Justice would be without meaning if it only defended the popular, pretty, and preferred of our society.
The real test of any principle is when it must be applied to those we deem unworthy, undesirable, and unliked… Those despised among us.
We cannot be hypocrites- we must extend the protections of our laws to all defendants alike. Period.
“Only by zealously guarding the rights of the most humble, the most unorthodox, and the most despised among us, can freedom flourish and endure in our land”
– Justice Frank Murphy (1947)
It shouldn’t come as a surprise to you to learn that most wrongfully convicted persons fall squarely into the category of our society’s unwanted, unworthy, and underrepresented. Most wrongful convictions happen to minorities, but regardless of skin color, there is one category of people who are almost universally represented among wrongful convictions, and that is the poor. Even though our system was established to defend all individuals as citizens equally under the law, we have strayed from this core principle (as highlighted so concisely by Justice Murphy’s words) so that our system now seems to work for those who can afford it, and work against those who cannot.
Tezi and I just finished the documentary The Fear of 13, which details the turbulent life, criminal history, convictions, and eventual exoneration of Nick Yarris. During his earlier years, Yarris undeniably lived a reckless life, immersed in drug addiction, car theft, and who knows what other degenerate behavior, including assaulting a police officer at one time and escaping from prison. Yarris could have easily been, and was in matter of fact, written off as a criminal misfit, deemed barely worthy of incarceration and better off dead, as it was the case he was doing his time on Death Row. How easy would it have been to look at Yarris’ eventual request to have DNA testing done in his case with a self-confident air of indignity, thinking to ourselves, why is this lowlife wasting our time? How easy and justifiable even, would it have seemed to add Yarris’ name to the list of those people of whom we have long said, why haven’t they executed him already? “We need to execute these people faster – people like Yarris burning up our tax dollars, thwarting justice from being done.”
When we find out that Nick Yarris was in fact not responsible for the murder/rape crime for which he was on Death Row, when we find out after 21 years that in fact Nick Yarris’ DNA tests came back excluding him from the crime, when we find out that Nick Yarris was in fact wrongfully convicted and therefore wrongfully sitting on Death Row, we must be reminded of just how crucial these constitutional principles are, and why we must stand by them even when they seem to fly in the face of our emotional attachment to a certain point of view.
If not for the work of people who believe very deeply the words of Justice Murphy, who worked to see Yarris’ few remaining rights defended and advocated (such as getting the DNA tested), Yarris would have likely been executed years ago, and justice, my friends, would not have been served. Instead, in accordance with Justice Murphy’s statement, even someone with an unsavory and yes, even despicable, past can and does now live as a free man, exonerated and married with children in England.
There’s a part of our self-righteous human nature that, especially after particularly heinous crimes, lashes out in reaction, calling for swift and immediate justice – and by that we seem to mean something just short of taking the accused out behind the courthouse and shooting him in the head. There’s a very real part of us that believes we sometimes know with absolute certainty the guilt of an individual, and in our desire to shortcut our judicial process, to somehow appease our sense of fairness, we actually do a great damage to the foundational principles of our great nation. For it’s those accused individuals, at those very moments, who maybe even rightly are most despised by us, that, ironically, deserve those constitutional protections all the more.
Our judicial system at present too often fails to extend these protections to many defendants, especially those despised among us. To bring back those foundational safeguards there must be substantive criminal justice reform, and this won’t happen unless you help raise awareness of the problems pervading courtrooms across this country. Join us by visiting our wrongful conviction Instagram and follow us on Twitter.
Here’s a trailer for the Nick Yarris documentary: