steubenville

Trigger warning: This post alludes to a graphic sexual assault that may be upsetting to survivors.

For better or worse, the name of this Ohio town, which used to be associated with the high school football team that was its pride and glory, will likely become synonymous with “teenage gang rape,” much as Abu Ghraib has become synonymous with “torture and prisoner abuse.” Ironically, in Steubenville the former — a cult of football player worship that is all too common in the United States — played a huge role in the latter — an atmosphere in which multiple athletes assaulted a classmate too drunk to consent.

Today the two boys who committed the assault, a six-hour ordeal of which the survivor has no memory but which was extensively documented on social media, were convicted of rape. The 17-year-old will serve at least two years in the state juvenile system; the 16-year-old, at least one year. It’s possible that they will be incarcerated until they are 24 and 21, respectively. Extension of the sentences is at the discretion of the state’s Department of Youth Services.

I felt relief when I heard about the conviction. From the event all the way through the trial, it seemed — at least from my limited vantage point, through local and national media — that the town was generally rallying around “their boys” and were blaming the victim, as people are so wont to do. Indeed, many of their classmates hurriedly deleted videos of and text messages about the assault when the boys realized that, wow, people are kind of upset about this and we might have done something wrong. Two of the victim’s former friends testified that she is often intoxicated at parties and “lies about things.” There was much hand-wringing over the boys’ futures, football and otherwise. I feared that the circling of the wagons around the perpetrators would be successful.

jailed rapists

jailed rapists (source: RAINN)

I also felt that the punishments were at least to some extent appropriate, though I can’t help but hope that the punishments end up on the longer end of the possibilities (more on that below). I may be in the minority in this sentiment, judging by a (highly unscientific) review of today’s Facebook posts about the verdict. A friend of a friend expressed surprised outrage that rape is not punishable by 25 years to life. To which I want to burst out laughing.

According to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), accounting for unreported rapes, only about 3% of rapists ever spend time in jail. And according to the U.S. Department of Justice, as of 1992, the average sentence for rapists was just shy of 12 years, with average actual time served about five-and-a-half years. (The current arrest rate for rape, about 25%, has remained unchanged since the 1970s, so there’s little reason to believe that sentences have changed either.) To say that rape is rarely punished via the criminal justice system is an understatement.

I spent seven years in D.C. volunteering at the local rape crisis center. I have little sympathy for rapists.

I also spent the same amount of time working and volunteering for drug policy reform organizations. I have little confidence in the criminal justice system.

And indeed, my experience working with survivors of sexual assault taught me the same lesson: The criminal justice system simply doesn’t do what we hope it does.

This semester I’m taking “Foundations of Prison Ministry” at Boston College School of Theology and Ministry. To whatever small extent I wasn’t before, I am now thoroughly horrified at our criminal justice system. I can’t condone caging human beings for inordinate amounts of time. I have no trust that we are putting away the “right” people. And I am certain that we’re not rehabilitating anyone.

Sidebar: I just wrote 10 pages for my class midterm about why the criminal justice system is abominable — and I barely scratched the surface in so doing — so I am obviously not able to do it justice (heh) in this post. For a good primer, read Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow. And don’t tell me you don’t have time to read a whole book. As a citizen of this nation, you don’t have time not to read it! /rant

Ultimately, what I am saying is that I am divided. I don’t think we should be locking kids up for long periods of time (and never for life). And the criminals in this case are kids. Stupid, self-entitled, shameless, sadistic scum. But kids nonetheless. (The New York Times reported that the boy sentenced to at least one year told his lawyer upon hearing the decision, “My life is over.” To my mind there’s no clearer indication of the immaturity at work here. And I still want to scream at him about the life of the girl he assaulted.) These kids merit punishment. So in our very limited criminal justice system arsenal, I am forced to admit that some jail time seems like the best option.

But I concede this knowing that whatever good these boys will learn over the next year, two years, or five years, they will find in spite of their incarceration, and not because of it. More than likely, they’ll come out more desensitized than they went in. They’re for damn sure not going to learn in juvenile how to be men in a way different from that which rape culture promotes. And shouldn’t that be our goal?

anatomy of injustice

Raymond Bonner’s Anatomy of Injustice reads like a true-crime thriller, and I would say I enjoyed if I hadn’t spent the entire book alternating between anger and horror. A New York Times reporter, Bonner wrote the book from his journalism research, which started in Texas after then-Governor George Bush — who had presided over more executions than any other governor in history — stated on Meet the Press, “I’m confident that every person that has been put to death in Texas on my watch has been guilty of the crime charged and has full access to the courts. I’m confident.”

