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Trayvon Martin and the Justice We Cannot Seem to Reach

15 Jul

What I meant to write when I sat down at my computer this morning was a post about our second trip to the Maré favela here in Rio de Janeiro (You can read about our first visit to the favela here.), but all I can think about is Trayvon Martin and what his family must be feeling this morning.  Many people are writing quite eloquently about their sense of despair, powerlessness, and anger about the acquittal of George Zimmerman.  My favorite piece so far was posted by Frank Leonard on the Huffington Post.

As both the child of a currently incarcerated man and as someone who spends a lot of time seeing the damage that prisons do to people, I never feel like rejoicing when I hear news of another person being sentenced to a prison term.  That said, I also believe very deeply in the notion that governments should attempt to mete out fair and equitable justice, that every human life should be protected by the law, and that those who take a life should be called upon by the state to take responsibility for their actions, face the consequences, and make efforts towards atonement.  The Florida court and jury that acquitted George Zimmerman failed to ardently pursue justice, and they have failed not just Trayvon Martin’s family and loved ones but our entire nation.  If Trayvon Martin’s life is not worthy of even a conviction for manslaughter, then we cannot really claim to value any individual life in the United States.  Fundamentally, a person died, and there is no dispute about who shot him.  The fact that Zimmerman was not even convicted of manslaughter legalistically defines Trayvon Martin as less than human.

But, of course, we do value some lives and not others.  The specter of racism clouds every judicial process I have yet witnessed in my travels to prisons around the world.  All of the women we met in the theatre workshop at the prison here in Rio last week were phenotypically Black. (I realize that the terminology and understandings of race are significantly different in Brazil than they are in the U.S., and I make no claim to being able to parse this subtly.  I merely observe that whether these women self-identify as Black or not, every single incarcerated woman in the Teatro na Prisão workshop we witnessed would be phenotypically coded as Black or mixed race in the U.S.)  When I performed my one-woman play in a women’s prison in Canada in 2011, my friend who had taken me to the prison told me afterwards not to be fooled by the fact that I did not see any First Nations women in the prison; she reported that most of them were in solitary confinement.  In the small group of incarcerated women I met in an Irish prison in Dublin in 2005, I encountered two Black Panamanian women and a high number of other foreigners, mostly Eastern Europeans. Of course, in prisons across the U.S. we disproportionately lock up Blacks, Latina/os, Native Americans, the poor, and the undereducated.

None of this is news, and perhaps that’s why it hurts so much.  We continue to see the glaring inequalities in the ways in which we meet out justice, and so little changes across time and even various systems of government that it’s hard to stay hopeful.  I ceased believing in the righteousness or infallibility of any nation’s criminal justice system decades ago, yet justice remains a goal and a value that we must unceasingly pursue.  The lives of young people like Trayvon Martin are worth defending, and we cannot let this latest blow to human dignity, social justice, and individual freedom stop us in the interminable but necessary struggle to create the kind of world in which we would want all people to live–one in which the sight of a Black child in a hoodie would not inspire such fear that homicidal force would be anyone’s gut reaction.

My heart today is with Trayvon Martin’s family and friends, with one of my former students who said on Twitter that this verdict once again displayed the worth of his Black body, with the Black man I met in Louisiana who is serving ninety-nine years for stealing a toaster because of that state’s equivalent of the Three Strikes Law, with all who mourn for justice and those who are brave enough to continue to hope for something different in our future.

North Carolina’s Racial Justice Act Repealed: Major Setback in Civil Rights

6 Jun

Though many of us have seen this coming since Republicans took over the state legislature in North Carolina, we should take the time today to mourn the repeal of the groundbreaking Racial Justice Act–the legislation which allowed death row prisoners in North Carolina to appeal their death sentences (but not their convictions) on the grounds of racial bias in the jury. (For earlier writing on this blog about the Racial Justice Act, click here, here, and here.)   This law saved lives, and now we have taken a giant step backwards in protecting the civil rights of death row prisoners of color.  Until we manage to entirely end the barbarism of the death penalty in the U.S., we should avidly pursue the reinstatement of the Racial Justice Act in North Carolina and the creation of similar protective laws in other death penalty states.  In addition to offering a much needed avenue for appeal for individuals on death row, legislation like this helps those of us who oppose the death penalty to keep debates over the wildly erratic logic of capital punishment in the public eye.

