Guilty Until Proven Innocent

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Try to imagine the time when you were fourteen, fifteen or sixteen years old. Did you know much about the world? Were you confident? Did you do some stupid things? How would you have reacted if you had been picked up by police who accused you of a heinous crime? What might you have done or said if they wore you down after more than twenty four hours of interrogation without your parents or an attorney being present? What if they told you that all you had to do is go along with a story about people that you did not know and then you would be allowed to go home? Who among us would have held up under such intense pressure? How much worse do you think it might have been if you were poor and Black or Hispanic. Such was the situation of five teenage boys in New York City on an April night in 1989 after they had been partaking in a raucous game in Central Park called “wilding” in which they harassed passersby, sometimes going a bit too far but mostly just letting off steam.

New York City was a crime ridden shell of what it is today back then. The public had grown weary of the muggings and violence that were a daily occurrence. The failing economy of the city at that time created extreme economic divisions. There was a tension between the haves and have nots that was almost certain to blow. The situation exploded on that April night of 1989, when a young woman who had been jogging was found near death in Central Park. There was an immediate urgency to find the perpetrators of the crime and a sense that somehow the young men who had created havoc that same night must surely be the ones who had done this egregious act.

The police created a scenario in their minds and then without any physical evidence convinced themselves that some of the young men that they had rounded up early must indeed have been the thugs who had done the violent deed. With no substantiation other than a hunch they began to grill five young men only two of whom knew each other at the time. They lied to the teens telling them that others had implicated them in the crime. In spite of the boys’ claim that they knew nothing of the matter the lawmen persisted in their insistence that they would get the truth that they wanted one way or another. Promising a route home if the exhausted teens cooperated they fed each one details that were created to frighten them into making taped confessions each of which contained conflicting stories. Only one boy never implicated himself or any of the others because his mother rushed in to rescue him from the invasive interrogation but even he was doomed.

Thinking that the worst was over after providing the forced statements each teen was shocked upon being charged with the rape and the violence associated with the incident. Thus began a prolonged journey through the court and prison system for five young men who maintained their innocence in spite of what they had said on tape. They became known as the Central Park Five and their story is one of incomprehensible injustice.

Antron, Raymond, Kevin, Yusef, and Korey would be tried in both the media and the courts. They became reviled symbols of all that was wrong with society. They had essentially been found guilty from the moment that the police learned of the raped and battered woman in the park. They were damned every step of the way and without the resources of money, good lawyers and parents who understood how things worked they were left to a kind of mob rule. Needless to say all five were found guilty in spite of a case so weak that it should never have resulted in indictments. The four who were younger were sentenced as juveniles and one, who was sixteen at the time of the crime but seventeen when he was found guilty, went straight to Riker’s Island as an adult.

Antron, Raymond, Kevin and Yusef spent seven years imprisoned. Korey endured thirteen years during which time he was brutalized multiple times. All had been robbed of their youth and any promise of the future until a serial rapist finally admitted to the crime for which they had been convicted. In a dramatic turn of events the actual perpetrator was able to provide police with details that only someone who had committed the crime would have known. Additionally his DNA matched that found on the victim at the scene of the crime. Eventually the five young men who had suffered so needlessly were exonerated and years later the city of New York gave them financial compensation for the mistake that had been made.

I have not been able to get this story out of my thoughts. I watched a documentary of their saga by Ken Burns called The Central Park Five and a limited series titled When They See Us. Both features were stunning in their depiction of an horrific injustice that is no doubt less uncommon than any of us would like to believe. In spite of the eventual outcome every one of the young men were scarred in ways that will never be erased by either apologies or restitution. Mostly I found myself thinking that something like this might easily have happened to so many of my former students who like these innocents might appear to be of a sort that is not even close to who they are. The color of their skin, the places where they live, their lack of income are often indictments by a world unwilling to seek the full truth. Our society has a dangerous tendency to act based on little or no facts. We follow outrages without thought, rushing to disaster like lemmings running toward the edge of a cliff. It happens over and over again.

I’d like to think that we might learn from such miscarriages of justice. I want to believe that we will adhere strictly to the idea that all Americans are innocent until proven guilty. I pray that we have learned the importance of protecting the rights of all people without prejudice. What worries me most is the feeling that we have yet to fully embrace such wisdom. We still have to fight for the rights of young men like Antron, Raymond, Kevin, Yusef and Corey. I pray to God that their numbers will be few. In the meantime I recommend that The Central Park Five and When They See Us should be required viewing for all Americans.

