Pleading for a father’s life after a mother’s murder

I felt such a sense of horror when I read about a 14-year old girl who petitioned the state of Missouri asking them not to execute her father for the gruesome murder of her mother and sister. Her petition was turned down, and the state executed Richard Strong this week. The state willfully orphaned her, saying that this is what “justice” looked like, with the vocal support of some of her relatives.

It’s like a scene from some movie about a king or queen executing a peasant to show how powerful he is, and a child begging for mercy to no avail. Except that this is real. Continue reading “Pleading for a father’s life after a mother’s murder”

Nelson Mandela: Both World Leader and Convicted Criminal

In hearing people talk about the passing of President Nelson Mandela, I’ve noticed that people don’t use the word “convicted criminal” to describe him, presumably out of respect. But “world leader” and “convicted criminal” are both chapters of his story. We act as if one term describes his greatness and the other is a blemish on it. But they are both part of what made him an exceptional leader that came at a point when the world needed him.

Nelson Mandela’s first arrest was in the early 1950s, and he went on to be arrested and convicted on multiple occasions. In U.S. terms, Mr. Mandela was (like some of my favorite people) a “felon” multiple times over. In the U.S., a list of arrests — even for legitimate political activity — can lead to problems ever securing a good job, home or an education. And it generally rules out a future in American politics.

The term “convicted felon” or “convicted criminal” in the U.S. is applied to people for one conviction or twenty, for political crimes or crimes of addiction or of poverty. Then people are judged harshly for a lifetime, as if a criminal record tells you everything you need to know about them. How we use the word “criminal” and how we act on it are ultimately short-sighted and unfair. And we all lose out as a result.

In Mr. Mandela’s case, the ruling white government of Apartheid South Africa locked him up to stop his political activity, and they also bet that labeling him as a “convicted criminal” would invalidate him. Convicting and imprisoning him was supposed to make people forget about him. It was supposed to make people stop listening to him. It was supposed to make him just another criminal black man.

What they didn’t account for was the unrelenting number of Black South Africans who would not be deceived by that label, and who would still listen to and accept Mandela’s wisdom and leadership. They didn’t account for Black South Africans who would connect with people around the world to advocate for this “criminal.”

Mandela did not become president on his own — a nation of people accepted him as a leader and made him a president. For decades, they rejected the label of “criminal” as something an unjust government had placed on him. 

Honestly, many of my friends with previous felony convictions were not convicted for political crimes protesting large injustices. (Like many other people in U.S. prisons, they mostly did stupid and/or hurtful things while in the grip of addiction.) But many of them have the experience of being a prisoner in common with Mr. Mandela. They’ve experienced the isolation, the mistreatment, the separation from their families and for some, the deaths of family members while they were incarcerated.

And like him, they also somehow, miraculously, endured prison and came out wise and compassionate leaders. But many of them still face big barriers in reaching their potential because of the harsh label of “felon” or “criminal” that is attached to them by the people around them.

Before you say, “but Mandela was no common criminal” I want to remind you that in the 60s, 70s and 80s, plenty of people described him as a criminal and as a terrorist for the violent actions of the ANC (such as 80s-U.S. Congressman Dick Cheney). His role as a future president and transformational world leader was by no means assured.

One lesson I take from the story of President Nelson Mandela is that today’s prisoner could well be the next generation’s transformational leader. If the rest of us act that way.

Anyone who has never been in prison can ask ourselves — Do I go along with the myth that a person who has been incarcerated would not be a great employee or neighbor or leader? Do I hear the label “criminal” and take it as if that judgement is negative and permanent? Because if so, we need to think about how we can do better.

I look forward to the day that “convicted criminal” is not seen as a blemish. (Meantime, I generally use the phrase “formerly incarcerated person” or “person with a previous felony conviction.”) I continue to work for a community where no one is judged for life by the fact that they have a previous felony conviction, and that they can still reach the greatness they are capable of — whether in their family, community, or country.

The world has lost a giant in President Nelson Mandela — someone whose achievements are nothing less than making the world turn on its axis differently. I find myself a little sad, although I also think that he gets to rest after a long life of service to his country, his people and the world.

Thank you, President Mandela, and thank you, South Africa, for showing us how to recognize and facilitate great leadership from someone who was once labeled “a criminal.”

Remember: a criminal conviction is not justice

HK_Central_Statue_Square_Legislative_Council_Building_n_Themis_sWhen I found out that George Zimmerman had been acquitted of all charges in the death of Trayvon Martin, I had the feeling of having someone reach in and pull my stomach out of my body.