Keep the 153 men and women on North Carolina’s death row in your thoughts today.  They have suffered an egregious loss, and the hopeless place in which they live has become all the more unbearable.

Free Legal Information Clinic, April 21, 2012 in Durham, NC

19 Mar

FREE LEGAL INFORMATION CLINIC

Sponsored by North Carolina Prisoner Legal Services, Inc.

 North Carolina Bar Association’s Professionalism Committee

N.C. Advocates for Justice – Civil Rights Section

The Durham and Orange Prisoners’ Resource Roundtable

SATURDAY, APRIL 21, 2012

10:00 AM –12:00 PM

DURHAM COUNTY LIBRARY

Main Library
300 N. Roxboro Street
Durham, North Carolina 27701

For more information, please call (919) 856-2200

Free legal consultations about civil legal matters governed by N.C. law will be offered at this clinic for people who have been formerly incarcerated or, for organizations that serve the formerly incarcerated community.  Volunteers will be available to provide general information about legal issues or refer you to an agency or organization that can provide the information you need.  The volunteers cannot offer to represent you, but, if you are eligible, you may be referred to one of the legal or social service agencies in the Raleigh/Durham area to seek additional assistance and/or representation.

 

Please bring all of the documents concerning your legal problem to the Clinic

For additional information and assistance, please visit http://www.lawhelp.org/nc.

Kerry Max Cook: An Innocent Man Still Seeking Exoneration; a post by Ashley Lucas

4 Mar

Kerry Max Cook with a copy of his autobiography Chasing Justice

In 1978 in Tyler, Texas, Kerry Max Cook was convicted of a murder he did not commit.  He remained in prison until 1999 a court finally released him after he pleaded “no contest” at the conclusion of his fourth trial for this crime.  Cook agreed to plead “no contest,” after maintaining his innocence for more than two decades of legal battles, because he believed at the time that he would likely be wrongfully convicted yet again and sent back to prison if he did not.  The District Attorney all of a sudden offered him a deal: a plea of “no contest” would enable Cook’s release for time served.  Cook took the deal and later found out that the District Attorney in question had recently acquired the results of new DNA tests of the crime scene evidence which definitively proved that Cook did not rape and murder Linda Jo Edwards.  Cook and his legal team only learned of this exculpatory evidence after the plea of “no contest” had been entered, and because of this, Cook has never been legally exonerated.  The murder conviction remains on his record, and at long last Cook is fighting a new legal battle to clear his name.  An excellent blog posting on the Grits for Breakfast site provides further details.

Cook’s autobiography, Chasing Justice, published in 2007, describes in detail the junk science, prosecutorial misconduct, and shoddy police work which contributed to his wrongful conviction.  Cook is also featured in the documentary play (and subsequent Court TV film) The Exonerated by Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen, despite the popular misconception in Cook’s case that DNA proof of actual innocence would lead automatically to legal exoneration.

When I was an undergraduate at Yale in 2001, I took a seminar about the death penalty, taught by two men who were at the time Yale Law School students.  Our final assignment for the class was to research a death penalty case and write a twenty-page paper on it.  I wrote about Kerry Cook, and in the course of my research, I made contact with him, and with the help of Stanton Wheeler–a law school professor and then Master of my residential college–I brought Cook and one of his lawyers to campus to speak.  Kerry and I have since lost touch, but I remain deeply moved not only by his story but by his willingness to continue telling it despite how much it obviously hurts him to expose himself, his wife, and his son to continuing public scrutiny and judgment.

May you finally receive some relief from the courts, my friend.  I watch your struggle with admiration and hope.  Your continuing work against the death penalty and wrongful conviction serves a cause much larger than your own case, and I am among a great many people who are grateful for your life and your efforts.

The Pendulum Foundation, Seth Ford, and the New Age of Community Organizing; a post by Ashley Lucas

28 Feb

On the morning of the first day of the 2012 Prisoner’s Family Conference in Albuquerque I had the good fortune to sit down next to really smart and very kind man named Seth Ford.  He’s a social media consultant who spent five years as a political lobbyist.  A series of events in his personal life led him to become concerned about the toll that violence and incarceration take on so many communities in the United States.  He now lives in Denver and works for an amazing organization called the Pendulum Foundation, which works to end juvenile life without parole in Colorado.  He also blogs about this and other juvenile justice issues on his website PolitiVisor.com.

