Sunday, January 06, 2008

American Justice

marjorie says...

On my final day in Texas this past Friday, this picture on the front page of the Dallas Morning News caught my eye. It shows Charles Allen Chatman right after he was exonerated in a Dallas courtroom for a rape charge that put him in prison 27 years ago. He was 20 at the time of his conviction, and now, at 47 years old, he's being set free to find his way in the world. The Dallas Morning News story tells us that he might have a learning disability because he doesn't know how to use a cell phone or computer. Well, I won't dispute that he has a learning disability, but it could be he doesn't know how to use those two items because they simply didn't exist when he entered prison in 1980. Apparently, Dallas County took a pretty rigorous approach to incarcerating people in the 1980's. And now there are some good legal eagles working to free men based on DNA evidence.

What do we owe Mr. Chatman?

Good question.

I'm sure you know what I think. We can't pay the debt we owe him, for being a society that locks people up the way we do. Would Mr. Chatman have been locked up had he been rich? No. I have good African-American friends who say that even if they really think O.J. did it, they're still glad he got off...because it showed them it was about money and not race. That it was all about the money. You can imagine the discussion that follows that assertion. The counterpoint is always that race correlates with money in this country. And its pretty clear to me that justice as defined by who is in prison is also correlated with money. is about race. No, wait...let's just disagree and say that it is actually about race, period. Nonetheless, the point is a good one.

I recently had a conversation about money and justice with a friend who is studying law. He just spent a semester working at the public defenders office and was telling me a little about his work. I wanted to know how he felt about working hard to get someone off who he might suspect did commit the crime. My larger curiosity was about whether or not this was a big issue for those studying law. He pointed out to me that our legal system is founded on the notion of innocence, and that a person shouldn't have to prove they are innocent. Society should have to prove, beyond a shadow of doubt, that a person is guilty. So in this sense, a person's defense should be of primary importance. And defense attorneys should do everything they possibly can to counter any evidence or charges of guilt, regardless of what they think about the person they are defending. Theoretically, if it isn't absolutely clear then a person should be set free. Theoretically, we have great values in this way. And, he told me, given the nature of who their clientele are, one of the public defenders described his job as doing god's work. It sounds like it to me. Justice is supposed to exist outside of the money. Or so they told me in elementary school.