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Archive for the ‘Justice and the judiciary’ Category

Every four years, I am amazed that important issues are left out of presidential campaigns. Justice for instance: Nowadays the

Han Tak Lee (Photo An Rong Xu)

Han Tak Lee (Photo An Rong Xu, NYT)

media is all about the unfortunate opposition of Senators Cruz and McConnell to President Obama’s prerogatives to nominate a new justice. I am not denying that the issue of who is in the highest court of the land is important (and that everything should be done to avoid having another crusader of the universal American human right to bear arms). Yet to me, this buzz about the nominee in the highest court eclipses one more important problem: the fact that the American justice system incarcerates a lot, and incarcerates the wrong guys: mostly African Americans but more generally the poor across racial lines.

I cannot recall the number of innocent men wrongly convicted I have come across since I live in this country. In this blog, I spoke of Herman Wallace, who always claimed his innocence and spent 41 years in solitary confinement.  Last week, two other cases were in the same Friday March 11 issue of the New York Times: Han Tak Lee, 81 and Andre Hatchett, 49. Until 2014, Han Tak Lee was serving a life sentence for murdering his daughter in a fire; Andre Hatchett served 25 years in jail for the murder of Neda Mae Carter. Two years ago, a judge exonerated and set free Mr Lee, acknowledging his conviction was based “on theories of arson that had later been discredited” (You have to read it to believe it). On March 10 2016, a judge vacated Mr Hatchett’s conviction and dismissed his indictment. Both men spend close to 25 years in jail. Sorry, have a nice day!

The Innocence Project folks point to safeguards that could be put in place to prevent miscarriages of justice. They are certainly right. I also would argue that for the justice system, all in all, innocence does not matter much. Putting an innocent human in jail is yet a worse error than failing to put a criminal in prison. The problem is that the first type of mistake, the gravest, weigh zip in the assessment of the efficiency of the justice system. No judge and no politician is ever going to claim credit and advance his career for not having put the wrong guy in jail. Moreover, in the sad conservative era we live in, when the taxpayer is by definition robbed by the government – the source of all our problems, as a famous President taught us-  a dime spent on a crucial public good such as justice is to be accounted for. And people behind bars, for the right or the wrong reasons, that’s results.

We divorced fathers experience with family justice the same breed of misdeeds that plague the criminal justice system. Family courts go for cheap and efficient. Our rights to play an equal and meaningful role in the life of our children? Man, let’s get real. Here we use an easy gender-biased marker for decision-making purpose. Male? Non-custodial parent status and child support for you. You contest it? An accusation of abuse by sweet ex-wife takes care of it. Efficiency? On the rise; Child support collection keeps making progress.

What makes me think that reforms are not around the corner is the sick of obsessive attention that the media and the public pay to the O.J. Simpson’s case. I was in this country 22 years ago when the race behind the Bronco took place and O.J. was acquitted. Like everybody else, I learnt hat a knife had recently been found in Simpson’s property. Folks that have not slept for 22 years over the possibility that a guilty man was at large are now dreaming of seeing the bastard in jail, already.

I have no clue as to whether the man is innocent or guilty. But in any case, I think the American justice system has more important problems to fry than O.J. Simpson.

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IxcanulSaturday February 27,  I saw one of the most beautiful and poignant movies ever, Ixcanul, from Jayro Bustamante. It was not be mentioned in the ceremony of the Oscars on Sunday, but it received a well-deserved best first film award at Cinema Tropical award.

But I want to talk about immigration and the tragedies that often go with it, not cinema. The movie tells the story of Maria, a young girl who lives with her family in the vicinity of the volcano Pacaya, in the south of Guatemala. They are landless peasant workers working in a coffee plantation. Maria’s future is all set: She is to marry the overseer of the plantation and this alliance allows her family to keep their house and to remain on the land where they live. However Maria happened to be enamoured with a young fellow who wants to go to the US, and does not know much it besides it lies behind Ixcanul (which means volcano in one of the Mayan languages of Guatemala, Kaqchikel). Maria sleeps with him to get him to bring her with him on his trip, but the lad leaves the country without her. She becomes pregnant. The condition for her family not to be kicked out is to start sowing corn their land infested with snakes. One of them bites her, and she is rushed to Guatemala City hospital. There, doctors spare her life, but not her baby’s, who is dead, Maria is told by a Kaqchikel-Spanish  hospital translator. In fact, the paternalistic greedy administration of the hospital, with the help of Maria’s cuckold fiancé, have given her baby for adoption; That’s good money, and indigenous babies are better off given for adoption to white rich folks anyway than taken care off by their illiterate kins.