From 1992 to 2005, kids could be given a sentence of life without parole in the state of Colorado.  The legislature came to its senses in 2006 and ended this barbaric sentencing practice, but because the change in law was not retroactive, the fifty children who had already been sentenced to life without parole remain in the system.  Now all of them are adults who have never lived independently outside a prison.  What kind of nation believes that people who are too young to be trusted to vote, drink, or serve in the military should be judged unfit to live among us for the rest of their lives?  As I wrote in an earlier post about the sentencing of Laurence Lovette, giving life sentences to young people is a poor investment in the future of our children, our country, and our public safety.  The Pendulum Foundation’s battle against juvenile life without parole is vital.

At the Prisoner’s Family Conference Seth Ford led a workshop entitled “Community Organizing.”  I’ve always prided myself on knowing a thing or two about community organizing.  I’ve marched, demonstrated, leafleted, petitioned, been to sit-ins, and done my share of street theatre.  I can sing “We Shall Overcome” with the best of them, but I had no idea how to do the kind of community organizing that Ford was teaching at this conference.  He showed an enraptured (and Luddite) audience how to use Twitter to reach an audience as broad as a local news outlet, which is precisely what he’s done for the Pendulum Foundation.  His Twitter handle is @PolitiComm, and thanks to him I’m now @razorwirewoman.  I have a deep mistrust of the sound byte levelof information that can be conveyed in 140 characters, but I have learned that tweets can lead folks to sources of information that provide more context, like blogs and other websites.

I’m still a deep believer in the power of live interaction, in sitting in and demonstrating for justice, but I’m learning the power of electronic media to connect us to those whom we cannot reach directly.  Thanks, Seth.  The next time you need a friend to march beside you I’ll repay the favor.

Another Attempt to Thwart NC’s Racial Justice Act and Reflections on Conquergood’s “Lethal Theatre,” a post by Ashley Lucas

5 Jan

Republican legislators in North Carolina kept the House in session after midnight last night in an unsuccessful attempt to override Gov. Purdue’s veto of the Racial Justice Act.  The Republican dominated Senate voted to overturn Purdue’s veto, but the conservatives in the House lacked the support they needed from Democrats to cripple the Racial Justice Act.

This morning I was rereading the late Dwight Conquergood’s seminal article “Lethal Theatre” which appeared in Theatre Journal in 2002.  For those of us who study theatre and performance studies, Conquergood’s powerful treatise on the performative nature of the death penalty was a game changer.  People who do social engagement work in the arts have long known that imagery and public discourse can have enormous impact on political struggles, but Conquergood argues very convincingly that we kill people as a means to prove how just and righteous we are.  The condemned serve as the symbolic antithesis of the good law-abiding citizenry who take it upon themselves as a body politic to smite those who have done wrong.  We build our freedoms on the backs of those who are not free, and we mechanize state-sanctioned murder to remove individual agency from the act of killing.

Critics of the Racial Justice Act, including some very outspoken Republican legislators, have said that this law is a thinly veiled attempt to do away with the death penalty.  In fact, the Racial Justice Act merely strives to make our use of the death penalty less biased against people of color.  It is an important legislative move, but it does not go far enough.  As Conquergood pointed out nearly a decade ago, we have known for a very long time about the staggering inequities in our justice system, especially in the arena of capital punishment, yet we continue to kill people.  This legalizes racism and entrenches popular notions of the criminality of the poor, African Americans, Latina/os, queers, the transgendered, immigrants, and the uneducated.

The battle over the Racial Justice Act rages on, and a House committee has been formed for further investigation.  So, North Carolinians, call and email your senators and representatives and do not yield!  This legislation was hard won by people who believe that even those condemned to death deserve fair, unbiased consideration by the courts.  It’s a significant step in the right direction, and we cannot afford to lose this ground.

On Trial During the Holidays: Laurence Lovette, Eve Carson, and Lost Stories, a post by Ashley Lucas

14 Dec

As someone who teaches at UNC Chapel Hill, I, like the rest of our campus community, was stunned, grief-stricken, and profoundly disturbed by the murder of our student body president Eve Carson who was abducted and shot on March 5, 2008.  I did not know Carson personally, but many of my students and colleagues adored her and have recounted many, many stories about what a remarkable, loving, intelligent person she was.  I wish that the media coverage about Carson told more about these aspects of her life.

