Thursday, July 14, 2011

And Justice For All

I have to tell you: I’m no fan of the so-called “justice system” in America these days. “Liberty and Justice for All?” Don’t make me laugh. Because what we have is a system that has become so rigged—against the poor and unfortunate, in favor of the rich and powerful—that the line in the Pledge of Allegiance begins to seem a sick joke.

Consider just some recent instances. Jaycee Dugard just gave her first in-depth interview to one of our blonde sweeties on TV, and though what she said had mostly sentimental interest (we all wait breathlessly for such people to cry or at least tear up), the reminder of how easily a convicted sex offender outwitted his parole officers for 18 years—officers who made over 60 visits to the property where Phillip Garrido held Jaycee and her two children without ever once thinking to look in the backyard; with one such visit actually videotaped by Garrido’s “wife” showing this idiot parole officer being led around the house and ushered out the door before he could even think to ask about the backyard horror show—leaves one gasping for breath. So does the reminder that after a neighbor called 911 to report the presence of two young girls in this sex offender’s backyard, a sheriff was duly dispatched to the place BUT limited his visit to the front porch and some fluff questions of Garrido, again without ever looking into the backyard! Even when the parole department was informed by a UC Berkeley policewoman that she had seen Garrido on campus several times with two young girls who appeared “robotic,” these cretins tried to explain the young girls away as “perhaps his granddaughters.” Until some Sherlock realized that since Garrido had no daughters, granddaughters might be problematic, and so called him in; whereupon he solved their case for them by bringing in the whole family, Dugard and all.

Now mix with what Frontline displayed on their riveting program this week. Titled “The Confessions,” it related the case of the “Norfolk 4,” a group of US Navy underlings who ran into the buzz saw of a rape/murder case and paid dearly (no “support our troops” blather here). That is, a fellow Navy man returned to his garden apartment to find his wife Michelle Bosko raped and murdered, whereupon his neighbor Danial Williams, himself married for little more than a week, came to his aid, called 911, and reported the crime. Enter the brilliant cops of Norfolk, VA, who decided it was this good Samaritan neighbor who had done the deed, and called him in for questioning. “Questioning” is a euphemism here, for after the female detective, Maureen Evans, in charge was unable to wring a confession out of Williams, she called in the “bulldog” of the force, Detective Robert Glenn Ford. Ford was notorious for his interrogation technique, one apparently modeled on Rambo types like Sipowicz on NYPD Blue. And sure enough, after about eleven hours of denials, and assurances that he had failed his lie detector test (he hadn’t), Danial Williams succumbed to Ford’s grilling and confessed. Not only did he confess, he gave details of the crime, such as beating Michelle with his shoe. The only problem was that Danial’s confession didn’t match the forensics; Michelle wasn’t hit with a shoe, she was stabbed and strangled. Danial was then induced to amend his confession to match the details he had been given by the detectives (itself a crime), and the investigation was closed.

But four months later, another problem: Danial’s DNA didn’t match the semen recovered from the crime scene. Now, rather than admitting their mistake, detectives “reasoned” that there must be an accomplice, and they picked up Williams’ roommate on the USS Saipan, Joe Dick. It was now Dick’s turn to be grilled by Detective Ford. And eventually, the poor sailor confessed as well, actually coming to believe that he had been involved in the crime (he hadn’t). The police then asked for his DNA and he gave both hair and blood samples thinking he’d surely be in the clear. But though his DNA didn’t (and couldn’t) match the crime, this didn’t exonerate him either; the Norfolk police simply concluded that there must be yet another accomplice, and grilled Dick to supply one.

To make a long story short, the police eventually got no less than seven men charged as accomplices in the crime. Four of them (Williams, Dick, Eric Wilson, Derek Tice), after intense interrogations, gave the police confessions, and under pressure even named three others (Rick Pauley, Geoffrey Farris, John Danser) as accomplices. Still, though, that pesky DNA match refused to turn up. What is even more bizarre is that a DNA match did eventually turn up; it belonged to a sex offender in prison, Omar Abdul Ballard, who wrote to a friend boasting that it had been he who had raped and murdered Michelle Bosko. The letter made its way to the police, and when Ballard’s DNA was compared to that found at the crime scene, it matched. Now, at last, the police had their man. Surely the others would be released; or at least this is the way it would have happened on TV. But this was real life in a real case, with defendants who are not wealthy, nor gifted with much confidence or self-esteem, not to mention a police force and a justice system—this is Virginia, after all, the state with the third highest death penalty conviction rate in the nation—that doesn’t have any truck with bleeding-heart liberal presumptions like the one that presumes a person is innocent until proven guilty. No, these are tough guys (and girls) who believe in their innate ability to see through the lies and denials of bad guys, and their sacred duty to put them away, DNA be damned. Besides, they had those detailed confessions. So they came up with the most preposterous scenario of all: the Navy suspects had run into Ballard in the parking lot of the apartment complex, and conspired to all go in and rape Michelle Bosko. The confessions—at least of the four above—proved it. So three men were acquitted, but five of them—the actual killer, Ballard, and the four sailors who had confessed—were all convicted and sentenced to prison, most to languish there (from eight to thirteen years) until a reluctant Governor Kaine, yielding to growing publicity, granted the four conditional pardons that released them but did not overturn their convictions. They are still convicted felons and registered sex offenders.

