Monday, January 4, 2016


I believe and hope that 2015 will go down in history as the year in which America was finally forced out of denial in the matter of "equal justice for all." That delusion was shattered on too many fronts last year to allow it to persist.

What jumps to mind most immediately, of course, is the shocking number of our fellow citizens who have been shot to death on our streets for no greater crime than being black and young:"justice" administered through the barrel of a gun. The notion of "last resort" seems to have been swept aside by the rush to use deadly force to solve all problems, no matter how minor. And we have been confronted, this year, with evidence of jails overcrowded with mainly black and Latino prisoners, convicted in disproportionate numbers and sentenced to disproportionate terms. Is there money involved? Of course there's money involved, with the prison system farmed out to contractors who use it to turn a profit.

The injustices are glaring, too numerous to tally, and unconscionable. I happened upon two tales, over the holidays, which brought them home to me. The first was the ten-part Netflix television series, Making a Murderer, the extraordinarily detailed, intense and thoroughly researched documentary about Steven Avery, first wrongly convicted in rural Wisconsin of sexual assault and exonerated after 18 years in jail; then, seemingly in an act of self-protection and revenge, re-convicted on murder charges and put away for life. The "evidence" against him was clearly coerced out a teenage nephew of below average intelligence, who was subsequently also convicted in the same murder on the basis of his purported confession. The lesson: it doesn't pay to be poor, under-educated, ignorant in the American justice system. Police and prosecutors, abetted by incompetent and negligent attorneys, can easily railroad you into jail on the basis of their own skewed and prejudiced presumptions of guilt. I was moved, angered, horrified by Avery's saga, and the documentary that pursued his case, doggedly, over ten years of his life.

Then I read Unbillable Hours: A True Story, by Ian Graham, an excellent read.  Graham's book--which fell into my hands by sheer accident, five years after its publication--is another gripping account of justice gone badly awry, this time in the case of Marco, a young Latino wrongfully accused in Los Angeles of murder, convicted and severely sentence in the mockery of a trial. Never a member of a gang, he was tarred by police and prosecutors with that brush and treated accordingly. It's also the story of a young lawyer, seduced after law school into the profitable but soul-destroying practice of corporate law. Numbed by his law firm's insatiable demand for "billable hours", he finds his conscience in pursuit of Marco's pro bono case, even though it seems unwinnable. It's an utterly compelling and skillfully written story, and one that exposes the underbelly of a justice system shot through with racial bias, indifference, lawyer incompetence, and blind to its own mistakes.

These are but two accounts of a law enforcement and justice culture in urgent need of reform. Clearly, we have our share of perfectly honorable, conscientious cops and attorneys in our legal system. It's the competitive, prejudicial, win-lose system in which they operate that needs reform. No matter how our politicians shout and posture, we will not "make America great again" by continuing to sweep these issues under the rug.

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