In the Fall of 2009, I began teaching a freshman seminar on the subject of Documentary Theatre.  In this class, my students collectively choose a topic to investigate and create a play based on research and interviews they conduct throughout the semester.  In the first two weeks of class, we spent a lot of time mulling over a variety of possible topics which might serve as the subject of our play.  The students narrowed their interests down to two topics fairly quickly: Eve Carson’s murder and health care (which was a big news story at the time because of the Obama Administration’s controversial plans for health care reform).

My students in this course were all freshmen, so none of them had been UNC students during Carson’s tenure as student body president nor at the time of her murder.  However, since most of them were from North Carolina, they had seen a great deal of news about the crime, and the shadow of loss cast across the campus had significantly colored their first days as college students.  Some had misgivings about whether our class might cause greater pain to those who knew and loved Carson by conducting research about her life and death and portraying traumatic events on stage.  We spent much time discussing the ethical questions surrounding the idea of creating such a play and how we might go about it.

One of my students approached me after class one day and said that she had gone to high school with one of the young men accused of Carson’s murder, and she did not feel comfortable working on a play about this subject matter.  She had not been close to the accused but had known him well enough to think he was a regular kid, like so many other boys in high school.  She was bewildered and frightened by Carson’s death and the implication of someone she knew in such a brutal crime.  We discussed the possibility of this student completing an alternate assignment for the course if our class chose to put on a play about the Carson murder.

The class was divided fairly evenly on whether to do a play about the murder or one about health care.  The tide shifted in favor of a play about health care when a particularly impassioned student told a moving story about her family’s struggles with health insurance while her mother was being treated for cancer. We produced a thoughtful and compelling series of monologues about health care that semester, and though we no longer discussed Eve Carson or the circumstances of her death, our earlier discussions stayed with me, as did my student’s concern for and confusion surrounding her high school classmate who was accused of having killed someone.

The investigations in the Carson case quickly led to two prime suspects.  Demario Atwater pleaded guilty to kidnapping and murder and is now serving two consecutive life sentences in a federal prison in California.  The other suspect, Laurence Alvin Lovette, now stands trial in Orange County Criminal Superior Court.  Because Atwater took a plea deal, Lovette’s trial offers the general public a great deal of information about the night of Carson’s death which was never before released in such detail.  My local newspaper, The Durham Herald-Sun–and likely all other major news outlets in our area–is providing a blow-by-blow accounting of each day’s courtroom testimony.  In most cases I try not to read this kind of news coverage because those who covered my father’s trial said such misleading things about our case and our family when we endured what Lovette and his loved ones now face.  However, I have been unable to stop myself from following the news of Lovette’s trial because I am so struck by what the testimony recounted in the news reveals about his life at the time of the crime.

Lovette is now twenty-one years old, which means he was only seventeen or eighteen at the time of the murder.  An African American raised in poverty in what sounds like a pretty tough neighborhood in Durham, Lovette lived surrounded by guns and drugs.  He is accused of a terrible crime, and his personality, his hopes for his life, indeed his very humanity have been left out of the news coverage and perhaps the trial itself.  He is very young, and if he is convicted, he will likely never have the chance to discover a better way to live.  If a jury finds him guilty, Lovette will likely never be able to explain to others, perhaps even to himself, that he is more than the worst thing he ever did.  If he is guilty, I do not believe that he should go unpunished or that it is safe for him to live among us in the present moment.  I also am not ready to mark him (or Demario Atwater) as irredeemable, to decide that someone just entering his twenties can never evolve or become a better person.  I am unconvinced that keeping him in prison for life either makes us safer or benefits our society in the long run.

Eve Carson’s humanity has been lost in the news reports, too, and her family also fares poorly in the public descriptions of their current grief.  The trial and the news are about the terrifying and gruesome events of the last night of Carson’s life, overshadowing the complexity and richness of who she was and what her loved ones endure as they continue to live.  A friend of mine who came to a recent reading of Razor Wire Women remarked that he worries that both prisoners’ and victims’ stories are not told frequently enough or well enough.  I concur.  We know  a great deal about how to tell stories about crime, but we know very little about how to understand or talk about what makes crime possible–the living and ever-shifting contexts of people’s lives, the complicated process of decision making, the vulnerabilities of victims and perpetrators.

During this holiday season, my thoughts are with the Carson, Atwater, and Lovette families and those who love them.  In a time of year when we are urged to reflect on peace, good will, and the dawning of a new year of possibilities, the weight of loss, fear, and sadness stand in sharp relief to holiday celebrations.  Perhaps in the days and years ahead of us, we can work together to prevent tragedies like murder and the devastation that follows incarceration.

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