Saturday, November 10, 2012

The Valley of the Shadow of Death

On a pretty regular basis, people write or send e-mails asking that I volunteer my services on behalf of one or another person in prison or on death row who the writer knows absolutely to be innocent.  Often there's an additional inducement.  Perhaps a cut of the lawsuit against the oppressive police and prosecutors and judges who put this person behind bars or on a path to the gurney.  Perhaps the fact that it's so open and shut a case that no serious work will be involved to free the person who's languished in prison for decades.

There was, for instance, this note that I came across while clearing some old messages out of my inbox recently.
In my opinion, a private investigation of that matter should get acquittal by itself without even going to a court, a prosecutor can merely review the findings, then make a few phone calls, and sign some papers for his release.
Would that it were that easy.  Just find an investigator (not, obviously, one of the numerous corrupt and incompetent ones who have failed over 20 years or more to discover the readily available overwhelming proof of innocence) who'll work for nothing for a couple of hours and then call up the prosecutor.
Except, well, no.  It doesn't actually work like that.

The evidence, if it exists, isn't sitting on the kitchen table ready to be picked up.  It isn't available with a quick Google search.  And it isn't, frankly, all that self-evidently compelling.
And even if it were, the prosecutor has neither the power nor, almost surely, the inclination to be readily convinced and then to act on it and secure the person's freedom with the stroke of a pen or a phone call or two.

It really is a lovely idea, It's also nonsense.

Once the jury says 
Well, it's pretty much over.   If they say he did it, then there's nothing much left to consider.  Just some technical mumbo jumbo about hearsay rules and exclusionary rules and Batson challenges and effective assistance of counsel, about which nobody gives a rat's ass.  

Because, after all, the jury said 
Which means it's pretty much over.  Because he either did it or might as well have.

That's the sad truth underlying Clive Stafford Smith's new book, The Injustice System: A Murder in Miami and a Trial Gone Wrong.

It was 1986 when Krishna (Kris) Maharaj, a successful businessman, was charged with the murders of Derrick Moo Young and Duane Moo Young at the DuPont Plaza Hotel in downtown Miami, a crime horrific in its coldness and brutality. It was 1994, when Smith first met him. represent him for free. By then, Kris had been on death row for seven years. All his money had been spent on lawyers who, truth be told, didn't do the job. Now he was broke and his best legal options largely past. In The Injustice System, Smith tells the story of how it is that Kris ended up there and of the fight to free an almost certainly innocent man.

In the world of capital defense, as in pretty much every field, there are stars, those lawyers others turn to for advice and inspiration.  Clive is among them.  He founded a couple of non-profits (the Louisiana Crisis [now Capital] Assistance Center and Reprieve). He teaches at major national capital defense seminars.  He's smart, clever, dedicated, passionate.  You get him in your corner, things look up.

That's certainly how it looked to Kris Maharaj.  But then, Kris had always figured things were going to look up.  He was innocent, you know.  That would be obvious to the jury.  If not, it would be obvious to the judge.  It followed that there was no need to fuss, no need to spend big bucks on a first rate trial team.  Just a lawyer who talked a good game.  Really, that would be all he'd need.

Except it wasn't.  And the next guy and the next guy and Kris was broke and then Clive came to see him and, as I said, with him in your corner, things look up.

As I said, this is the story of how it is that Kris ended up on death row for a crime he almost certainly didn't commit.  And about what happened after that.  Smith takes us through the case point by point, historical event through historical event.

He begins with the trial, then the sentence.  What happened next and his first meeting with Kris.  Then there's examination and investigation as Smith peels away the lies, the distortions, the misrepresentations.  And what he finds as he digs deeper. 

He investigates the witnesses.  He looks for other suspects.  He follows the money.  Was Derrick Moo Young tied to the Columbian drug cartels?  It sure looks that way.  Was his murder a hit for stealing from the Columbian drug cartels?  It sure looks that way.  

And what about the crooked judge?  And what about the jury?

Kris files post-conviction pleadings in state court, then in federal court.  This is how it goes, how these cases play themselves out.

Smith explains it all carefully and clearly.  These are the legal steps.  These are the legal hurdles.  Here are the stories of other cases and how the went.  Stories of other prosecutors and other judges and other juries.  Of other investigations and other innocent men and women. Here are stories of forgiveness and compassion, and stories of hatred and vengeance.  He tells the story of Rais Bhuiyan (which I've written about here and here).

Through it all, Smith never loses sight of Kris, who is himself both ordinary and extraordinary.  And of Kris's wife, Marita, who's simply extraordinary.  They, as much as the family of the Moo Youngs, are victims here. 

As an epigraph, Smith offers this from Pascal Calogero, a former chief justice of the Louisiana Supreme Court.
Our justice system makes two promises to its citizens: a fundamentally fair trial and an accurate result.  If either of those two primises is not met, the criminal justice system itself falls into disrepute.
And so it does. The Injustice System lays it out.  Piece by piece.  Kris's case is the model. But it's not just his case.  It's another and another and another.

Most of the books you'll read - even the really good ones - about innocent men and women caught up in the system, like most of the movies and TV shows, most of them are about a case where things went wrong.  For whatever reason, the system screwed up.  It failed. And then through some combination of diligence and luck and pluck the truth came out.

This book is different.  Oh, it shows the system screwing up.  But Clive makes clear that it's not an aberration. And diligence and luck and pluck - they just may not be enough.

Clive is, among other things, a terrific storyteller.  And he's got a terrific story to tell.  Of how the system fails.  How it's designed to fail.  How failure isn't an accident, it's a feature.

At the same time, ever and always, it's a story of man.  I'll give him the last word.  He was in the hospital associated with the prison. Shackled to a bed. Suffering from a flesh-eating bacteria. Smith paid him a visit.
I ask Kris what keeps him going, when he can't do anything in the hospital.  He responds by quoting Psalm 23, the entire thing from memory. "'Surely goodness, mercy and love shall follow me all the days of my life,'" he intones.  I look at the grubby wall again and wonder. 
My thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy of The Injustice System for this review.

1 comment:

  1. All true, of course, and yet those of us with friends on Death Row who believe they are innocent, and the DR inmates themselves, must live with hope, surely...even being executed with hope is better, surely...or do we just give up? No! Carry on the good work, Mr Gamso! SF