Then I realized something was wrong.

I couldn’t believe that I was the person hoping that Zimmerman would be convicted of murder because I am someone that knows that a criminal conviction is not all that it’s cracked up to be. I am someone who has worked against the expansion of prisons for a significant part of my adult life. I know that when it comes to young black men, prisons are one of the most harmful institutions in their lives, and pretty much all of our lives because they drain our families and communities.

I am not someone who roots for someone to go to prison. Ever. Not even in the murder of my only brother, Eddie.

Many years after my brother’s murder in 1985, two different people were convicted of the crime. The circumstances of my brother’s murder are nothing like Tryavon Martin’s, except that like Trayvon Martin’s murder (and many others) people get preoccupied with whether or not the killing was justified. And that my brother was also killed by a single bullet, fired by someone at close range.

No one has ever been convicted of specifically shooting my brother. Two people have been convicted of being central to the crime (and two more deaths related to my brother’s), and between the two of them, they spent decades in prison. It turned out that that didn’t matter when it comes to dealing with the aftermath of murder.

So then what does matter after murder? That a wonderful young man is dead, never able to have a long full life. That my family needed counseling and assistance and my mother needed an extended break from her job that she did not receive until years later, when her employer told her, “you haven’t really been the same since your son died,” and let her go after almost 20 years.

What mattered is that in our immediate community, people looked for places to be kind. It has mattered every time someone has told us he did not deserved to be killed. (Although over time, I’ve encountered people who have various explanations for why he deserved to die.)

So I know what matters and what doesn’t, yet somehow here I was, horribly sad, that Zimmerman wasn’t convicted of a crime. I felt hollow and manipulated.

Like many people, I have been “trained” to think that a criminal conviction for murder is “justice being served.” But a criminal conviction isn’t justice. Justice is when every mother’s child is valued and every family gets support after a violent death.

Yes, in my mind, that means Trayvon Martin and also George Zimmerman. Both of them, and both their families. The current system requires us to value one of these young men over the other — it requires us to punish Zimmerman to show that Martin was a valued human being.

That absolutely doesn’t mean that Zimmerman gets a pass. He does not deny that he shot Trayvon Martin, and so now he has something to make right. And although I have known some people to find ways to do positive things while they were incarcerated, what Zimmerman has to make right is out here in the world.

Our current system pushes Zimmerman to say, over and over again “I was justified” so that he doesn’t have to go to prison, and that isn’t justice. It doesn’t help us get to the truth of what happened when he could literally lose years of his life in prison for being honest about it. The threat of imprisonment is a driving force in discussions of far too many murders.

Tayvon Martin’s life mattered, and it’s not at all surprising that this court could not re-affirm that. Our current court system cannot reaffirm that for young black men. When it requires us to wish for another young man to go to prison to show that Martin was someone’s precious son, it’s especially broken.

I understand that the women on the jury were not thinking about the flaws of our system when they acquitted him. They were just going through the motions of what our system does when a person is killed — this unreasonable weighing and comparison of the lives and value of two people.

And we need to remember that this system doesn’t work. Guilty or innocent, there is much for us to do to make it better. There will be many opportunities for people to take action that matters — to listen to the grief of the Martin family, to listen to the fears and concerns of other families who have experienced murder (there’s no shortage, remember, of families who have experienced murder). To take on racist policing practices that presume guilt in young people of color, to start talking more about what reasonable responsibility looks like for anyone who leaves their home carrying a gun.

I have a certain dread I feel for all the young black boys and men I know, and their justified fear that we are drawing the outline of a target on them. And all of the parents of black youth, who live with fear for their children. And my sadness, of course, for the parents, family and community of Trayvon Martin, dead at 17.

And I need to remember that this broken jury system is not what tells me that Trayvon Martin and other young boys matter, and that I can’t reasonably hope for the system to show he was a valuable person by punishing George Zimmerman. Instead, I need to focus on what does matter.

We hold the truth of that, of what’s real and what matters, in the way to treat both these families over time, in the way that we set up alternatives that stop directing young black men into this prison pipeline. I need to remember (and to have my allies remind me) that this empty feeling I have when I don’t get the satisfaction of a conviction is just something that I’ve been trained to look for, and I need to remember what I really value. Instead, I need to not be satisfied, and to stay active working to change this system.

