This morning I want to tell you three painful stories of injustice. In each of them, police and prosecutors not only failed these young Black men, they conspired against them to destroy their lives – evidence of their innocence be damned.
Thankfully, all three men survived to tell their story, but suffered immensely in the process. When I travel and speak across the country, I often tell college students that we are making a significant mistake when we say to each other that this criminal justice of ours is broken. To say it’s broken would be to suggest that it was well designed and had good intentions from the start. That never happened. This system isn’t broken. It’s functioning exactly how it was designed and meant to function. It’s not broken, it’s firing on all cylinders. Much of the foundation of our criminal justice system is derived from slave patrols and was created when African Americans could still be bought, sold, and traded.
When you can – read the book “Slavery by Another Name.” It breaks this down very well. It won the Pulitzer Prize the year it was released. Go to YouTube and type “Slavery by Another Name Documentary” and you can watch the powerful documentary that the book is based on.
Let me tell you these three stories.
46 years ago a teenage boy named Wilbert Jones was wrongly accused of rape. Not a single shred of physical evidence existed proving his guilt. He had an alibi and witnesses proving he was somewhere else. He had absolutely nothing to do with it. Nothing at all. In fact, a serial rapist who had victimized another woman a few weeks later was the perpetrator. And the local police and prosecutors had evidence of this, but decided to keep it to themselves. A full three months after the crime, police coached the victim into identifying Wilbert as the man who had raped her.
And the jury convicted Wilbert Jones – an young teenager – for a horrible crime he didn’t commit. From 1971 on, Wilbert suffered through an unthinkable prison sentence. Think about this – when he was convicted, it was just two years after the assassination of Dr. King. Richard Nixon was still President. And for all of the 70s, 80s, 90s, 2000’s, all the way until yesterday, Wilbert Jones was in prison. He’s now a frail senior citizen who has been in prison for 8 years longer than I’ve been alive – having spent his entire adulthood behind bars.
The Innocence Project of Louisiana fought for Wilbert and just recently had his conviction overturned. And I kid you not, they still made him pay $2,000 bail to be released.
That’s the first story – which took place in Baton Rouge, Louisiana – the second takes place right down the road in New Orleans. That’s no coincidence – Louisiana has one of the worst criminal justice systems in the world – with literally the highest incarceration rate of any place in the world.
All the way back in early 2010, Kevin Smith was arrested for a non-violent drug charge. For 2,832 days, he was locked up in the New Orleans jail without ever going to trial. I kid you not, Kevin Smith – from 2010 until this past week, was locked up in jail without ever having been convicted of the crime he was accused of. What that means is that we’re not even talking about a wrongful conviction here. Kevin Smith was never convicted. We’re talking about a man who was arrested, in a system that claims we are innocent until we proven guilty
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