Wednesday, September 3, 2014

When We Talk About "Justice"

They were innocent.  Then they were guilty.  Now they're innocent.  Yet they were always innocent. And will always have been guilty.

Regardless of what happened.

I'm talking about Henry Lee McCollum and Leon Brown.  Who spent 30 years in prison for a crime, an horrific crime, the rape and murder of 11-year-old Sabrina Buie.  Per Scalia, explaining why Lee McCollum ought to be killed (without actually hearing his appeal), an 
11-year-old girl [was] raped by four men and then killed by stuffing her panties down her throat.
But really, it was worse than that.  Here's the North Carolina Supreme Court.
An autopsy was performed upon the body of Sabrina Buie. Linear abrasions on her back and buttocks revealed a pattern indicating that the body had been dragged over a rough surface. There was a tear or laceration deep within the victim's vagina and a tear or laceration in her anal canal. Petechial hemorrhaging, characterized as the bursting of small blood vessels caused by pressure, was observed in the victim's eyes. Similar hemorrhaging caused by a pressure mechanism was also observed in the heart and lungs. The brain appeared slightly swollen due to a lack of oxygen.
A stick and pair of panties were wedged in the victim's throat, completely obstructing the airway. Dr. Deborah Radisch, Chief Assistant Medical Examiner for the State of North Carolina, testified that the victim died of asphyxiation.
So McCollum and Brown ended up on death row.  (McCollum actually was sentenced to death twice for the crime.)  No surprise.  The greater surprise is that 30 years later they were both still in prison, neither having been killed.

As I say, it was an horrific crime.  And McCollum and Brown were accused.  And were convicted.  Because confession.

Just like that, they went from innocent (which the law says they were right up to the moment the jury said they were not) to guilty.  And guilty they were.  For 30 years.  

Until yesterday when the judge said they were innocent.  Because DNA.

Joe Freeman Britt, the prosecutor who got the convictions, says the jury got it right.  
Don't care about no fucking DNA.  Because confession.
The current prosecutor, Johnson Britt takes a different tack. Per Jonathan M. Katz and Erik Eckholm in the Times.
In the courtroom here on Tuesday, the current district attorney, Johnson Britt (no relation to the original prosecutor), citing his obligation to “seek justice,” not simply gain convictions, said he would not try to prosecute the men again because the state “does not have a case.”
Good for him.

But Justice?

And from Johnson Britt sits, sure.  Choosing not to try and convict people you know didn't do it is, after a fashion, "justice."  (Though that somehow doesn't seem like the right word.)

But in any larger sense?

They were innocent.  Then they were guilty.  Now they're innocent.  Yet they were always innocent. And will always have been guilty.  

If only for 30 years.

That's maybe what we call "Criminal Justice."  Whatever justice is, it ain't that.

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