Josna Rege

122. The Land of the Free—Really?

In 1970s, 2010s, Politics, Stories, United States on September 20, 2011 at 9:32 pm


This afternoon I received an email from my friend Linda with a link to an article entitled “Court reinstates lawsuit against Boston over man’s 34 years in prison on murder charge that was dismissed.” Yesterday, September 19th, 2011, the First Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston reversed an earlier decision that refused to consider James Haley’s lawsuit against the Boston Police Department and the City of Boston, which claimed that back in 1972, two Boston police detectives knowingly withheld information that would likely have exonerated him from a charge of murder. As a result, James  had to spend 34 years of his life locked up, being shunted from institution to institution as the political winds chilled, public sympathy for inmates evaporated, services in prisons shriveled and died, and parole became a thing of the past. James earned a college degree in prison, struggled to maintain his health as it deteriorated chronically, nurtured friendships, and refused to become bitter. Throughout, he maintained his innocence and persisted in his attempts to get a new trial. But the wheels of the law move glacially slowly unless they are liberally oiled with money, and it was not until 2008, when he was past 60 years old, that he was finally released.

Being out of prison after a generation inside was difficult. Penniless and in ill health, James had to rebuild life in freedom from scratch. Battling depression, he kept on keepin’ on, applying for Social Security Disability, winning an appeal against those who sought to keep a former inmate out of public housing, signing on to Mass Health (thank goodness for Mass Health) and finally beginning to tackle the damage done by 34 years of neglect. He began volunteering, working on election campaigns, cooking meals for friends and family, and flowering at last into the life that he should have been leading all along. But although he was free, something continued to rankle, and it was that when he had been released, his sentence had merely been “vacated”— he had not been exonerated of the charge of murder. After his long ordeal, some of his friends, myself included, felt that it was time to stop litigating and start living, but James wanted vindication, and he also wanted a settlement that would compensate him in some small way for all that he had been deprived of, for the gray lifetime he had suffered behind bars.

I don’t know how or why, but just a day or so ago, I happened to open an old email from James Haley written to friends on January 5, 2010, when the First District Federal Court had summarily dismissed his suit against the BPD and the City of Boston, excusing the police on the grounds that they were operating under different expectations in 1972, when apparently, it was “not well established” that withholding exculpatory evidence from the accused was wrong. Characteristically, James didn’t let the decision daunt him. He wrote, in his message: “things don’t come easy. . . a setback, true, but the fight continues as I’m confident that the case will be won in the end.” James was right: twenty months later, the appeals court has reversed that dismissal, clearing the way for his case to move forward. Sadly, he can no longer reap the benefits of a successful suit. Nine months ago, his tired body finally gave out, and he died of a stroke.

Jimii, I’m sorry I doubted you. I’m glad you have been vindicated, and I know that a trial would have delivered a powerful message to the City and the Boston Police Department, and cleared your name at last.

I can’t help but link the timing of  this news with the imminent execution of another man who has been accused of a murder that, based on the available evidence, he almost certainly did not commit. Troy Davis, who is scheduled to be put to death on Tuesday, September 21st at 7 pm EDT, has been denied clemency by the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles. But although the United States is barbaric in its upholding of the death penalty, even so, the law still requires the convicted person to be proven guilty beyond “reasonable doubt.” If  reasonable doubt is present, the death sentence cannot and must not be carried out.

For all the multitudes languishing in U.S. prisons only because they do not have the resources to win their freedom, please do what you can to stop the execution of Troy Davis. Sign the Amnesty International petition here, calling on the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles to reconsider its decision and the Chatham County District Attorney to grant him clemency. Better still,  given the lateness of the hour and the fact that the Board has already ignored the nearly one million petitions that were delivered to them before their latest decision, please call the  Chatham County’s District Attorney’s office by phone/fax: Telephone: 912-652-7308 Fax: 912-652-7328.

The United States of America has the world’s highest incarceration rate—higher than Russia, far higher than China; in fact, fully one-quarter of the world’s prison inmates are incarcerated in the United States. Until we do something to address this situation, it is arrant hypocrisy for Americans to call this country the Land of the Free.

Tell Me Another

  1. Josna, thank you for this. Nothing to add. One wonders from afar, and hopes against hope. bine

  2. Done. Thank you for providing the link. I agree with Sabine: What else to say? You’re eloquent as usual, Josna.

  3. Dear Josna, thanks for the link, innocents undergo injustice by police and courts, India is not exception, the police brutality to receive awards and promotions from the Govt with best wishes G.P.Kamat

    • Thank you for your comment, Mr. Kamat. It’s a very sad state of affairs. I hope that there is an increasing public outcry about it. There certainly has been here in the U.S. since Troy Davis’s execution. Warm wishes, J

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