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All writing is a form of prayer - John Keats

Sunday, January 17, 2021

Martin and Cy: Free at last! Thank God Almighty, they’re free at last!

I must admit that Dr. Martin Luther King didn’t make much of an impact on my life while he was alive. 

Sure, I remember the I Have a Dream Speech. I remember the sadness and dismay upon his assassination when I reported that story on the air in 1968. 

But, frankly, I was white, living in an all-white community, attending an all-white church, and Dr. King’s challenges and concerns bore little resemblance to mine. 

Then, a few years later, I booked a guest for my morning radio talk show to discuss Black History Week (that was before Black History Month). 

The date arrived, and this tall, striking black man with a tiny patch of white hair in the front walked in. His name was Cy Young, a Grand Rapids taxi driver and former nightclub entertainer who would later become an itinerant preacher. 

What a delightful radio interview! Cy Young told how he found a discarded book of Dr. Martin Luther King speeches in a parking lot. As he sat in his taxi waiting for calls, he started memorizing. He had been blessed with the gift of recitation, and he learned all of MLK’s speeches. With his big, booming voice, he delivered those addresses with a fervor that stirred audiences and would have made King proud! 

At the conclusion of that one-hour show, Cy recited the entire I HAVE A DREAM SPEECH. 

I must confess that I was teary-eyed when I signed off. 

That began a long and meaningful friendship that lasted until he was struck down by a car, as he left a civil rights meeting. I place Cy Young’s name on a list of people whose influence led me into this honorable profession of prisoner advocacy. 

Cy’s dream was to form a Martin Luther King Association with the express purpose of seeing that young and budding African Americans would get a fair chance in life. That leads me to believe that Cy already knew what I still had to learn: African Americans are incarcerated at more than 5 times the rate of whites; black men have a 1 in 3 chance of going to federal or state prison in their lifetime; and, the imprisonment rate for African American women is twice that of white women. 

It reminds me of these words. 

“We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people.”

MLK 

Both of these men are my heroes, and I honor them today. 

Rev. Cy Young and Dr. Martin Luther King: one local, one international, both with voices for harmony among the races, today enjoying their reward, side-by-side, in the Promised Land!

 

 

Wednesday, January 13, 2021

Some people in Washington DC didn’t have a dad like mine!

It was early in the 1940s. A little boy named Doug Tjapkes went down the street to play with his friends Billy and Chucky. Playing in their spacious back yard was always fun. And, their mother had a nice vegetable garden back there. 

On that particular day, Billy and Chucky asked me if I liked to throw tomatoes. Well, I had never considered it...we didn’t raise tomatoes at our house. So, we all gave it a try, and I must admit it was fun. The neighbor lady had just received a new shipment of cement blocks across the alley, and we splatted tomato after tomato against that block stack. 

Much later in the day, my father asked me if I had been playing with Billy and Chucky. I allowed that I had. Then he asked if I had thrown tomatoes. Yep, I said, we all did. Turns out the owner of those cement blocks was a customer of my dad’s neighborhood grocery, and she was steamed. 

The elder Tjapkes assured me that, after supper, he and I would take a walk to Mrs. Smith’s house and tell her that we were sorry. Supper hour was somber. 

Turns out that Mrs. Smith was very kind, but pointed out that Billy and Chucky had placed all the blame on me. I would learn later just why my dad wasn’t all that surprised. He had had some unfavorable business dealings with their father earlier, and had experienced similar behavior. Trickle down. 

Well, I learned two important things from that experience. 

Number one, the harsh reality of life is that some people without a strong moral compass won’t accept blame...they’ll pin it on you or someone else. 

And even more important than that, number two: Apology is an integral part of the Christian walk. 

The writer of Proverbs says: Train up a child in the way he should go, and even when he is old he will not depart from it. 

Over the years, as I have helped dozens of prisoners prepare their applications for clemency, I always stress the importance of owning up to their mistakes and offering a genuine apology. We all blow it at one time or another. But we don’t all admit it! 

As I’m reading the major news stories of the day, I’m struck by the fact that many public officials obviously didn’t have John Tjapkes as their father. 

I can assure you that, if they had, some headlines would be different.

 

 

Wednesday, January 6, 2021

Second chances for juvie lifers? Elusive!

I blame it on prosecutors!

Here’s what’s going on. The U.S. Supreme Court, in 2012 and 2016, ruled that we may not sentence juveniles to life without parole. AND, those who are now in prison serving that kind of sentence must have those sentences reviewed.