In Search of Criminal Justice

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People sometimes do very bad things, things so egregious that we do not feel safe having them live among us. We have to find them, try them for their crimes, and if found guilty sentence them to punishments that fit their actions. We have a criminal justice system for that which is struggling on many fronts. At this moment in the United States we have the largest prison population in the world both in actual numbers and percentages. We struggle with ethical questions of what we should do to prevent crimes and how to treat the perpetrators once they have been convicted. We can’t seem to decide whether our system should focus on punishment, rehabilitation, or some effective combination of both. We wonder what we might have done to prevent crimes in the first place thus eliminating the need for so many centers of incarceration.

I’m fascinated by the criminal mind. I have always wondered what drives an individual to the point of committing unlawful acts, especially those that are violent. I’ve been a reader of mysteries from childhood and my favorite television programs and movies have always been those that depict detective work, the law, and the frightening world of prison life. I suppose that I have always believed that if only we were able to unravel the threads of lives gone so bad we might learn as a society what causes them to reach a point of breaking the law. I suppose that such a dream has confounded humans since Cain murdered Abel.

I am a frequent viewer of programs like Dateline, 20/20, and 48 Hours. I watch Oxygen and Investigation Discovery. Recently Dateline featured a hard look at the country’s criminal justice system by way of Angola Prison in Louisiana. The episode focused on the problems of housing large populations of prisoners for long periods of time and asked the burning question, “Should criminal justice focus on punishment or rehabilitation?”

One of the most pressing problems in our country’s prison systems resulted from the hard line of the war on drugs. Because of the no nonsense feature of our efforts to eliminate the drug trade by giving drug users harsh sentences the prison population swelled and many of those found guilty are serving excessively long terms. The medical community has learned through research that illegal drug usage and addiction is in truth a medical problem rather than a criminal one. What most drug addicts need is assistance in beating their habits. Instead we have all too often put them away in jails where they interact with murderers and other violent sorts. The money  that we are spending on warehousing them for decades might have better been spent on sending them to centers for rehabilitation.

Another concern has to do with another outdated trend to try minors accused of violent acts as adults. There are now individuals in their seventies who received life sentences when they were only sixteen or seventeen years old. They have spent their entire adult lives behind bars with no hope for parole until the Supreme Court recently ruled that minors must always be tried in an age appropriate manner and their sentences must reflect the extenuating circumstances of their ages. We now know that the human brain is not fully formed until around the age of twenty five, In particular the centers of the brain that control behaviors are often the last to form, Thus the kinds of risky and inappropriate acts in which teenagers are known to engage appear to be part of development. Courts have ruled that inmates who were convicted and sentenced as adults for crimes committed as minors have the right to parole hearings even when they were sentenced to life without any hope of reconsideration.

The optics of the Dateline program were disturbing. Many of the inmates at Angola work in fields cultivating crops day after day in harsh weather conditions. The vast majority of them are black, begging the question of why this is so. What is so wrong with our society that so many resort to criminal behavior and what might we do to change this trend before such individuals end up in the prison system? These are dire needs that we have yet to fully meet. We have to break the cycles that plague the poor, the undereducated, the hopeless.

President Trump recently signed a bill offering many reforms of the federal criminal justice system, but the vast majority of the prison population are governed by state laws that do not fall under the umbrella of the changes made by the president. There are also still many citizens who sincerely believe that the only correct answer to discourage criminal acts is to follow a hard line. The debate continues while the number of the incarcerated grows.

More and more criminologists are learning that people can and do change if given opportunities to redirect their lives. They know that removing all hope only creates even more violence. Prisons now use more women guards who have the effect of calming the prisoners. Conditions are improving as research teaches more and more about how to rehabilitate the fallen.

There are those whose acts were so horrendous that they should never again walk amongst us, but there are also people who have paid for their mistakes and truly changed. It’s time we consider humane and caring ways of helping them to become contributing members of society.  States should follow the president’s lead in enacting justice and prison reforms. We need programs that understand and support the unique needs of those who are attempting to reenter the world of freedom. We need to focus on education and counseling at the earliest possible ages. It’s not about letting monsters run lose but about providing purpose and direction for those who have genuinely changed. It’s about compassion and forgiveness for those deserving of our consideration. It’s a focus that should be a priority for all good minded people everywhere.