Since Governor George Ryan of Illinois had just two weeks before suspended the death penalty in his state because of eleventh-hour exonerations of several condemned prisoners, Bonner and a colleague were first sent to Texas, and then later other states, to investigate Bush’s claim and the state of the death penalty in America today. Anatomy examines just one of the many cases they looked into: that of Edward Lee Gilmore, a young black man of limited intelligence convicted of murder in South Carolina in a seven-day trial.

I’ll be the first to admit that I am not impartial on this issue. I think capital punishment is just the most egregious evidence that our criminal justice system is broken (second only to the atrocities of mass incarceration, prison-industrial complex, and drug war, among others). One of my dream jobs would be to work against the death penalty as a rabbi.

So it wasn’t going to take much to convince me of the miscarriage of justice. Tragically, it took 30 years to convince those who could actually do something for Elmore. He had three trials before he was sentenced to death for the last time, and it took almost 20 years to locate a potentially exonerating piece of evidence that the state thought was lost. The book ends before Elmore’s saga does: Last month, Elmore left a courthouse in Greenwood as a free man for the first time since 1982.

Bonner chose the case as emblematic of the many death penalty cases that occur in the 36 states in our country that allow the punishment. He notes, “Elmore’s story raises nearly all of the issues that mark the debate about capital punishment: race, mental retardation, bad trial lawyers, prosecutorial misconduct, ‘snitch’ testimony, DNA testing, a claim of innocence.”

It’s because so many death penalty cases have at least one of these issues that Elmore’s story is sadly familiar, so I won’t go into the details of his story. Bonner is able to make the case for Elmore’s innocence, overwhelming in the narrative and affirmed by his later release, even more compelling by being able to pretty reliably point to the real perpetrator, a neighbor with whom the victim was suspected of having an affair and who died years before Bonner started covering the case. He “discovered” the body and pointed the original investigators to Elmore, and they never even considered the former a suspect.

edward lee elmore, a few years before his arrest for murder

Several things struck me as I read. Abysmally represented at his original trials, Elmore benefited immensely from later (competent, not to mention tenacious and passionate) counsel from the South Carolina Death Penalty Resource Center. This is typical of many of these cases: The best representation is available on appeal. A huge part of Elmore’s experience was the direct result of the complete incompetence of his original lawyers. There are many dedicated lawyers and law students today working on the cases of death row inmates, so why aren’t more of them clamoring to be the original lawyers on these cases? Indeed, the book makes clear that one of the enormous hurdles that Elmore had to overcome during all the years of appeals was that, despite massive evidence of defense ineptitude, no one wanted to imply that previous lawyers, juries, and judges had made a mistake (especially not multiple times), or perhaps more perniciously, were racist or classist (which of course they were). It seems to me that the priority of death penalty opponents should be ensuring that those accused of crimes eligible for capital punishment get the best representation at their initial trials.

Secondly, Bonner devotes a good number of pages discussing the differing roles of prosecutor and defense attorney. The book opens with two epigrams on the subject from Supreme Court cases. Justice Byron White:

Law enforcement officers have the obligation to convict the guilty and to make sure they do not convict the innocent. They must be dedicated to making the criminal trial a procedure for the ascertainment of the true facts surrounding the commission of a crime. . . . But the defense counsel has no such comparable obligation to ascertain or present the truth. Our system assigns him a different mission. He must be and is interested in preventing the conviction of the innocent, but, absent a voluntary plea of guilty, we also insist that he defend his client whether he is innocent or guilty.

In other words, defense lawyers’ primary responsibility is to their clients, guilty or not; prosecutors’ primary responsibility is to the truth. Bonner argues that this prescription for prosecutors has gotten lost — and in the vacuum has risen a culture that values winning above all. Today, prosecutors of death penalty cases are generally more interested in convictions, in assigning blame for (what are often heinous) crimes, in assuaging public outrage and fear, in securing “justice” for the families of victims. Perhaps some of these are admirable, or at least understandable. But ultimately, Bonner argues, prosecutors are derelict in their duties when they lose sight of the fact that they are instead (or at least also) supposed to strive to protect the innocent.