And that’s where the rub comes in.

The Marshall Project, which recently published an in-depth report on the topic, found that we’re not doing our job here in Michigan. We had about 350 juvenile lifers whose sentences needed review. But get this: It’s 2021, and 200 of those lifers have yet to receive a new sentence! 

What the ? 

This, even after the Michigan Legislature responded by ruling that prosecutors should take less than 6 months to get these prisoners resentenced. 

Did that happen? Heck, no! 

To no one’s surprise, according the Detroit Free Press, many prosecutors decided to take a lengthier approach. Simply put, they chose to defy the high court’s determination that life without parole for a kid should be exceedingly rare. 

Four of those waiting to be resentenced were 14 when arrested. 33 others were 15.

The reason this is becoming such a hot issue right now is because while prosecutors continue to drag their heels, COVID 19 continues to run rampant through Michigan prisons. The Marshall Project reports that Michigan is third, only to Ohio and Texas, with more than 3,000 confirmed COVID cases. 

Prisoners in this special category now fear that the virus will get them before they can get resentenced. As if it wasn’t scary enough to walk into an adult prison as a teenager in the first place.

For one Michigan inmate, it's already too late. William Garrison had served 44 years for a crime he had committed as a teenager. Just 24 days before he was finally scheduled for release, COVID got him last month. What a tragedy! 

In a December blog, I referred to what I call a “prosecutor mentality” that leans strongly toward victims, victims’ rights, and punishment. I quoted former prosecutor Paul Delano Butler, now a Georgetown law professor: Like a lot of prosecutors, I possess a zeal that can border on the bloodthirsty .... I put a lot of people in prison, and I had a great time doing it. 

I’m at a loss here...how to get things moving? To whom should we complain? Where should we apply pressure? The state attorney general? A former prosecutor! The Michigan governor? A former prosecutor! 

To summarize: We have the U.S. Supreme Court and the Michigan Legislature saying our prosecutors must get on with resentencing 200 juvenile lifers. Meanwhile, a raging pandemic is threatening the very lives of these prisoners. Nothing is happening.

And how do our prosecutor’s respond? With the third finger. 

Disgusting. 



 

Sunday, January 3, 2021

2021: Year of burying the hatchet?

While fighting to free Maurice Carter, at the turn of the century, I learned some important lessons about forgiveness. 

I’ll not forget when a consortium of Innocence Project professionals decided to conduct a public seminar on the fallacies of eyewitness identification to focus attention on our case. It would be held on the campus of Andrews University, right in Berrien County where Maurice had been wrongly convicted. I was floored to learn that one of the nation’s leading experts on the topic, Dr. Gary Wells of Iowa, would coordinate this program on our behalf. 

That’s when I first met Jennifer Thompson, who came to share her story. DNA testing cleared a man, 22 year old Ronald Cotton, whom she positively identified as her rapist, and who served 10 years. 

But that wasn’t the end of the story. Jennifer explains that she humbly begged for forgiveness. And Ronald, who could have remained bitter over the ordeal, was big enough to forgive. They later co-authored the best-selling book Picking Cotton...a must read. Both of them came to Grand Haven some years ago for our lecture series. Beautiful people! 

I got to thinking about that the other day when I read a fine newspaper column by Alabama free-lance writer Leslie Anne Tarabella. She recalled that rather obscure 2020 story where Christian Cooper, a black man, was in Manhattan’s Central Park bird-watching when he politely asked a white woman to put a leash on her dog, as the law required. The woman, instead, called police, screeching on her cell phone, “An African American man is threatening my life!” 

Police sorted it out, and some friends urged Cooper to get even. However, he refused to file false report charges and publicly shame the complainant. “She shouldn’t have to live with her mistake the rest of her life,” he quietly told reporters. 

I am astounded when one after another of my friends gets released from prison---perhaps wrongly convicted, probably over-charged or over-sentenced--- and decides against any future retaliation, choosing, instead, to bury the hatchet. Prisoners have taught me a powerful lesson that theologian Frederick Buechner describes this way: 

When somebody you've wronged forgives you, you're spared the dull and self-diminishing throb of a guilty conscience. 

When you forgive somebody who has wronged you, you're spared the dismal corrosion of bitterness and wounded pride. 

Three Ps were at the heart of most of our shouting at each other in 2020: politics, pandemic and police misconduct. 

It’s a new year, time for all of us to find that “kinder, gentler nation” that former President George H.W. Bush described. 

Please join me in digging a pit for the hatchet.