They Were Victims Too

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I saw a news story along with comments from readers that really bothered me, but not for the reasons that most people would imagine. It was a piece about the parents of the Dayton shooter. They had posted obituaries for both their son, the young man who killed nine people, and their daughter, who was one of the victims. Each obituary was rather commonplace in the ways in which they described the lives of the two individuals. What riled those who read them was that the one for the murderer told his story as though he were some beautiful son that the parents had lost all too soon. People were so upset that the local newspaper pulled the obituary for the shooter and the mother felt compelled to explain herself and apologize.

Most of the comments regarding the obituary were quite vile with little or no respect for the grieving parents. It made me shudder to read them and to realize how vindictive people actually are. Of course there is much anger over what happened, but only one person was compassionate enough to point out that the parents of the perpetrator of the tragedy were suffering a great loss as well. They are wondering how things could have gone so terribly wrong in their son’s thinking. They are remembering the person they thought he was and trying to understand how he became so vile. It must be indeed quite horrific for them, and acknowledging their own grief in no way underscores the tragedy.

As a mom I loved my daughters from the first moments that I felt the changes in my body telling me that I was carrying them in my womb. Over the months I delighted in their kicks and the movements that they made to tell me that they were alive and well. When I first saw their faces after their births I literally cried with joy. I counted their fingers and their toes and felt the creases in their skin. Over the years my heart swelled as I watched them grow into fine young women. Neither of them matured without making mistakes, but we got past them because I loved them always. So it is with almost every mother on earth, even when children disappoint beyond measure.

I once had a student who went haywire in a classroom, cursing and assaulting a teacher. Before he calmed down he threatened several other faculty members and an assistant principal. Eventually he lost steam and sat forlornly in a conference room waiting for his mother to take him home after being expelled. He was one of my favorite students so I was heartbroken over what had happened. I went to talk with him and he immediately began to cry, proclaiming that he knew that I now hated him. I insisted that I would always love him but also hate what he had done. I could forgive him, but not his act of violence. He understood exactly what I meant.

When Jesus was condemned to die on the cross the people who had once celebrated him taunted and jeered with venom. They turned on him completely, and even his apostles hid with shame and fear of having been associated with him. His mother, however, never wavered from loving him. She stood by him until the very end of his life. This is what mothers do.

I am also reminded of a story that my dear sweet Uncle William told me. Here in Houston decades ago there was an horrific story of mass murder. A crazed man enlisted two young teens to bring victims to him. They brought unsuspecting males to a house in Pasadena where they were sexually abused, tortured and then killed. They helped the man dispose of the bodies along the beaches of Galveston and in a storage facility in southwest Houston. The accounts made the national news because they were so horrific.

One of the teens who worked with the murderer was Elmer Wayne Henley. He lived on my Uncle William’s postal route. My uncle regularly saw him and was shocked by developments because Elmer Wayne had always appeared to be such a good boy. He took care of his aging mom and provided her with the extra income that she needed as a single parent. My uncle spoke of how proud Elmer Wayne’s mother had always been of him. Even after the news of his part in the horror became fodder for gossip, Elmer Wayne’s mom spoke of the wonderful son that she knew. Until her death she did not turn away from him. It’s what mothers do.

I wish that we as a society might be able to separate the sins of a son or daughter from the love of a parent.  Perhaps if we were more inclined for compassion in such situations we might have less anger, hate and violence in our society. One of the most touching stories I have ever heard came when Amish school children were killed by a crazed man who had a family of his own. There were threats being made on his wife and children as the anger over what he had done raged. Members of the Amish community made it known that they felt as much compassion for his family as they did for their own. They embraced the woman who was as shocked as they were over what her husband had done. They extended a hand of love and sympathy. They truly understood that there was much grief to go around.

I weep for the victims of the Dayton shooting, but I also cry for the parents of the man who committed the crime. I don’t know how much they ultimately had to do with how their son turned out, but I am certain that they too lost so much on that day. It does not hurt us to allow them a bit of dignity as they grapple with the confusion and sorrow that must surely be relentlessly stalking them. If their comments about their son seemed inappropriate it is most likely because they really don’t know what to think or how to act. Their shock is a great and maybe even greater than ours. It’s time we all begin to choose kindness over revenge when dealing with the families of killers unless it is proven that they were accessories to such crimes. They are victims too.

Put Out the Fire!

