that day I’ve been working with prisoners around the clock, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. I’ve discovered that my previous two occupations were merely preparation by God for this calling.
These are the things that make me weep:
Wrongful convictions are still a ho-hum way of life in our country, unless you happen to be the victim, or the family member of the victim, or the loved one of the victim.
It is still no easier to overturn a wrongful conviction! Witness the huge case backlogs of every Innocence Project in the United States.
The factors that placed Maurice Carter behind bars are still high on the list of WC causes: jail-house snitches, faulty eye-witness testimony, tunnel-vision police work and prosecutorial misconduct.
There is no let-up in the inhumane treatment of prisoners! The lack of appropriate medical care that led to the death of Maurice is still evident in every prison system.
It is still far too easy to get in, and far too difficult to get out! Prosecutors continue to refuse re-opening old cases. Judges continue to reject legitimate appeals. Parole Boards continue to demand confessions and demonstrations of remorse, and inmates refuse to meet those demands because they’re not guilty.
The list goes on and on.
It makes me weep, and I think it makes Jesus weep.