Missouri Just Gonna Keep These Wrongfully Convicted Prisoners Locked Up, Because Why Not?
There's this part in the movie (and book) Being There where Chance the gardener talks about how "all will be well in the garden" as long as the roots are not severed, which the fake president of The United States takes to mean that America's economic system is a strong foundation and can thus weather the "seasons" of economic change.
This is how most people think of our criminal justice system. That sure, bad things happen because of a few bad apples that somehow manage to never spoil the whole bunch, but the system itself is basically good and "all will be well in the garden" so long as things work how they are supposed to work.
But sometimes the system working how it is "supposed" to work is bad. It's bad in Missouri, where GOP Attorney General Eric Schmitt is refusing to release wrongfully convicted prisoners on the grounds that they already used up all their appeals.
This weekend's "CBS Sunday Morning" featured a profile of two of the wrongfully convicted men Schmitt has decided must remain in prison. Both are Black men who have been in prison for decades, and in both cases, the men have prosecutors arguing for their release. Perhaps most gallingly, in both cases, the people who actually committed the crimes these men were wrongfully accused of have not only confessed, but have already served out their sentences for those crimes.
Kevin Strickland was convicted of a triple homicide in 1979. The evidence he is innocent is so compelling that Jackson County prosecutor Jean Peters Baker issued a public apology to him in May.
Two years ago, St. Louis prosecutor Kim Gardner petitioned for the release of 47-year-old Lamar Johnson, who was convicted of murdering one of his best friends in 1994, based on "overwhelming evidence of innocence." Part of this evidence was that "Gardner's office said it uncovered proof that the [only] eyewitness had been paid thousands of dollars by detectives" to point to Johnson.
As Strickland's and Johnson's lawyers told "48 Hours" correspondent Erin Moriarty, that is no way a normal thing for prosecutors to do, and is thus a testimony to just how convincing this evidence is. But still, AG Schmitt is fighting against their release, and so far, Governor Mike Parson (also a Republican, obviously) has refused to pardon either of the men.
It's not because they believe these men are guilty, but because they literally do not care that they're innocent. Moreover, the law does not require them to care.
Sean O'Brien, a law professor at the University of Missouri Kansas City, said, "I do know that the Attorney General's office, for a long time, has had a practice of opposing every case regardless of its merit. They think that their duty is to defend every judgment, no matter the justice of it."
"Even with new evidence that shows that the wrong person was convicted?" asked Moriarty.
"Even with new evidence," he replied.
Gardner appealed, but this past March, the Missouri Supreme Court ruled against her, stating that, "This case is not about whether Johnson is innocent … This case presents only the issue of whether there is any authority to appeal … No such authority exists."
We'd all like to think that if prisoners are discovered to be innocent — particularly if someone else is convicted of the crime they were alleged to have committed — that they'd not only be released, but that they'd be owed piles of money from the state. But that's not the case, at least in Missouri. The AG's office — and apparently the governor and the state supreme court — are determined to force these men, and others, to stay in prison for crimes they didn't commit. On the off chance they ever are released, the state will not be required to pay them anything. That's not the same as not owing them anything. While nothing can make up for the theft of their entire lives, they certainly are owed something. Whether the state of Missouri chooses to be in debt to them is, unfortunately, its own choice.
All is not well in the garden. The roots are not strong and the system is not basically good. Because if the system were basically good, if the system were simply dedicated to protecting our society from truly dangerous people and punishing the guilty, these men would have no problem getting out of prison. Getting them the hell out would be seen as just as much of an emergency as getting a little white girl out of a well. They would not continue to have years of their lives stolen from them. And if that's what obeying the rules looks like, then the rules are wrong.
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Robyn Pennacchia is a brilliant, fabulously talented and visually stunning angel of a human being, who shrugged off what she is pretty sure would have been a Tony Award-winning career in musical theater in order to write about stuff on the internet. Follow her on Twitter at @RobynElyse