 

 

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I’m angry. I’m sad. I’m frustrated. I’m worried. An entire host of emotions is stalking me and most of them are related to what I perceive as the state of our country. I can go on a little trip, watch a good movie, do a little shopping, read, visit with friends or any of the things that usually put me in a better frame of mind and I keep coming back to an emotional meltdown. My concern for the health of my country and the safety of its people is mounting. I see images of frightened souls running from a backfiring motorcycle or hear of shoppers abandoning malls because of rumors of a shooter and I know that we have reached a tipping point in our tolerance for the hatred and violence that only seems to mount as we argue about what best to do.

Frankly I’m not too worried about myself. I’ll be seventy one on my next birthday and I have had a great life. I’m going to be struck down one way or another in the coming years. It is inevitable. I think more about the innocents who still have so much more to offer to this world. I grieve that so much fear festers in the background of even the most common things we do. As schools begin to reopen once again I can’t help but think that parents are a bit fearful. We used to feel safe in the certainty that the odds of something happening to our children as we send them off were slim to none, but more recent history has taught us to think differently.

I’ve had my fill of listening to arguments that remind me that car accidents and heart attacks also kill just like mass shootings I don’t want to be lectured on the number of people harmed by gang violence in big cities. I do understand that someone intent on murder will ultimately find a way regardless of any laws that we enact. I am weary in knowing that while we hesitate to take action the numbers killed in mass shootings grow. It is as though we have sent the evil doers a message that we are not serious about our intent to stop them. 

I do indeed agree that solving the problems that we have must take many different forms of action. Our task will not be easy, and it may even reduce some of the liberties of good men and women. I have become convinced that simply discussing pros and cons over and over again is a fruitless experiment. While I believe in the power of prayer I also know that sometimes God expects us to take care of our problems. We must agree to do what will ultimately be the best for the common good. In that spirit this what I believe:

  1. We must root out hate groups whether they be from the far right or the far left, domestic or foreign. We have had success with this in the past. Now it’s time to get tough again. 
  2. We must shore up our entire mental health system. Giving a few million dollars to each state is only a drop in the bucket. It is time that we encourage research and fund the best doctors and clinics on a par with the rest of the medical community. We cannot allow insurance companies to place limits on funding care for those who need it. We have to bring mental illness into the open and treat it the way we would cancer or heart disease.
  3. All threats of violence or terrorism must be taken with extreme seriousness. All of us must be vigilant and willing to report concerns to the proper authorities just as we would contact CPS when we see a child being abused. 
  4. We must enact Red Flag laws that deny access to weapons to anyone who is mentally ill or who is on record for threatening others.
  5. It is time to close all loopholes on the purchase of guns whether at store, gun shows or from private citizens and if needed extend the amount of time for background checks to insure that all pertinent information is up to date and nobody slips through the cracks.
  6. The AK 47 and AR 15 type rifles need to be banned for use other than in the military or by law enforcement officers. The thirty round magazine should not be available for purchase by ordinary citizens. These guns are too rapid fire and they inflict wounds that are deadly and difficult to repair. There is absolutely no reason for ordinary citizens to have them for hunting or protection. It’s time to get them off of our streets. 

I can already hear the gnashing of teeth and remarks that such measures will only hurt the innocent. We’ve heard all of the arguments before and I don’t need to rehash them. I simply believe that we can no longer ignore the obvious fact that we have allowed the most hateful among us to have a field day while we turn on one another rather than taking action. If we find that what we have done fails to fully address the problems then we can convene again to determine which measures work and which need improvement. It’s what businesses do all the time. Doing nothing is akin to having a long discussion about how best to put out a fire when a building is burning down.

Many of my former Hispanic students have tweeted that the El Paso shooting hits them personally. As humans these violent acts affect all of us personally. It doesn’t not matter if the victims are little white children, high school students, Hispanics shopping in a Walmart, gays, black church goers, police officers, or young people out for a fun night. Whenever one among us is hurt, we are all hurt. We proclaim that this is a great country, and I believe with all of my heart that it is, but we have become lazy. We want our problems to just vanish with a wing and a prayer. Surely the evidence is proving that this will never happen. It’s far past time for action and some sacrifice from everyone. We can do this, and we must do so before the poison in our country festers to a point from which there is little hope of return.

