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Archive for the ‘Miscarriage of Justice’ Category

Alfred Woodfox (Photo Mark Hartman, The New Yorker)

Albert Woodfox (Photo Mark Hartman, The New Yorker)

Imagine the typical science-fiction starting point: A man comes back to earth after forty years (he was frozen or whatever) and assesses the state in which he finds the world now.

The man is Albert Woodfox, and the science-fiction genre could hardly come up with a story like his. The man spent 43 years in solitary confinement, most of it in Angola (Louisiana) an infamous Louisiana penitentiary and the largest maximum-security prison in the country. Woodfox fell through  all of the cracks of the American justice system: racial prejudice, sloppiness and high tolerance for violence. He served most of his time in Angola with  Herman Wallace, another Black Panther, who died right after getting out of prison in 2013.

Woodfox, along with Herman Wallace, Chester Jackson and Gilbert Montague were convicted for the murder of Brent Miller, a guard at Angola, on April 17 1972. There was no incriminating evidence, but a white jury delivered an expeditious conviction. God knows how one stands sane for more than forty years in a minuscule cell. Rachel Aviv, in her January 16 story in the New Yorker, “Surviving Solitary Confinement,” mentions a psychologist that was afraid of “how well Woodford had been adapting to painfulness.” From Aviv’s story, Woodfox’ survival stems from an extraordinary combination of strength of character, stringent discipline, rigorous control of his emotions and his desires, and sense of belonging to the Panthers and its ethos. Whatever the way he managed, what comes out Woodfox’s story is that he is a man, and a dignified one.

Freed at sixty-nine years old, Woodfox is now developing the relation he never had with his daughter, Brenda. He also happens to cast a stern look at the development of racial relations all the years he was locked up: “It’s the same old America…We have to protect Black Lives Matter like we did not protect the Black Panther Party.”

I am afraid that the seventy-year old child President of the United States, who claimed “that torture absolutely works” will give a  thought to rescinding the practice of solitary confinement, let alone reforming the US justice system.

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Since November 8, I cannot watch the news anymore and hear about the ludicrous tweets of the man with a toupee. I now confine myself to the paper and the radio.

This morning on the Brian Lehrer show, I listened to the 30 minutes weekly interview with the mayor of New York City, Bill de Blasio. A caller asked the mayor about hiring more people at A.C.S (Administration for Children’s Services), which is under attack after Zymere Perkins’ death. The mayor was rather evasive.

I have not followed the tragic case of  Zymere Perkins’ case closely, but the question to the mayor let me wonder about ACS and its critical role between families and the justice system. On the one hand, ACS is all that children coming from  low income families like Zymere Perkins’ have; on the other hand, A.C.S. handles cases like mine (and this of more well-off folks like Anthony Wiener) and its  conclusions about child abuse don’t matter much, because the plaintiff carry on in court. I stick to what I said about A.C.S. 8 years ago: time to take them seriously and  staff them properly.

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Justice is really not America’s stuff. Perhaps because politicians don’t care.  As decrepit, insufficiently founded and poorly functioning as the justice system is, there is little interest in reforming it. Fixing the justice system is never a priority amongst the topics of a presidential campaign. At least,not the campaigns I have attended since 1992.

Last night, out of curiosity, I googled the sentence “justice reforms in the campaign of Donald Trump” and in the campaign of Hillary Clinton. Not surprisingly, there is nothing of interest on Trump’s side. The poor fellow does not even understand the issue. For him, “justice” is about crime and punishment. Check it out.  The entries you get are “lethal injection is too comfortable”, “tough on crime”, “taking care of the bad dudes.” In other words, non- sense that have produced the poor outcomes the country is dealing with like massive incarceration rate,  and incarceration of the wrong guys, like Kalief Browder. Kalief Browder was innocent, refused to take a plea, spent three years in Rikers Island waiting for a trial, most of the time in solitary confinement and ended up committed suicide. That’s for the criminal justice system. With the family court system, divorced fathers have to go through marathon trial that last more than six years. And they loose access to their kids in the process.

