Harper Estes 2016-08-24 18:44:46
A Conversation Worth Having "For nineteen-year-old Cornelius Dupree, the skip from freedom to lockup was so fast, so sudden, so random, that the reality didn’t sink in until he was known as inmate #3083110.” This chilling quote is encountered in the introduction to Reuven Fenton’s Stolen Years: Stories of the Wrongfully Imprisoned (Tantor Media Inc., 2015), a compelling compilation of experiences of persons who were behind bars for periods ranging from nine to 30 years before being exonerated. For Cornelius Dupree Jr. of Texas, the suddenness with which his nightmare began became a journey lasting three decades before he was finally released. The State Bar of Texas has highlighted the issue of wrongful imprisonment at past Annual Meetings. The 2007 event in San Antonio featured John Grisham, speaking about his outstanding work of nonfiction, An Innocent Man. This year in Fort Worth, Michael Morton, who served nearly 25 years in prison for his wife’s murder before being exonerated, shared the story of his long path to freedom. And earlier this year, the Texas Young Lawyers Association launched the project And Justice for All, in hopes of preventing future wrongful convictions. Fenton’s book recounts 10 such stories from 10 different states. Each one is as different as the person portrayed, from the circumstances that led to their incarcerations, the penal institutions where they found themselves, and the struggles each encountered upon being released. Common threads, however, are evident. They describe confusion, betrayal, the terror—and often the drudgery—of incarceration, coping mechanisms, and, at times, hopelessness. There are heroes in each story to be sure, people who offered kindness or showed compassion, lawyers who selflessly gave of their time and talent for long periods, prosecutors and judges who worked to right wrongs, and, ultimately, each of the wrongfully imprisoned. The most ironic common element found throughout the book is the exonerees’ initial beliefs in a system that eventually failed them. The foreword, penned by well-known boxer and exoneree Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, whose plight was the focus of a 1975 Bob Dylan song and a 1999 film, posits a specific point of view: “It is precisely when winning or losing becomes the be-all and end-all that truth is disregarded and justice becomes elusive.” This statement need not be read as an indictment of all prosecutions or those who prosecute. Instead, the statement should be viewed as a caution to all who are privileged to work in our system of justice. A recent article in the Texas Tribune reported that the state of Texas has paid $93.6 million over the past 25 years to exonerees, a number that is likely to grow, “... as those wrongfully imprisoned individuals age and more people join the list.” However, the financial cost pales in comparison to the cost to the system of justice if citizens, or categories of citizens, believe it does not serve them. This is a discussion worth having, and Fenton’s book serves as an excellent conversation starter. It need not demonize prosecutors, criminal defense lawyers, or the judiciary. Interest in correcting problems and improving the system should be nonpartisan and universal. As articulated by the late Carter in the book’s foreword, “To live in a world where truth matters and justice—however late— really happens would be heaven right here on earth. Heaven on Earth.” This should be the goal. HARPER ESTES is a shareholder in Lynch, Chappell & Alsup in Midland. He is a past president of the State Bar of Texas and the Midland County Bar Association. Certified in civil trial law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization, he focuses on commercial litigation. He also frequently serves as a mediator and arbitrator.
Published by State Bar of Texas. View All Articles.
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