A House Divided Will Not Stand

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Photo by Daria Sannikova on Pexels.com

Most of my life has been dedicated to educating young people. Even though I am no longer in the classroom I still teach mathematics to a number of teens including my grandchildren. As an educator and mom I always felt duty bound to address both the academic and emotional needs of the young folk who are in my charge. I take my responsibility to care for them quite seriously. Most do just fine, but now and again I encounter an individual who is gravely troubled. Some of those sorts are actually scary. I sense that they are so disturbed that they are capable of outbursts that are harmful. It is difficult to reach them and so I confer with their parents who almost always admit that they are afraid of their own son or daughter. Things rarely end well with such teens and I always have a sense of defeat in such cases even though I have gone to great lengths to help.

I remember one student in particular who has always haunted me. He had been sent from one household to another from a very young age in an effort to improve his behavior. He found a measure of solace with his grandparents where he lived a quiet life on a farm. Things began to turn around for him during that time and he was calmer and happier than he had ever been. Sadly his grandmother had a heart attack and died. His grandfather felt unable to care for him alone. He was sent back to his mother who was struggling with her own emotions. He spiraled down into a state of depression and anger that resulted in violent outbursts both at home and at school. His mother and step father admitted that they were so fearful of him that they took turns sleeping lest he kill them while they slept. His mother sincerely loved her boy and wanted to help him but had no idea what to do.

It literally made me cry to think of how horrific it was to be that young man. I wondered what sickening thoughts raced through his mind. I worried less about what he might do in my classroom and more about what might ultimately become of him. He and I bonded somehow and I spent many hours in conferences with him and his mother hoping to help them both to resolve his many issues. They took my advice to find professional help but the road to the boy’s recovery was long and twisted. Even after he left my care I often thought of him and found a measure of solace in not hearing reports of his downfall or demise. I told myself that in his case no news was probably good news. I like to think  that he found his way and is living a good and loving life.

Our news feeds are littered these days with stories of violence and terrorism. In so many cases the individuals perpetrating such destruction are young men who are filled with abusive anger. They have allied themselves with groups that practice hate and vengeance against societies that they believe have somehow betrayed them. They convince one another that their heinous acts are justified. They are generally miserable loners who feel uncomfortable in normal circumstances. The demons that rage in their heads tell them that the loathing that they feel is reason enough for  killing. They do not see their victims as innocents, but rather as part of a vast horde that has abandoned them and left them to make their way alone.

If we are to deal with the issue of mass shootings it will take far more than simply enacting some legislation to curb the sale of guns or to arm and secure ourselves. We have to strive to get to the root causes of the hatred that foments instances of random killings. We have to use many different means to forestall such violence before it erupts. That will require vigilance and a willingness to provide necessary treatments and interventions for those who sit stewing on the fringes of society.

It is not difficult to identify such persons. In virtually any school or work setting or neighborhood where they reside there are observant people who know of their potential to blow a fuse at any moment. We all need to agree to alert authorities whenever we sense that something about an individual is not quite right. We can no longer afford to ignore the signs because in virtually every case of a mass shooting there have been people who worried about the perpetrators. It’s time that we take their concerns seriously. The red flags that go up in our minds must be investigated and as a society we are bound to take action before really bad things happen.

There were teachers and students and parents who complained to school administrators and law enforcement about the two young men who killed at Columbine. The mother of the shooter at the elementary school in Connecticut had told friends that she needed help dealing with her son. Many who knew the killer in the recent El Paso attack recounted instances in which he had expressed his desire to do violence on others. Somehow nothing was done in any of these cases until it was too late. Perhaps it is because we often worry more about infringing on the rights of a single individual rather than the safety of the many. Perhaps the time has come to crack down hard on any form of threatening behavior.

We also need to be more aware of the kinds of groups that preach hatred and violence and do everything we can to eliminate their influence particularly on our young. They search for individuals who are desperately searching for a sense of belonging. They prey on the anger and feelings of abandonment that such souls often have. We all must be aware of the existence of such organizations and root them out. They must be condemned for the hatred that is theirs.

As a nation we must also begin to tone down our own disagreements with one another. Of late I have found it painful to watch our supposed leaders behaving with such a lack of honor and decorum. Our young are watching and sadly emulating, and lest anyone think that the bad form is coming from only one person or party or direction I would respectfully submit that it has found a place on all sides. There are too many people dusting up anger in efforts to gain power or viewers or business of some kind. The divisiveness is tearing us apart and fomenting violence in unstable people. It’s time that all good men and women do their part to encourage us to come together. The old saw that a house divided will not stand is still very true. Anger and violence whether in word or deed only begets more anger and violence. Our rhetoric and tribalism must end. Generalities are not only useless but may become lethal. It’s time we insist on a return to kindness.