by Susan Rosenthal
(Updated at: Where's the Justice? )
In 1959, 14-year-old Steven Truscott was sentenced to hang for the murder of 12-year-old Lynne Harper in a small Ontario town. Although his death sentence was commuted, Truscott spent the next ten years in prison.
Truscott always proclaimed his innocence, yet for the next 48 years prosecutors fought every effort to reopen his case.
In 2000 Julian Sher produced an explosive television documentary exposing a conspiracy to convict Truscott: important witnesses were never called to testify; more likely suspects, including a known pedophile, were never questioned; and important leads were kept from the defense, the judge and the jury. Were prosecutors defending the conviction to cover up that conspiracy?
On August 28, 2007, the Ontario Court of Appeal finally acquitted Truscott of murder, but refused to proclaim him innocent. Doing so would imply that Truscott had been maliciously prosecuted.
Richard Moran studied 124 exonerations of U.S. death row inmates between 1973 and 2007. He found that two-thirds of these convictions resulted from "intentional, willful, malicious prosecutions." He writes in the New York Times,
Mistakes are good-faith errors — like taking the wrong exit off the highway, or dialing the wrong telephone number. There is no malice behind them. However, when officers of the court conspire to convict a defendant of first-degree murder and send him to death row, they are doing much more than making an innocent mistake or error. They are breaking the law.
Kenneth Foster Jr. is a victim of malicious prosecution, condemned to die for the 1996 murder of Michael LaHood. The prosecution acknowledges that Foster did not shoot LaHood or actively participate in the slaying. Foster only drove the car in which LaHood's killer was riding on the night of the murder. Nevertheless, the 1974 "Texas Law of Parties" allows the death penalty to be imposed on anyone involved in a crime where a murder occurs, even if the accused is not involved in the murder or even aware that a murder is intended.
A public campaign to save Foster’s life pressured Texas Governor Rick Perry to commute his death sentence hours before the execution was scheduled to take place. This turnaround is an exception, as Richard Moran explains,
Even when a manifestly innocent man is about to be executed, a prosecutor can be dead set against reopening an old case. Since so many wrongful convictions result from official malicious behavior, prosecutors, policemen, witnesses or even jurors and judges could themselves face jail time for breaking the law in obtaining an unlawful conviction.
The Canadian penal system cannot compare with the extreme barbarism of the American system, yet their goals are the same — to incarcerate as many people as necessary to control the "unruly masses."
In Blaming the Victim (1976), William Ryan notes, "The prisoner is the visible symbol of crime contained – the criminal caged and restrained – to give the unwitting citizen the feeling that the cops and jails are preserving his safety."
Defense attorney Clarence Darrow explains that the misnamed "justice" system has nothing to do with justice. It exists to legalize the crimes of the capitalist class. In Crime and Criminals (1902) he writes,
Those men who own the earth make the laws to protect what they have. They fix up a sort of fence or pen around what they have, and they fix the law so the fellow on the outside cannot get in. The laws are really organized for the men who rule the world. They were never organized or enforced to do justice. We have no system for justice, not the slightest in the world.
Darrow defined a criminal as someone with predatory instincts who has insufficient capital to form a corporation.
Corporations can and do ignore the law. General Electric has been convicted of more than 280 counts of contract fraud, yet not a single GE executive sits in jail. Meanwhile, California’s three-strikes law sends petty thieves to jail for life. Gary Ewing got 25 years for stealing three golf clubs, and Leandro Andrade was sentenced to 50 years for stealing nine children’s videotapes.
The French novelist Balzac observed, "Behind every great fortune there is a crime." Yet, the State defines crime only in ways that target the working class.
If you take pencils home from work, that is considered stealing. If the power company raises its rates every month, that is considered business. In 2006, Las Vegas declared it a crime to feed homeless people in public parks. Failing to provide housing for the homeless, jobs for the jobless, medicine for the sick, and food for the hungry are not considered crimes. Businesses can lawfully withhold life’s essentials from those who cannot pay. Where is the justice in this?
In The Rich Get Richer and the Poor Get Prison (2000), Jeffrey Reiman calculates that corporate crimes cost ordinary people more money and cause more deaths than common street crimes. Executives market dangerous products, manufacturers dump toxic chemicals into the environment, and managers plot to destroy jobs and steal pensions.
Unlike many murderers sitting in prison for life, these gentleman bandits, these intelligent, educated men and women who slowly and methodically plan the crimes that wreck the future of untold numbers of people, know exactly what they are doing and who will be hurt. Their crimes of cold, selfish greed reflect, in their own way, even more indifference to life than murder.
The crime of poverty
Those who talk about cracking down on crime never talk about cracking down on the root cause of crime; the capitalist system of organized thievery.
The poorest neighborhoods have similar (high) murder rates, whether they are predominately Black, White or Hispanic. Drug addiction, prostitution, theft, assault and murder are the result of no jobs, no money, no future and no hope.
A 2004 national survey of American cities revealed a direct relationship between unemployment, less education, lower income and serious crime, including robbery, rape and murder. That year, Newton, Massachusetts was rated the safest American city. Camden, Pennsylvania was rated the most dangerous. Why the difference?
Newton’s employment rate was more than five times higher than Camden’s. More than two-thirds of Newton residents had university degrees, compared with only five percent of Camden residents. And the median household income in Newton was more than three times that of Camden’s. The root of crime in Camden is class deprivation. If Camden residents had the same living standards as Newton residents, they would enjoy the same low crime rates.
As the capitalist system sinks deeper into crisis, the greedy people who run society demand more convictions, more prisons, more and faster executions to keep their victims under control. There can never be enough blood to quench their fear of us. Their fear is justified.
We, the majority, have the power to end this criminal social system and create a truly just world. Campaigns to defend the victims of injustice provide a glimpse of that possibility.
For more on this subject, read POWER and Powerlessness, Chapter 10. "Blame the Victim." Available at www.powerandpowerlessness.com