What I know about the practice of law could fit into a coffee cup (just as everything I know about law school I learned from Legally Blonde, as I am fond of telling my amused law student interns), so please excuse my ignorance when I say that I simply didn’t know this legal principle. In popular culture, particularly in sympathetic portrayals of wrongly convicted criminals, prosecutors are routinely portrayed as cravenly careerist and eager to convict. While that may be an at least a somewhat accurate portrayal of reality, it’s not what the law proscribes. And Bonner’s book is an object lesson of why not.

the other wes moore

Last Friday I finished The Other Wes Moore. I can’t recall how I first heard about the book, but I was disappointed to learn last week that I just missed the eponymous author’s appearance at Politics & Prose. I wanted to ask him a question that’s been bothering me since I finished reading.

The book details the lives of two black men of approximately the same age who both grew up in inner-city Baltimore without their fathers. One (the author) is an Army combat veteran turned Rhodes Scholar turned investment banker turned youth advocate. The other is serving a life sentence in prison, without parole, for his role in an armed robbery that led to the death of a police officer.

The author first heard about his name-doppelganger when he was studying abroad in South Africa. When he called home the first time after arriving, his mom told him the coincidental story of a manhunt that was taking place throughout the mid-Atlanic region for a man named Wes Moore, a bank robbery suspect. Later, stories about the two Wes Moores (the Rhodes scholarship of one, the apprehension of the other) were published in the Baltimore Sun on the same day.

Upon learning about their similarities in background, the author began a correspondence with the felon, which eventually led to their meeting and, later, to the book. The author claims to have had the other Wes Moore’s full cooperation, which is born out by the detailed descriptions of the felon’s life, as well evidence of the many interviews that the author conducted with the other Wes Moore’s family and friends.

The stories of the two men’s lives are fascinating, both in their similarity and in their eventual divergence. And I think that the author is trying (and succeeding, for the most part) to make a very interesting point about the problems that young black men in particular face in in the inner city in the United States today. There certainly can be a hair’s breadth between success and failure in that environment.

The book’s cover contains these two trenchant sentences: “The chilling truth is that his story could have been mine. The tragedy is that my story could have been his.” I think the first sentence is true; the second, I’m not so sure about.

It turns out that Wes Moore the felon maintains his innocence of the crime for which he was convicted. The author (for reasons that are not clear to me) chooses to be somewhat circumspect about this fact; it’s not until the beginning of the third part of the book that the claim of innocence is revealed. Wes says to Wes during one of his prison visits, “I wasn’t even there that day.”

The author expresses to the reader his incredulity that the man sitting across from him, whom he’s been corresponding with and speaking to for years, could still be insisting on this version of events. The implication is that the author doesn’t believe the other Wes Moore, though he doesn’t say so outright. And I feel confident that the author would have vigorously pursued this claim had there been even a shred of evidence to support it; moreover, he would have been in an excellent position to do so, as he had gained the aforementioned cooperation and trust of those closest to the other Wes Moore. But he doesn’t, and so the reader is left to assume both that Wes Moore is guilty, and that that the author doesn’t believe his claims of innocence.

While in prison, Wes Moore became what the author describes as a “devout Muslim,” the outward sign of which is the long beard that he grows. And this is where the book’s central argument seems to me to fall off the tracks: I don’t understand how anyone can claim to be a “devout” follower of any religion and at the same time completely refuse to take responsibility for his/her actions. The author wants to argue that it was mere chance, for the most part, that allowed him to succeed while the other Wes Moore ended up in prison. But I think that it is perhaps the one man’s willingness to hold himself accountable — in contrast to the other’s complete abdication of that responsibility — that might be the key factor in the difference between the two.

For the most part, the author portrays the other Wes Moore as a likable character, a man limited by his environment despite his attempts to get out. But the reveal at the end of the book left me confused, and a little angry. I would find the other Wes Moore to be much more sympathetic if he had expressed even some regret for the actions that led to the death of a police officer. But at the end of the book, I was wondering how the author could expect me to care about his story. And really, I think the author was fully aware of this dilemma, which is why he buried the other Wes Moore’s claim and then quickly moved to another topic.

But I would have liked to ask him about it.