Wednesday, January 09, 2013

improve our justice


This week the New York Times ran a piece on a former forensic pathologist in Mississippi, Dr. Steven Hayne, whose autopsy work and testimony have been considered in hundreds of civil and criminal cases in the state. The news-worthy bit is the fact that "several murder convictions" that depended on his work and testimony have since been overturned or thrown out, and the doctor's credentials and expertise have come under intense scrutiny in recent years. Another physician, the former state medical examiner in Alabama, has described Hayne as "a forensic analyst with inadequate training who was given far too much deference in the courts."

In recent months, four petitions have been submitted on behalf of individuals claiming to have been wrongfully convicted on account of Hayne's testimony--and several more such petitions are expected in the months ahead (including a few from individuals facing execution). Meanwhile, Mississippi's officials have been disinclined to review Dr. Hayne's past cases.

Whether or not Dr. Hayne has left any more wrongful convictions in his wake remains to be seen, but there have been some uncovered already, and more are alleged. And injustices like this aren't limited to one forensic pathologist's work--Dr. Hayne has just received a lot of attention from the press. Wrongful conviction is a reality.
You can read another recent story of a woman who served years in prison and was later exonerated here. And you can read about yet another case where new evidence raises serious questions about a young man's conviction--with a new hearing slated for March--here.

In Matthew 25:31-46, Jesus calls his followers to care for those in prison, right alongside other, more familiar commands, like feeding the hungry and giving a drink to those who are thirsty. Hebrews 13:3 says to "Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them." Jesus and the author of Hebrews don't say we should care only for those who are wrongly convicted, or only for those who, like Jean Valjean in Les Miserables, serve harsh sentences that don't fit their crimes. Christians are called to care for any and all prisoners. We should be concerned that many have no support outside of the prison walls, no one to lean on when they are released, that our nation has outrageously high incarceration rates, concerned about those awaiting deportation after they serve their time and those counting down their days on death row.
And, obviously, we need to be especially concerned with the shameful injustice of wrongful imprisonment. That's why, on Sunday mornings at Grace United Methodist, we will often pray: "When any are held unjustly, bring them release; forgive us and teach us to improve our justice." Of all the weaknesses in our 'correctional' system in the US, this is one of the most terrible, and one that everyone can agree on. We need God to improve our justice.

These are issues and people it's easy to forget about. Most of us don't come face to face with questions about wrongful conviction on a daily basis, not to mention a living, breathing person who is serving time in one of our prisons. Yet the Church is called to care. If nothing else--if you don't have any way of physically taking part in a ministry to incarcerated persons--you can pray; you must pray. Remember those in prison.
If you don't know what to say or where to begin, I'll leave you with this, one of the prayers we offer up at Grace for those in prison:
Remember all prisoners, Lord, especially those in [the Adams County Correctional Center and our local jails]. Bring the guilty to repentance and amendment of life according to your will, and give them hope for their future. When any are held unjustly, bring them release; forgive us and teach us to improve our justice. Remember those who work in these institutions; watch over them, keep them humane and compassionate. In the name of Jesus Christ we pray. Amen.

1 comment:

Emily said...

On a related note, I tried to find an article about the release several years ago of my friend's father after he was wrongfully incarcerated for 20 years. Alas.

On a slightly unrelated note, while I more than most people appreciate a good reference to Les Mis, it's slightly inaccurate :) I'll just appeal to the musical since I can't precisely remember the book and it is a more complicated..

Valjean was imprisoned after being convicted of robbery (breaking a window to steal bread). However, his total nineteen year imprisonment was a result of several failed escape attempts, not his crime: "Five years for what you did, the rest because you tried to run..."

I realize that he is a great example to appeal to for such a scenario, but it's a slightly iffy illustration. Now, was five years hard labor really the appropriate punishment for breaking a window in a house and stealing bread-- perhaps. Regardless, he is not the perfect exemplar of punishment exceeding the crime we often think he is. He compounded his short sentence (however unduly harsh) through his own actions.

As I said, this is only a response to an appeal to the musical. The book is a different animal, in which the entire justice system-- not it's simplification into one man's (Javert) blind, compassionless legalism in the musical-- is what Hugo is condemning. In that case, I probably would say that, yes, the initial punishment was an example of an inappropriate sentence for a crime that shouldn't have had to happen.

However... no book, no complexified dynamic--- my original objection or softening of the illustration from the musical stands :)