Now, let us imagine for one second a totally different story for Maria. Instead of being stuck in Guatemala, she makes it to the promised land, which a real estate mogul, who epitomizes bad taste in each of his numerous architectural endeavors, wants to protect from immigrants with a wall. Let us be generous with Maria. She finds a half-decent coyote, crosses Mexico and makes it safe to the US. Then, she starts working for a chicken factory at less than the minimum wage, with unbearable working conditions. Maria is lucky tough.  The “Migra” never raids the factory where she works. Hence, unlike her compatriot Encarnación Bail Romero for instance, she does not go to jail, and does not have her kid given for adoption by a rogue judge to well-to do American parents. Instead, she keeps on working, contributes to Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare and never gets a cent from any of these programs. Maria’s daughter may or may not graduate from High School; she will however go to College if State policy allows it, and remains in any case, a second -class citizen. As far as Maria is concerned, she, as an illegal immigrant, will never see her parents again. Even if she were to go  back to Guatemala to be near a dying parent, she would indeed bound to start at square one, crossing borders illegally at her risk and perils.

The point is that there is no need of a wall to make the situation of immigrants more miserable than it already is.  Distrust those who want to make America great again, and those who say that America has always been great. Both messages are old bull, and their messengers always have it wrong about immigrants: Immigrants are always loosing big. Their offspring and politicians make a point to embellish it.

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There is apparently in this country a building consensus on reforming the criminal justice system.

Photograph Gilles Clarke, Getty Images

Photograph Gilles Clarke, Getty Images

Perhaps it started with the Milwaukee Experiment, which Jeffrey Toobin related in a May 11 article in the New Yorker.  John Chisholm, the District Attorney in Milwaukee County, singlehandedly decided to correct the imbalance of the American justice system which sends a disproportionate amount of young Afro-American people for minor drug offenses in prisons.  Chisholm started to ask that prosecutors’ success be measured by their performance in reducing prison’s population, and not the opposite.

In New York State, the “Raise the Age” movement has focused on changing the law that sends juvenile offenders in jail at 16. Chief Judge Jonathan Lippmann, Chief Judge of the New York State Court of Appeals, has been advocating for five years to raise the criminal age in New York to 18.  Lippman was heard by Governor Cuomo, who is now trying to gather support for his bill to raise the criminal age.

Interestingly enough, as the readers of this blog well know, a 16 year old is a criminal in New York State but not exactly an adult before 21, since non-custodial parents have to pay child support until their offspring reaches this age. Consistency would require raising the criminal age to 21, or freeing non-custodial parents from child support obligations when their children are 18.

This brings me to my next point. A very interesting article in the April 20 New York Times describes how divorced fathers -mostly in North Carolina and Georgia- go in and out of jail for child support debt, are denied jobs for that reason, and are drawn to poverty for life. The title tells it all: “Skip Child Support. Go to Jail. Lose Jobs. Repeat.”

It is definitely a good thing to empty jails of young people, provided one does not keep filling them with their fathers, thanks to unfair child support laws. I can’t wait to hear Governor Cuomo’s thoughts or Hillary Clinton’s on that one.

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As I was watching tonight Chris Hayes on MSNBC commenting on a sentence chanted by many US

Eric Garner (photo ABC News)

Eric Garner (photo ABC News)

Presidents, “we are a nation of laws,” my mind started to wander in many directions. Justice is not the forte of the US, and 2014 has not shown any sign of progress in that department. After Trayvon Martin’s murder in 2012, Michael Brown in Ferguson (Missouri) and Eric Garner (Staten Island, New York) were added to the list of cops’ victims in 2014, just to mention the most famous ones. And the culprits, Darren Wilson and Daniel Pantaleo, are free to carry on with their lives.

Undoubtedly, there are many people like me who saw the video of Mr. Garner being chokehold to death and cannot figure out how Daniel Pantaleo has been set free by an Staten Island grand jury. A sophisticated commentator on The Brian Lehrer Show last week pointed at the prosecutor engineering the grand jury’s decision through a “smart framing of the narrative.” I surely am no law expert, but I cannot fathom how Pantaleo’s narrative as reported in The New York Times, did fly: Pantaleo did indeed report that “after he released his grip, he held down Mr Garner’s head down Mr Garner was not injured by other officers rushing in, as well as to prevent Mr Garner from possibly biting one of them.” That ‘s all there is to it, folks. Pantaleo was here to protect, and did protect Eric Garner from his colleagues and his colleagues from Eric Garner. It did not work for Eric Garner, but what seems to have mattered for the Staten Island’s grand jury is Pantaleo’s intentions: to protect.

