All writing is a form of prayer - John Keats

Thursday, October 31, 2019

I'm telling you: It CAN happen to you!

Our conversation centered on the plight of prisoners, as it often does. Marcia asked me, “Have you ever added up the number of people you know who were wrongly convicted?”

I had not, but as I thought about it, names popped into my mind. I’ve been working on wrongful convictions since the mid-1990s, so there were certainly a few. Riiiiight. So far, I’m up to 11 here in Michigan, and 11 more from other states. 22 people, some of whom served decades, and some who died behind bars! God knows how many years they served, collectively, and the sad thing is that many of them were never exonerated.

I never get tired of talking about this, even though you may be getting tired of reading my tirades. The reason I keep beating this old drum is because it can happen to you!

Of the 11 people I know here in Michigan who were wrongly convicted, nine were white, middle-income folks, and none had any kind of police record. They were not criminals.

As I look through the list, here’s why enterprising cops and prosecutors decided to go for it:

To get even, Dan’s ex-wife accused him of molesting their daughters
To get even, Roger’s daughter-in-law accused him of molesting a grand-daughter
To get some of his wealth, parents of his daughter’s friends spread a lie about Gary
A suicidal son got even with his mom one last time
Someone killed Judy’s husband, and with a rocky marriage, all arrows pointed to her.

I’ve never forgotten a Canadian case we heard about as I was trying to help Maurice Carter. A prominent individual was arrested for the murder of his wife. She died of injuries from a fall down a basement stairway. Authorities claimed her husband gave her a shove. I think he spent 8 years in prison before the truth emerged.

It’s a blight. It’s a curse. It’s a national scandal. What an indictment on our so-called justice system when we must have Innocence Projects in every state, and that these teams of lawyers and students are swamped with business…year’s behind in their requests! How terrible that we just blithely accept the fact that about 3% of the people occupying our prisons are innocent! More than 1,000 men and women right here in Michigan!

Since 1989 about 2500 people have been exonerated. May that spur defense lawyers, prosecutors and judges to take a closer look at the reasons for wrongful convictions, and take steps to avoid them.

Meanwhile, remember that it doesn’t always happen to the other guy!

Thursday, October 24, 2019

Honoring a hero! Remembering a hero!

Our nation pays tribute to one of its black heroes today.

Our office pays tribute to its black hero today.

Here in the United States, citizens mourn the loss of Congressman Elijah Cummings, who died on October 17. The Washington Post relays this interesting information:

Born to a family of Southern sharecroppers and Baptist preachers, Mr. Cummings grew up in the racially fractured Baltimore of the 1950s and 1960s. At 11, he helped integrate a local swimming pool while being attacked with bottles and rocks.

Here in the HFP office, we’re remembering the loss of our hero, Maurice Carter, who died on October 25, 2004. Born and raised in poverty in Gary, Indiana, Maurice wandered into the Benton Harbor area in the 1970s to visit a friend and look for work. Instead, he caught a wrongful conviction that placed him in prison for 29 years.

I learned of his case in the mid-1990s, and for the next decade he and I battled that injustice. And while we may not have attracted the attention of presidents, we quietly created a well-oiled machine that eventually focused international attention on a shameful case of wrongful conviction. Among our outspoken supporters were such prominent names as Keith Findley, Co-founder of the Wisconsin Innocence Project; Chicago freedom fighters David Protess and Rob Warden; Dr. Rubin Hurricane Carter; and author Alex Kotlowitz.

The entire story is told in the book SWEET FREEDOM and the stage play JUSTICE FOR MAURICE HENRY CARTER.

Hepatis C claimed his life just 3 months after his compassionate release. He was never exonerated.

The overwhelming support and interest that helped form a defense “dream team” for Maurice served to inspire him to help other prisoners. And that led to the formation of our parent organization, INNOCENT, in 2001. Several years later our company name was changed to better reflect our mission.

Today, thanks to the vision and tenacity of my brother Maurice, HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS is now a leading state prisoner advocacy agency. We respond to a thousand calls a month, and boast a client list of nearly 10% of the entire population of Michigan prisoners!

Author Alex Kotlowitz said about HFP, in a recent visit, “It is so commonsensical…I don’t know why we don’t have a HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS in every state in this country.

Someday that will happen.

Quite a legacy for an indigent black man from Gary, Indiana!

RIP, my brother.

