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Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Justice…Or Just Us?

The American legal system often states that people are innocent until proven guilty. However, things aren’t as always as black or white as presented in The Constitution or in the media. Proving a person’s innocence can be extremely difficult for anyone if they don’t have the financial resources to defend themselves in court.

While the state often provides people with an attorney for defense if they can’t afford one, the quality of that defense is often not effective due to a lack of resources. It’s often next to impossible for a poor person with a Legal Aid or Pro Bono Lawyer to prove their innocence when prosecutors can outspend them $1000 to $1. A District Attorneys often has every advantage in court because they have unlimited resources to spend money hiring experts such as DNA specialists, experts, psychologists and other specialists to prove their case. Not to mention paid informants who will testify and reinforce the statements made by police officers in court.

In one recent case Tonya Craft a teacher in Georgia had to defend herself against sexual molestation charges. It cost her $500,000 to provide an adequate defense to win the case. Craft exhausted her life savings and 401K account going to court.

I have to ask: How is the American justice system “fair and just” when a citizen needs a half-million dollars to defend themselves against the state? How is the justice system fair and just when a person has to spend their life savings and retirement savings to prove their innocence? Is “innocent until proven guilty” coming at a price too high for the average American to reach?

Tonya Craft was a middle class schoolteacher and defending herself in court broke her financially. Imagine the obstacles poor people face when they have to go to court to defend themselves against criminal charges. When someone doesn’t have the financial resources for providing an adequate defense in court, proving innocence against a prosecutor with millions of dollars to spend on one case can be next to impossible.

Many poor people, who are accused of crimes often face a stacked deck when dealing with a justice system that promises “innocence until proven guilty” but doesn’t tell them that it comes at a price far out of their reach. And due to their lack of financial resources, most poor people can’t adequately defend themselves in court against the District Attorney’s onslaught of resources. Most poor defendants often have to rely on the defense of a Legal Aid or Pro Bono Lawyer who is often overwhelmed by the sheer number of cases and cannot pay attention to the small details that can be the difference between conviction and acquittal when presenting a case to the jury.

Meanwhile a prosecutor is presenting a case to the jury with experts, DNA, psychologists and specialists on top of witnesses and informants.

And because poor people lack the finances to hire a competent attorney and experts to defend themselves in court, society doesn’t get justice. Many innocent poor people are forced to take plea deals and confess to crimes they didn’t commit because they can’t afford to defend themselves in court. The hope is that after they do time, they’ll be able to get back to their lives.

The courts have turned into clearinghouses for cases instead of punishing actual criminals. Is that justice?

Or is it just us? Is this what We The People want for a legal system? A process that’s all about numbers and not about protecting the people from the worst of society?

The travesty of this type of economic injustice in the U.S. criminal justice system is monumental. When poor people can’t adequately defend themselves in court they fall through the cracks. Prison changes these people and when they return the community they aren’t productive citizens.

Meanwhile, the actual criminals who committed the crimes are still out there looking for their next opportunity to strike.

I’ve read about too many poor Black men who were railroaded by the American Court system. Brothers who were wrongfully convicted and had to do time on cases built on the testimony of junkies and paid informants out to make a buck or being in the wrong place at the wrong time. One rape case where an innocent man was convicted and sent up for 20 years because he couldn’t afford $600 for a DNA test. Another where an innocent man spent 20 years in prison for murder on the testimony of an informant who was a known liar. Numerous drug cases where a brotha was sentenced to decades in prison for just taking a ride in a car. Numerous gun cases where good kids were given records for walking down the street with someone who carried a gun. The infamous Central Park Jogger rape case from 1989 where five teenage boys were convicted on confessions gained from coercion without legal counsel.

For the grace of God, any of us could be a defendant. Heaven help any of us who is truly innocent and doesn’t have a half-million dollars to hire specialists to defend themselves against a prosecutor who can outspend them $1000 to $1 in court. And we better pray it’s not a death penalty case where our lives are on the line.

I doubt this is what the Founding Fathers had in mind when they wrote The Constitution and Declaration of Independence. This is not innocent until proven guilty. This is not fair and just. This is the same kind of oppression that the British imposed on the colonists and led up to the Revolutionary War.

A court system should not be more concerned with clearing cases than getting justice for society. Nor should people have to spend their life savings to adequately defend themselves against criminal charges. And they shouldn’t have to take plea deals just to move on with their lives. Justice that leaves Americans realizing that it’s just us, at the end of the day shouldn’t be the law of the land.

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