Holding for cultural differences – the US is a cop-loving country, while where I come from, the love of cops is not exactly part of one’s DNA- this self-righteous justification of a crime with the intent to protect gives me goosebumps, as I have heard it so many times from ex against any attempt on my part to have a role in my girls’ life, or simply to know about them.

Speaking of protective chokeholds, I recently asked my ex where my youngest daughter, 17, was planning to go to college. Ex’s email reply: Sorry, this information concerns her future adult life. I am here to protect her future privacy (she was already bestowing her with the mission of extending her motherly protection to my daughter’s adulthood).  As I insisted that by our divorce agreement, she had to provide me with this  information, I received an email, supposedly from my daughter, whose style and message revealed mom’s craftsmanship: Hi, sorry (no “Dad,” an intolerable greeting for mom) but I cannot give you this information because you will post it on your stinky blog (in fact, it is mom who has a grudge against this blog… Let’s say she likes to protect unnoticed). I am 99.9 percent sure that mom impersonated my daughter, but hey, even if I could prove that in a court of law, she would claim it was all for my daughter’s own good .

It’s time for the justice system to clip the wings of the Pantaleos of all kinds, cops and alienating mothers; for the sake of their proteges, whom they keep from breathing. It just takes precedents.

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A while ago, I read somewhere that emails had the virtue of taking the edge of familial conflicts. It has to do with writing and distance, if I remember well. When you write, you think, as the other guy would say, and that helps you overcome your emotions. Also, a written commitment is a commitment you are more likely to stick to. Something like that…

Mrs Justice Pauffley

Mrs Justice Pauffler

In the technological age we are living in, Mrs Justice Pauffley (from the High Court of London) found much better: prescribe taking tea to parents who were had been tearing them apart over custody issues for ten years. And it worked

Thinking about it, it makes total sense to me.  Tea soothes tensions.  Anybody who went to arid countries in West Africa such as Mauritania or Mali, where people spend hours talking over the”three teas,” a very bitter one, a less bitter one, and a sweet one, knows what I am talking about. Long before you are drinking the sweet one, the world looks harmonious to you.

The three tea tradition does not exist in England and the story does not tell us how many tea meetings it took the parents to come down and start settling contentious issues. Anyway, hats off before Mrs Justice Pauffley!

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Photo The Innocence Project

Photo The Innocence Project

There are some stories, that once you become aware of, you have to do something about it. Like Mumia Abou Jamal’s, or Florence Cassez’s; they just haunt you. Even if you don’t do much, you have to do something.  In the case of Herman Wallace, that’s too late for me. Herbert Wallace died on October 5 of this year of liver cancer.

Herman Wallace spent 41 years in jail for a crime he claimed he did not commit. Adding to the abomination, he served his sentence in solitary confinement: 41 years in 6 by 9 feet cell. One can find perhaps a superior level of horror in Louis XI (1423-1483)’s justice: the famously mean king of France is known for locking up political enemies in cells so small they could not stretch.

That Herman Wallace was able to live 41 years in such conditions is an hymn to life. Amnesty International, Democracy Now among others have denounced Herman Wallace’s detention conditions. The Louisiana justice system kept tottering until the end: on October 1, Wallace’s conviction was overturned, on the 4th, he was re-indicted.

One cannot but wonder if the best thing that can happen to Louisiana is a government shutdown that would prevent the justice system from functioning at all.  Or let’s dream: a UN mandate over the Louisiana justice system, until reforms are implemented, from top to bottom.

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Veronica and Father Dustin Brown

Veronica and Father Dusten Brown

I am currently trying to make sense of the recent developments in the Baby Veronica’s case. Since I blogged about Veronica’s case a while ago, the US Supreme court ruled in favor of the Capobiancos, the couple that adopted Veronica and took care of her until 2011, when she was returned to Dusten Brown, her biological father;  then the South Carolina Supreme Court ordered that Veronica’s adoption should be finalized by family court.

Two things: first,  I have no empathy for the Capobiancos and their reckless claim of their parental rights on Veronica. They had Veronica’s custody for 27 months, all right. Why does this let them feel entitled to deny Brown- Veronica’s biological father- the right to raise his child? That they can do it better?

Second thing: there is a real need in this country to protect children and their biological parents – undocumented immigrants, and minorities- from predatory adoptions and the adoption business. I have been blogging about instances of children of undocumented immigrants given for adoption by the family court system, because their parents had been put in jail. Native American at least have the Children and Welfare Act of 1978 the goals of which is to protect their communities from would-be parents, who feel their desire justified by the social origins of the child they put a claim on. Unfortunately, that’s a view that was shared by only four Justices, led by Sonia Sotomayor. 

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Absolutely Uncommon Analysis of Family --and "Conciliation" -- Courts' Operations, Practices, and History

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