Sunday, October 20, 2019

Second chances on Sunday. None on Monday!

When it comes to redemption, we love to hear Bible stories from the pulpit on Sunday morning. On Monday morning, however, we’re not so sure about true-life stories on TV.

Reporter Ken Kolker refuses to let up on this story: The Michigan Parole Board has granted parole to 47-year-old Catherine Wood. Channel 8’s latest report once again quotes dire warnings by family members that this woman may kill again.

Well, it’s time to take a deep breath.

Catherine Wood has been in prison for 30 years for her alleged involvement in 5 nursing home deaths back in the 80s. News people call her the Nursing Home Killer.

Parole for her didn’t come quickly. In fact, 8 times in a row the Parole Board turned her down, claiming she didn’t show remorse. Last year, however, following a Public Hearing, the board approved her release. That got delayed when the Attorney General’s Office protested. But last week Kent County Circuit Judge J. Joseph Rossi determined that the Parole Board did not abuse its discretion. He said the decision came after hearing that she had done well in prison, was rehabilitated and no longer posed a threat.

Parole experts have a couple words of advice for our office, as well as for newsman Kolker. While comments of crime victims make for great news clips, Prison Policy Initiative contends: Survivors of violent crimes should not be allowed to be a part of the parole-decision process. The parole process should be about judging transformation, and survivors have little evidence as to whether an individual has changed.

And point number two: The “nature of the crime” or “seriousness of the offense” should NOT be the reason for parole denial. This from Citizens United for Rehabilitation of Errants (CURE). Both of these agencies review parole policies and decisions on a national level.

Two very good friends of mine, in younger days and influenced by drugs, committed absolutely terrible and brutal crimes. Both got their acts together while in prison. And, even though people raised hell about their parole, neither reoffended. Instead, both became outstanding citizens. In their cases, the Parole Board got it right.

I don’t know Catherine Wood, and can’t predict her future. But I do know she’s not getting a fair shake.

Judge Rossi’s opinion underscores our position that the nature of the crime is not a factor here, neither is one-sided news coverage, and neither is victim-opinion.

There’s a reason Norway has no sentences over 20 years. Rehabilitation can work.

Ms. Wood may surprise us.

Redemption is possible, and it is the measure of a civilized society.
Fr. Greg Boyle

Friday, October 18, 2019

It was delightful...for a few minutes!

It was a wonderful evening! Against all odds!

Renowned author and lecturer Alex Kotlowitz was in Grand Haven for a community event, sponsored by HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS. He was to speak in a local school auditorium. The key word here is “was,” because that is not where the event ended up.

Just one day earlier, the school system advised us that the auditorium had been double-booked. Sorry, we’d have to find another place. ONE DAY BEFORE OUR PROGRAM!

So, we had to punt. But thankfully, we have a team including our staff, board members and committee members, that can roll with anything. And they did!

A pre-program dinner and reception were planned to be held at St. Patrick’s Family Center in Grand Haven, so why not just keep people there, and hold the event in the same spot? It took a lot of scrambling, a lot of last-minute publicity, and a bit of finagling, but it all worked out.

More than 100 people gathered in a beautiful, intimate setting to listen to and interact with the author of some delicious books that everyone should read.

Board Chairman Russ Bloem introduced a new legacy program that is designed to keep our agency running for years to come.

Long-time board member Judy VanderArk and her husband Pete were honored guests, receiving the Maurice H. Carter Humanitarian award for their many services over the years.

Alex answered questions and signed books.

It was a wonderful evening.

This morning, however, it was a different story. There was no time to bask in the warm fuzzies, the good feelings, the kind words, the warm compliments. In the echo of Alex’s praise of HfP work, insisting that there should be similar chapters in every state, reality rushed in as we walked through our front door. There were between 30-50 unopened letters from prisoners, all asking for help. There were 50 unopened email messages from Michigan inmates, all wanting attention and needing answers now.

The phone rang…a collect call from a prisoner. A prison dentist was quick to pull out the inmate’s teeth, because they were all bad. But now he’s invoking some silly rule, and the guy has to wait two years for his dentures. Look, Ma. No teeth! No way to eat!

A sigh.

On the plus side, also in the mail was a generous $5 donation from a prisoner. It represented one week’s wages!

A tear.

Thursday, October 10, 2019

AG Nessel, where are you?