I spent over 20 years looking into the grieving eyes of my mother after my brother’s death. The two criminal convictions had provided a fleeting comfort to her, but eventually she realized that the people who were serving time in prison were someone else’s children. That part of her heart, at least, was not completely broken by his murder. And I can only hope for the same for the friends and family of Trayvon Martin, and for all their allies. Don’t let this take away too much of your heart, or the place where you know that everyone, no matter what they’ve done, is still someone else’s child.

A pronouncement from a judge in a system that doesn’t work would’ve just been a fleeting satisfaction, and not what matters. Instead, I have work to do.

Yes, this is like Minority Report, but not like you think

How awful to use the phrase, “cannibal cop” but if you’re in NYC, odds are you know what I’m talking about: Gilberto Valle, convicted this week for conspiracy to commit kidnapping. I can’t comment on any of the specifics of the case, although it is true that the phrase “ugly thoughts” doesn’t begin to describe how repulsive his actions were prior to his arrest, and he is not denying his actions as part of his legal defense.

My big complaint about most of the mature public dialog (setting aside all the lurid news coverage that is just for shock value) is that it’s still mired in a false dichotomy. The two presumed choices are:

1- He should be punished harshly (in this case, a single conviction can possibly lead to a life sentence in prison) because what he was doing is really messed up, or

2- Whether there should be no consequence at all for starting to possibly lay the groundwork for a horrific set of crimes because he hadn’t yet actually tortured and killed anyone.

Let’s be honest: #2 is simultaneously weak and horrifying when you factor in any of the real-life women on his list. Option #2 mostly makes sense to people who are not the target of someone’s hateful planning, and by the way, pretty much cedes the ground that we should never try to prevent a crime. And that’s where the problem comes up: option #2 is pretty repellant, so it suddenly makes option #1 seem like the only real option. Except then we’re punishing people for horrible things they haven’t actually done.

There’s a similar dichotomy presented in the 2002 movie “Minority Report” (inspired by the Philip K Dick short story of the same name, but I didn’t read the short story). I loved that movie (so did Roger Ebert). In the movie, cops in the future arrest people for murders they haven’t yet committed, and so that produces the central dilemma: is it ethical to punish people for things they haven’t actually done? But murder is bad, and if we can prevent a murder, we should, so it seems like the cops should do this… and there are many futuristic gadgets as well to make it a great movie adventure.

But the movie presents the same damaging falsehood: that even if we can prevent crimes, somebody has to pay. And in the case of a conspiracy crime or Minority Report’s pre-crime, a harsh punishment is justified because the crime would’ve been horrible. In the movie, people are intercepted as they are about to commit murders, then placed in a drugged stasis an underground prison where they relive the murders in their minds in perpetuity (in the movie it’s called being “haloed”). So the movie plot revolves around ending the program that prevents murder, because these harsh punishments make no sense if a person could possibly not commit the crime. Which is true — a harsh punishment doesn’t make sense if a person hasn’t actually committed a crime.

But the problem is what we’re ignoring here, a different choice:

3 – We have to intervene to prevent crime, to remove someone from the situation, and we have to do so in a way where no one, including the perpetrator, gets hurt.

There could be an effective intervention that prevents the crime but isn’t based on a harsh punishment or a long prison sentence. There’s an article on Slate that comes close to arguing that Valle may actually need mental health treatment, but most discussions about the Valle case don’t even mention that possibility.

Because yes, something should happen when someone — especially a police officer — spends their spare time talking about torturing and killing his wife and other women he knows. (For starters, she should be able to get a divorce if she wants one.) He should not have a job where he is armed and has the right to stop and detain people. He should get help — non-judgmental, effective help that is non-optional for him. He may need monitoring for an extended period of time, and help finding the right job. It’s possible that some of this will be unpleasant and uncomfortable for him. But it doesn’t have to be deliberately punitive.

But in real life, though, there is little talk of this third option. Because this case is handled by our criminal justice system, prosecutors respond as they generally do: with a prosecution focused on getting as long of a prison sentence as possible. And then we wind up talking about civil liberties and “was this really just a case of someone paying a high price for having bad thoughts?”

Really, we should be talking about how to prevent violence against women in general, these women in particular, what to do about online communities where people may be conspiring to murder women, and how to respond effectively to the threat of violence in a family with something other than a prison sentence.

As long as the choice is between something and nothing as a response to the threat of violence, many reasonable people will favor doing something. But it should be something that is still fair and just to all involved, not just the empty victory of someone spending life in prison.

The image is a still from the 2002 film, Minority Report.