ABC_kalief_browder_jt_150609_16x9_992

Kalief Browder (Photo ABC News)

With Clinton, we are in the realm of glittering marketing. One entry in Hillary for America site is “Racial Justice.” There, in a page with the  heading “America’s long struggle with race is far from finished,” you get a list of what President Clinton will do if elected. All of these goals are intrinsically worth pursuing. I see however two problems tough with this program that bear with credibility:  President Bill Clinton has implemented policies, like the 1996  welfare reforms- that have screwed the poor – blacks among others- left and right. That Hillary Clinton, who has not taken issue with the policies of her husband, may now stand as a champion of “racial justice” is a breathtaking legerdemain. Second, there does not seem to be much money involved in Hillary’s program, besides that for “doubling the funding for the US Department of Justice Collaborative Reform program” whose aims is to improve and train police practices. It is obviously necessary, but well short of the task.

What I ‘d like to see in a candidate’s program to reform justice is significant resources to fix the structural flaws of the system. Let me give you an example.  Bryan Stevenson is a lawyer who represented hundreds of people on death row pro bono. He has taken care of those who have been unfairly treated by the justice system for lack of means, lack of education, racial prejudice etc. He moved to Montgomery, Alabama. Stevenson also created an organization called Equal Justice Initiative, which now operates nationally and employs 17 full-time attorneys. The financial future is temporarily secured thanks to …grants from private foundations.

When the work of organizations such as Equal Justice Initiative will not rest on charitable donations but on taxpayers money, there will be some hope the justice system will be seriously reformed… and racial justice taken care of as a result.

 

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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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CAFE parental alienation and fatherlessness billboard adds.

CAFE parental alienation and fatherlessness billboard adds.

Perhaps that’s because they don’t have Black Friday in Toronto (Canada), and no Donald Trump. Or just because they pay attention to issues that matter. In any case, the Canadian Association for Equality (CAFE) has started since November 17 of this year the second of a three-stage campaign to challenge social attitudes towards male issues, betting that it would strike some chords with the public.

The campaign takes the form of public events and billboards showing a kid in the arms of his father, with the message: “I am no parental prey.” The goal is to raise awareness on the fact that parental alienation severs the ties of divorced fathers with their kids, thanks to complacent family courts. The pinnacle of the campaign is a public event in the University of Toronto, on November the 26th.

From the US, it is so comforting to watch a father right movement with inhibited ambitions. I would have no objection if these Canadian folks were to extend the reach of the Association for Equality beyond the border.

 

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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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Last Sunday November 9, I was at the demonstration in support of the families of the 43 student teachers rom the rural school of Ayotzinapa who disappeared in Iguala, a city located in the State of Guerrero, Mexico. The horrifying slaughter of these 43 students by the drug cartel “Guerreros Unidos” acting on behalf of the mayor of Iguala on September 26 have prompted protests that show no sign of relenting so far in Mexico. Demonstrations have taken place in Europe, and in several cities in the US.

Miguel Angel Hernandez Martinez

Miguel Ángel Hernández Martînez

Last Sunday, the organizers of the demonstration asked volunteers to draw on a large white piece of paper the face of one of the 43 from their picture. Mine was that of Miguel Ángel Hernández Martínez.  We were also given the bio of our model written by the renowned writer and journalist Elena Poniatowska. We had to write this bio on another sheet of white paper. This exercise was most meaningful as, while drawing and writing, we came to be acquainted with the person we had to draw and to describe with Poniatowska’s words. Here are those for Miguel Ángel:

Miguel Ángel Hernández Martínez, age 27, “his nickname is “Botita” (little boot) because his older brother, who also studies at the College, is called “El Bota” (boot) so he automatically got called “Botita” although he isn’t little, he’s of medium height and fat, never messes around, is always friendly, wholesome, never annoying: he doesn’t make rude jokes, he’s friendly and likes to help out, always looking out for people, a boy who is very supportive of everyone, in class he explains things to the teacher and gives a hand…”

While the parents of the disappeared don’t even have the remains of their sons to start mourning, and the Mexican judicial system, in the voice of the Attorney General Jesús Murillo Karam, is “tired”of answering questions, President Peña Nieto was representing Mexico at the G20 summit.  I for one, have no category where to put this posting. The closest is “Miscarriage of Justice,” but for justice to be miscarried, there has to be a judicial system which at least tries to carry justice.

 

 

 

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