People are losing faith in a number of America's institutions because these institutions are failing miserably.
For example, take the U.S. criminal justice system. In one week we learned two things: First, Columbia law professor James Liebman and his students revealed that Texas executed an innocent man named Carlos DeLuna in 1989. DeLuna was executed for the 1983 brutal stabbing death of a young woman at a gas station. Forensic evidence was bungled or destroyed, and the crime scene quickly cleaned up. The actual murderer was Carlos Hernandez -- a man with a history of violence who bore a resemblance to DeLuna, and a self-proclaimed knife murderer who bragged about committing the crime. DeLuna's defense team even mentioned Hernandez to the jury as the real killer, but to no avail. Meanwhile, a condemned man maintained his innocence to his grave, and apparently all Latinos look alike to some key actors in the criminal justice system.
Second, and this relates to the first, the University of Michigan Law School and Northwestern University announced the creation of a National Registry of Exonerations, a database of more than 2,000 prisoners wrongfully convicted of murder and rape since 1989. The authors of the database found, among other things, that death row inmates -- who are a quarter of those exonerated of murder -- are exonerated nine times more often than other murder convicts. And false convictions are typically the result of prosecutorial misconduct, perjury and bad eyewitness testimony.
In other words, the database confirms what many have maintained for quite some time, which is that the imprisonment and execution of innocent men and women are common, and far more common than you thought. Carlos DeLuna, Troy Davis and Cameron Todd Willingham may not be aberrations, but rather part of a troubling pattern.
Moreover, if the criminal justice system is allowed to exist in such a broken, dysfunctional and corrupt state, what does that say about the system itself, and those who allowed to administer it? After all, systems and institutions are made up of human beings, who have their own agendas, interests, foibles, flaws and prejudices that often conflict with the common good. Meanwhile, born and raised in the "land of the free," many were conditioned to accept things as they are, assuming our institutions work well and in our best interests. Everyone who is punished is guilty, and the innocent are protected, or so they believed. But that's not always the case.
Cracks in the criminal justice system reflect incompetence and negligence by some defense lawyers, judges and prosecutors. And prosecutors, at their worst, want to score a big win -- regardless of the tactics employed, and never mind issues of guilt or innocence of the accused, for that matter. So sometimes, they will strike black prospective jurors, coerce witnesses or hide or destroy evidence. Careers are built, livelihoods made and profits amassed through the human raw materials of the prison-industrial complex. And prisons and their contractors need warm bodies, sometimes dead bodies, to justify their existence.
If Carlos DeLuna and the exonerations database represent a turning point in the criminal justice system -- particularly the death penalty -- then other systems have had their turning points these days. For example, problems in the U.S. financial system, in the form of the Great Recession, the subprime mortgage fiasco and the student debt crisis, have precipitated a public discourse on economic inequality, and a critical look at capitalism itself. The conduct of commercial banks, engaged in risky casino gambling with other people's money, has led to renewed calls for re-regulation. Further, the injection of Bain Capital in this political season has placed the spotlight on vulture capitalism, where companies are chopped up and workers jettisoned, all for the profits of the few rather than the nation's economic well-being.
On the political side, it was the Supreme Court's decision in Citizens United, which gave a blessing to unlimited corporate influence in elections. This resulted in the birth of the Super PAC, the expansion of legalized bribery, and the ability of a small group of hyper-wealthy individuals to determine the outcome of the political process. Perhaps one of the more insidious examples of corporate influence peddling and the buying of lawmakers was ALEC, or the American Legislative Exchange Council. ALEC, sponsored by major corporations, was responsible for a number of offensive policy initiatives across the country, including "stand your ground" laws implicated in the Trayvon Martin shooting death, forced, legislation mandating intrusive ultrasounds for pregnant women seeking abortions, and voter ID laws that stand to disenfranchise millions of people.
America's criminal justice system is broken, but so are its economic and political systems. That's quite a trifecta. In each case, the folks running the show are engaged in a winner-take-all proposition. In their adversarial worldview governed by pathological individualism, there always are winners (themselves and their friends) and losers (everyone else). As crimes are committed in high places, we are made to turn on the wrong enemies, powerless scapegoats from the poor and working class, and ethnic, racial and religious minorities. They make you believe that criminalizing, or killing, or deporting, or ostracizing these scapegoats will make your problems go away. And as they deflect attention from their own wrongdoing by way of smokescreens, they count on your undying allegiance to the system, and fealty to the status quo.
And yet, people are waking up. When citizens begin to question the institutions that have failed them and society for the benefit of the few, that's when real change has a chance to peek through the window. But we run the risk of missing that window of opportunity.
David A. Love is the Executive Director of Witness to Innocence, a national nonprofit organization that empowers exonerated death row prisoners and their family members to become effective leaders in the movement to abolish the death penalty.
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