Falsely convicted, wrongly incarcerated

Monday, Dec. 23 James Byrd left prison in Huntsville, TX, exonerated after serving five years for a crime he didn’t commit. A judge recently overturned convictions … Monday, Dec. 23 James Byrd left prison in Huntsville, TX, exonerated after serving five years for a crime he didn’t commit. A judge recently overturned convictions in the infamous Central Park jogger rape, agreeing that DNA evidence implicated another suspect. Raymond Holder spent nine months in a Virginia jail falsely accused of raping a 12-year-old girl, though he asked when he was arrested that authorities use the very DNA technology that eventually freed him. There’s increasing occurrence of the falsely convicted having to be rescued from wrongful incarceration.

This is an agonizing fact in minority communities because so many of us are locked up in the first place. Minorities are the lifeblood of the law enforcement and prison industries, the product in which these businesses specialize. This, of course, we know. We know police routinely lock us up more to justify a paycheck than to do their jobs, that penitentiaries are less about rehabilitation than they are about generating and sustaining income by warehousing us. It rubs more salt in the wound to see released, months and years after the fact, those of us who had no business losing one day of freedom in the first place.

The end result of the Central Park case is among the most maddening. All of the original defendants completed their prison terms, ranging from seven to 13 years. Supreme Court Judge Charles Tejada, in dismissing the convictions, was compelled to state that “the duty of the prosecutor is to seek justice, not merely to convict.” The case originally was decided when two juries convicted five Black and Latino “inner-city” teenagers of beating and raping of a White 28-year-old investment banker. They were exonerated because Matias Reyes, a serial killer and rapist serving a life sentence, has confessed to the crime and DNA evidence links him to the attack. There was no incriminating evidence against the defendants. They confessed. You rocket scientists in the back of class, please raise your hands if you don’t understand why, by the time police finished “interrogating” them, five people of color would confess to something they didn’t commit. The rest of us know the deal — despite that New York police officials have strongly defended their actions in the original investigation, saying the boys were not coerced into making confessions.

The criminal justice system has no provision to compensate Byrd, Holder or the Central Park five. Worse, there will be no effort to do so. Five adolescents, ages 14 to 16, had 13 years of the most important years of their lives stolen. Each one now crowds 30 and looks back (over nearly a decade-and-a-half) not on such memories as their uninterrupted lives would’ve allowed – maybe falling in love and raising families, maybe making the move to stop roaming the streets in frustration, get an education and escape the trick bag society prefers to see strung shut. Each looks back instead on a living hell earth without cause. They are due compensation. This is not only a matter of morality and justice, but one of common sense. Sharonne Salaam, mother of defendant Yusef Salaam, said at a news conference outside the Manhattan Criminal Court Building, “I want justice for him, and I want accountability for the police and the [District Attorney], all those who chose to sidestep justice in order to solve this crime. They had every opportunity to find the guilty and they chose not to.” She is well within her human and civil rights.

The woman Reyes confessed to attacking will publish a book next year about her experience. And probably see a tidy sum. How many publishers do you think are lining up to sign a contract with Salaam or Raymond Santana, Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson or Kharey Wise. How inclined do you think NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg is to look into his heart and try to at least make a substantial gesture toward

December 30, 2002
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