When Justice Goes Awry

Posted: January 26, 2013

A sobering case of injustice that made national news last year involved Cornelius Dupree Jr., who on the basis of DNA testing (made possible by the Innocence Project), was finally released after spending 30 years in a Texas prison. (Photo by Associated Press)
A judge I spoke with recently told me that without the use of plea bargaining, where a defendant receives a lesser sentence in exchange for a guilty plea, the courts would be hopelessly backed up with more cases than they could handle.

I’m not an expert in legal issues, and when a defendant is clearly guilty, I can see such an arrangement saving time and court costs and perhaps living up to its name as a “bargain.” But when that is not the case, should a defendant feel coerced, while under oath to tell “the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth,” into giving up their right to due process simply because of the risk of otherwise receiving a dreadfully long prison sentence?

It reminds me a little of a practice once known as “tavern justice,” where attorneys on both sides of a case would get together with the judge over some ale the night before a trial and work out some kind of agreement without the defendant even being present. Then they would then go through the motions of a hearing the next day with the outcome already determined.

A sobering case of injustice that made national news last year involved Cornelius Dupree Jr., who on the basis of DNA testing (made possible by the Innocence Project), was finally released after spending 30 years in a Texas prison.

Dupree had refused to plead guilty when convicted at age 20 in a Dallas rape and armed robbery case because he knew he wasn’t guilty–even though he also knew that going to trial would likely mean a stiffer sentence. Then as a model prisoner he had several opportunities to make parole if only he would admit he was a sex offender. For example, in 2004 he was all set to be released but was told he would have to attend a sex offender treatment program based on “four R’s,” recognition, remorse, restitution and resolution. But on principle, he couldn’t get himself to agree to even the “recognition” part, knowing he hadn’t committed the crime.

After his release, a dozen Dallas men who had also been exonerated after having served a collective total of over 100 years of time for crimes they didn’t commit came out to celebrate his freedom. In each of their cases, like Dupree’s, they had been found guilty on the basis of eyewitness misidentification in a police lineup, a common cause of wrongful conviction.

Might Dupree’s original sentencing also have been influenced by his race? There is no way to know for sure, but according to an article in the February, 2011, Sojourners magazine, there are more African-Americans in prison or on probation and parole than the total number that were enslaved just prior to the Civil War. And while people of all colors use and sell illegal drugs at similar rates, African-Americans are 10 times more likely than whites to go to prison on drug charges.

The Human Rights Watch organization recently estimated that there were currently three times the number of people who are mentally ill in U.S. prisons than there are in U.S. mental health hospitals. Given the emotional stress a prison environment creates for even mentally healthy people, imagine what it must be like for people with paranoia, a bipolar or anxiety disorder, or suffering from clinical depression.

I remember once becoming nauseous from meeting in a small, narrow classroom, at the end of which a large marker board was badly tilted. Because things were not square and upright, as I expected, I felt sick.

The prophet Amos once used a plumb line as an illustration of Israel’s lack of justice. The nation, he said, was no longer upright, but favored the powerful over the powerless, the haves over the have nots.

Whenever and wherever that happens, we should all feel sick, and join the prophets in calling for “justice to roll on like a river, and righteousness like a never-failing stream.”

Harvey Yoder, a pastor and counselor, lives in Harrisonburg.



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