All writing is a form of prayer - John Keats

Saturday, November 28, 2020

Federal executions/Silence from people of faith!

I have a question for my fellow believers: Why the silence on federal executions? 

Readers of this column know that I really try to avoid political issues, and when I as much as dip my toe into the political mud puddle, I hear about it. 

But when it comes to the death penalty, the gloves come off. 

Here’s what has quietly been going on, with little publicity, and certainly little comment from religious sources (except the Catholics!):

-Since July, when it resumed carrying out the death penalty after a 17-year hiatus, the present administration has executed eight federal inmates. 

-The Justice Department plans to execute five more inmates before the next President, who opposes the death penalty, takes office. (The only woman on federal death row, Lisa Montgomery, who is a mentally ill victim of sex trafficking, is scheduled to be executed just 8 days before the inauguration!) 

-A new rule published by the Justice Department will allow the use of different methods permitted by states, including firing squads and electrocution, for federal executions. 

What the ...? 

And we’re doing nothing? Saying nothing?

I had a memorable experience in 2003, during the early days of my prison advocacy. Then Governor George Ryan of Illinois was guest speaker at an Innocence Network Conference. After Innocence Projects proved that some people on Illinois death row had been wrongly convicted, Ryan got his belly full and commuted the death sentences of all 167 prisoners! 

I rode with him on the hotel elevator following that presentation. “It felt like I was tossing a coin to see if he was guilty or innocent,” he said, “and I just couldn’t do it.” 

Five years later, I would personally witness the execution of a friend, a young man of color who claimed wrongful conviction, put to death by the State of Texas. That solidified my feelings on the topic. 

The Catholic Mobilizing Network puts it this way: The death penalty violates both the Church’s pro-life teaching and the teaching on the inherent dignity of the human person as created in the image and likeness of God. 

But even if, as a fellow believer, you take issue with that position, even if you claim biblical evidence favors the death penalty, you must still deal with the failings of our judicial system. For example: 

Since 1973, 172 people on death row were released, having been found INNOCENT! 

This country still permits the execution of the severely mentally ill! 

Death penalty cases show a huge history of racial disparity! 

My church won’t take a stand like this, but the Catholics will, and so will I: We cannot build a culture of life with a federal government that puts people to death.




Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Can you believe it? Some prisoners are still giving thanks today!

Back in the 90s, when Maurice Carter was still in prison, he joked about the prison Thanksgiving menu that had been published to show just how well our prisoners are treated. The menu showed that they were getting a turkey dinner. Turns out it was turkey bologna, and the same old slop. 

Truth be told, any publicity that attempts to show exemplary treatment of Michigan prisoners is baloney. 

Would that menu were the worst thing to grumble about on Thanksgiving, 2020. 

I’m not sure how prisoners are giving thanks this week. I don’t think I could do it. But, like the Apostle Paul who wrote some of his most powerful stuff while in prison, many of these men and women look beyond their present circumstances. 

And that’s good, because in my two decades of work in this field, I’ve never seen anything this bad. A few days ago, the Editorial Board of the New York Times described it this way: 

The American penal system is a perfect breeding ground for the virus. Squabbles over mask wearing and social distancing are essentially moot inside overcrowded facilities, many of them old and poorly ventilated, with tight quarters and with hygiene standards that are difficult to maintain. Uneven testing, inadequate medical resources and the constant churn of staff member and inmates further speed transmission. Crueler still, inmates suffer disproportionately from comorbidities, such as high blood pressure and asthma, putting them at an elevated risk for complications and death. 

It's hell in there. 

I mentioned the Apostle Paul, but I’m going to dig way back into the Old Testament, where I find a prophet with the funny name of Habakkuk, showing the same fortitude of these courageous men and women behind bars. 

After another country had brutally attacked and ransacked his land, he sat down, thought about it, and said: “Though the fig tree should not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines, the produce of the olive fail and the fields yield no food, the flock be cut off from the fold and there be no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord; I will take joy in the God of my salvation.” 

Here’s what I find amazing. Day after day, we hear from prisoners still clinging to their faith, still willing to give thanks, still thinking of others, still sending us greetings---midst the most rotten of all circumstances. 

Instead of giving the usual prayers of thanks this year, I’m asking that we remember the incarcerated. We are inundated with horror stories. 

The one thing the virus cannot destroy in the minds of prisoners is hope. That’s what kept Paul going, in the darkest hours: Pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances. 

God bless you, men and women behind bars. A better day is coming. 

God bless you, readers of this column. Keep these people in your prayers.




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.