For a while, there, I really believed we had a kinder, gentler State of Michigan. Memories of former Attorney General William Schuette and angry Parole Board members faded into the past.

The occasion was a Public Hearing, conducted in Ionia by the Michigan Department of Corrections.

Readers of this column know just how much criticism these public hearings have prompted from me in the past. Some members of the Parole Board have been cold and rude, some hearings have been poorly run, and there were times when the Assistant District Attorney was brutal.

Today, it was a different story. Presiding Parole Board member Sonia Amos-Warchock, whose anger and brusque manner I’ve personally witnessed, was on her best behavior. She quietly and patiently explained what was happening to the prisoner. Not once did she raise her voice. Her kind manner set the tone for the entire hearing.

Assistant Attorney General Scott Rothermel, whose sometimes raw prosecutorial-style questioning has driven many prisoners to tears, actually seemed sensitive to the prisoner’s personal story and emotions. He remained calm, and he actually demonstrated patience. Was the fact that he answers to a new boss with a radically different philosophy actually making a difference?

I should take a moment, here, to tell you about the prisoner. Joe is one of our clients, and Matt, Holly and I were all in the hearing room to support him. His story is a shameful indictment of the judicial system in Michigan. At the age of 18, this young black teenager and his buddy needed some pocket change, so, from their car, they aimed their pellet rifle at two kids operating an ice cream cart on the sidewalk and demanded money. While all this was going on, a little child came up to buy some ice cream. They gave the lad his ice cream, as well as his change…then continued with their robbery operation. They stole 27 dollars and 50 cents! That was 38 years go!

Joe received a life sentence for that crime! Without the persistence of our Holly, I don’t think that, even now, he’d be getting this Public Hearing.

I must say that today’s hearing was by far the most calm and sedate of any I have attended. 

Then, at the very end, it got spoiled.

That’s when Assistant AG Scott Rothermel stated that the Michigan Attorney General’s Office objected to the proposed parole. It was an assaultive crime. No mercy recommended.


Shades of Bill Schuette!

Michigan is better than that.

Sunday, October 6, 2019

YOUR story deserves applause!

I’m humbled by that applause. Johnny Carson

To my delight, reruns of the old Tonight Show with Johnny Carson are still available on cable TV. At the end of each performance, the producer inserts the above quote. I’m sure Johnny made it “tongue-in-cheek,” because performers thrive on applause.

But here in the quiet of my office, I must admit: I am humbled by applause.

I’m basking in the afterglow, after viewing another staged reading of the play JUSTICE FOR MAURICE HENRY CARTER. It was presented over the weekend at the prestigious Atlanta Black Theatre Festival. This powerful stage presentation, capsulizing the story of my ten-year battle with Maurice Carter to seek his freedom, was written ten years ago by award-winning Toronto playwrights Donald Molnar and Alicia Payne.

Several factors, not the least of which is my age, make it very difficult for me to leave home for any period of time. But, thanks to the love and generosity of HfP board member Judy VanderArk and her husband Pete, I got to Atlanta and back in 24-hours, and in one piece! What an amazing experience!

I counted nearly 100 people in the compact theatre of the Porter Sanford III Performing Arts & Community Center, near Atlanta. At the conclusion of the presentation, the cast of 10 received a warm and well-deserved standing ovation. As the applause died down, a festival spokesperson introduced each member of the cast. Then, said the emcee, “We feel very fortunate to have with us the real Doug Tjapkes! Gasps, and then enthusiastic applause. And that leads me to my opening premise: I am, indeed, humbled by such applause.

Taking advantage of the moment, I rushed on stage to give Greg Daniels and Carle Atwater, the guys who played Doug and Maurice, bear hugs. One by one, I grasped the hand of each member of the cast. A lot of emotion. And yes, a lot of tears.

The reason for my humility on the applause issue is very simple, and very real. Granted, it’s a great story! I’m proud of that. BUT, it’s one of just thousands and thousands of similar stories that never get told. I’m well aware of this because I and my team see them and hear them every day!

Today I applaud all the unsung heroes of similar, and even better stories!  Yes, our story happened to catch the attention of playwrights, and happened to get publicity. But, yours/theirs is equally as important.

We have a system of justice in [the US] that treats you much better if you're rich and guilty than if you're poor and innocent. Wealth, not culpability, shapes outcomes
Bryan Stevenson