If you wander the congested byways of the information mall, as I often do, you may have noticed the spate of prisoners who have been exonerated in the past few weeks, often after having served decades for a crime they did not commit. They walk out of jails looking lost but nonetheless managing a grin for the news cameras.
Watching them I shake my head in disbelief. How do you live, year after year after year, when injustice is your daily meal? How do you let go of that need for vindication and revenge?
A few days ago Alabama freed Anthony Ray Hinton. He had spent more than half his life incarcerated for the 1985 murders of two men, though there were no eyewitnesses, fingerprints or other physical evidence linking him to the scene. Hinton had passed a polygraph test that was never admitted into evidence and the state had refused to reconsider his case time and again even when witnesses testified the bullets couldn’t be tied to Hinton.
Upon his release Hinton said that those who had pushed to send him to death row in spite of the scarcity of evidence would answer to God. Me, I might’ve lost faith in God.
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A couple of weeks before Hinton made news, an Ohio man who spent almost four decades behind bars was awarded $1 million. Ricky Jackson is believed to have served the longest sentence for someone wrongly incarcerated. He and two others were absolved of the 1975 murder of a Cleveland-area money order salesman when a key witness recanted his testimony.
"A lot of people think I should be mad," Jackson said, but instead he lauded the courage of the witness for finally telling the truth.
Me, I’d have been raging all the way home.
Injustice, while visiting black men more often, remains an equal opportunity thief. Right about the time Jackson was making news, a white Arizona woman who spent two decades on death row for the murder of her 4-year-old son was having her case dismissed. Two years earlier an appeals court had overturned Debra Milke’s conviction after multiple court rulings found that the detective on her case had either lied under oath or violated suspects’ rights.
"The only thing equally worse [than losing a child]," she told a news conference last month, "is to be falsely accused of the death of your child."
A far too generous statement. Me, I’d be plotting reprisals.
Rare cases? Hardly. Just this year, according to the New York Times, nine people who were sentenced to death were released from prison. Since 1973, more than 150 have walked free after justice prevailed. Others, however, were not so lucky. At least two innocent inmates were put to death before they were exonerated.
And while the unfairness of squandered life is galling, I keep returning to the peripheral fact that these people persevered in a world that, by and large, had ignored their fate. I’m obsessed by that, probably because no one is safe from an unmerited wrong, no one is a stranger to despair they did not seek.
In interviews the freed inmates have talked about how, in that depthless darkness that envelops inequity, they let go of the bitterness and tamped down the outrage. They never stopped believing they would be vindicated. How lonely, how brave.
Their challenge was to move forward, to make do and make better, to inhabit a place of comfort and serenity. Which they did. And in that gentle defiance of people wronged, there’s surely an object lesson for all of us. Sometimes hope and truth do prevail.
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