Written by Nicole Flatow
Every year, stories emerge that serve as a reminder that the American system of justice means injustice for too many, with some receiving little or no punishment for egregious offenses, while others receive harsh or faulty punishment for much less. Here are some of the worst injustices of 2013:
1. An Alabama blogger is still sitting in a jail cell for exercising his First Amendment rights
Blogger Roger Shuler drew the ire of the powers that be when he continued to write about the alleged extramarital affair of a prominent lawyer rumored to be running for Congress. The lawyer and son of former Alabama governor Bob Riley, Robert Riley, Jr., won a temporary restraining order that prohibited Shuler from writing anything about Riley’s alleged extramarital affair and other related stories. The order itself was almost certainly a violation of First Amendment law. But Alabama officials took the dispute a step further when they pursued him for a traffic stop and arrested him for contempt. In spite of advocacy from the ACLU and others, Shuler has now been in a jail cell for two months for his journalism.
2. A teen spent three years in jail without a conviction or trial
Kalief Browder was a 16-year-old sophomore in high school walking home from a party in the Bronx when he was arrested on a tip that he robbed someone three weeks earlier. He was hauled off to Rikers Island, a prison known for punishing conditions and overuse of force, and was held because he couldn’t pay the $10,000 bail. Browder went to court on several occasions, but he was never scheduled for trial. After 33 months in jail, Browder said a judge offered freedom in exchange for a guilty plea, threatening that he could face 15 years in jail if convicted. He refused. Then one day, he was released with no explanation. While Browder was behind bars, he missed years of his childhood, and is now aiming to attain his GED. Browder spent a particularly long time behind bars before his trial, but the practice of holding those charged but not convicted who cannot afford bail for months is all-too-common. In fact, the U.S. Supreme Court dismissed the appeal last term of a Louisiana man who waited seven years behind bars without a trial because the state stalled in appointing him a lawyer.
3. A man who killed an escort for refusing sex was acquitted by a jury
On Christmas Eve, Ezekiel Gilbert hired escort Lenora Ivie Frago and gave her $150 as what he believed was a payment for sex. But when she didn’t deliver that, Gilbert shot her in the neck and she died several months later from critical injuries. A jury acquitted Gilbert after his lawyer argued that he was authorized to use deadly force under a Texas provision that goes even farther than Florida’s Stand Your Ground law in authorizing the use of deadly force to “retrieve stolen property at night.” As in any jury trial, we’ll never know if that’s the reasoning the jury accepted when it acquitted Gilbert. Regardless, he will not face any criminal penalty for the shooting.
4. A wealthy teen used the ‘Affluenza‘ defense to skirt jail time for four deaths
After 16-year-old Ethan Couch took an intoxicated ride around town with his friends that ended with four deaths and several others critically injured, Couch pleaded guilty to intoxication homicide. But when his lawyer argued at trial that he was not capable of taking responsible for his own actions because of a condition known as “affluenza” that afflicts the very wealthy, the judge sentenced him to ten years’ probation in a plush Southern California rehabilitation facility, for which his parents would cover the $450,000 per year bill.
The travesty here is not that Couch was sentenced so lightly. He was a juvenile who, there is reason to believe, did not have good parental supervision and may be receptive to rehabilitation. What is alarming is that Couch was able to use his wealth to secure a lighter punishment for a crime that would have seen other Texas juveniles go to jail. Other juveniles sentenced by the same judge who presided over Couch’s case saw sentences of ten years for a single punch that killed a stranger and robberies at a Halloween party that led to one injury. And around the state, others sentenced for intoxicated manslaughter have seen sentences of 15 years and five years in prison.
5. A man whose testimony was beaten out of him spent 30 years in prison before he was released last month
More than a decade ago, a special prosecutor undertook an investigation that revealed a longtime Chicago Police Department detective and commander had routinely tortured black men to coerce them into confessions or false testimony. Some of the convictions were reversed. A few others were pardoned by then-Governor Ryan. And Jon Graham Burge was convicted on related perjury charges and sent to jail.
But Burge’s misconduct is still taking its toll on many of the 148 people who claimed abuse. Just last month, a man who spent more than 30 years in jail was released after Judge Richard Walsh found that officers had lied about beating Stanley Wrice with a flashlight and a 20-inch piece of rubber, and about imposing similar treatment on a witness in Wrice’s case to elicit false testimony against him. Even as the emergence of DNA evidence has exposed the frequency of wrongful convictions, justice comes slowly or not at all for those who have already been convicted, including those who sat on death row.
Photo Credit: Thinkstock
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