Frontline’s web page has several auxiliary articles about this case that reveal some astonishing research. First, confessions are an ironclad element in most prosecutions, convincing not only the police but also prosecutors, judges, juries, and even the defendants’ lawyers of a suspect’s guilt. Especially when it contains details of the crime which an innocent defendant could not know, the confession remains an irrefutable demonstration of guilt in the minds of most people. Otherwise, why would an innocent person confess?

The answer is that it is surprisingly easy to get a person to confess after hours of grilling by bulldog cops like Robert Ford. Countless research projects have proved this, including one by law professor Richard Leo, who was interviewed on the Frontline program. In a 2009 paper (“False Confessions: Causes, Consequences, Implications,” J Ac Ad Psychiatry Law 37:332– 43, 2009) Leo details the personality types who are most susceptible to police pressure: they are often those “who are highly suggestible, (and) tend to have poor memories, high levels of anxiety, low self-esteem, and low assertiveness.” In addition they tend to be conflict avoiders, acquiescent, and most important in the Norfolk 4 case, “eager to please others, especially authority figures.” Conditions like sleep deprivation, fatigue, and drug and alcohol withdrawal add to their susceptibility. All or most of these conditions were met in the case of the Norfolk 4, including those conditions specifically designed to entrap the innocent: isolation, disempowerment, and the type of high stress that some individuals find almost unbearable. Add to this the type of psychological coercion that interrogators like Robert Ford specialize in (assuring the suspect that the only way out is to confess; alternately threatening and offering to provide leniency for cooperation; lying to the suspect about evidence, like the result of lie detector tests or the presence of confirming witnesses; and feeding information to the suspect to guide him in providing details of the crime he has supposedly committed). All of these are highly illegal procedures, but unless a videotape is made of the interrogation, the suspect has no way of proving that his confession was coerced or even guided. And the prosecution has that damning evidence, the confession, to cinch its case. Still, can even these techniques actually persuade an innocent person to sign a detailed confession of his guilt? Though most people believe they cannot, the Norfolk 4 case and numerous others prove that they can, and do, and have: as one researcher (Kassin) notes, “the pages of legal history are filled with stories of coerced-compliant confessions.”

One other macabre note to this Norfolk 4 case: Detective Robert Glenn Ford, the man who extracted (one might even say “authored”) those confessions, was subsequently charged with criminal conduct of his own: taking “bribes from criminals in exchange for getting them favorable treatment in court.” The Virginia Pilot noted that “on February 25, 2011, Robert Glenn Ford was sentenced to 12 years and six months in prison following his conviction in 2010 for extortion and lying to the FBI.” But not even this proof of corruption by Ford was enough to convince the legal system it had made a mistake. On March 2, even after Governor Tim Kaine’s pardon, Chief Judge Everett Martin dismissed petitions filed by Williams, Dick, and Wilson that their convictions be thrown out. The judge said that “evidence was lacking” to support the claim that Ford’s conviction should invalidate his questionable interrogations in the Norfolk 4 case. Nothing, it seems, can stop the wheels of the law from grinding onward, corruption and DNA proof be damned.

This is actually what I wanted to write about. Justice, in our vaunted system, is supposed to be impartial. The female image of Justice with a blindfold conveys the idea: justice is blind, i.e., blind to differences that might favor one group over another. But in actual practice, it is the administrators of alleged justice—police, prosecutors, judges and juries—who prove to be blind in the most pernicious sense. American jails offer mute testimony to this, filled as they are with the unfortunate discards that our society increasingly finds superfluous, countless people of color who are sentenced for drug crimes, for third-strike often-petty crimes, and as we now know, those like the Norfolk 4 who are coerced into plea bargains or coerced confessions with the promise of staying out of the death chamber. At the other end of the spectrum are those whom “justice” favors: police like Johannes Mehserle, actually filmed killing a black man on the Bart platform in Oakland, yet sentenced to a mere two years in prison; the countless high-rollers on Wall Street whose crime was global in bringing down the entire financial system, but who as yet remain unpunished; the lawyers advising the Bush administration (John Yoo et. al.), who literally legalized torture and war, yet are never charged; “Scooter” Libby, chief of staff to Dick Cheney, who got a slap on the wrist (30 months in prison, the sentence then commuted by Pres. Bush) for his role in lying and other crimes related to his outing of CIA agent Valerie Plame.

What this comes down to is that the enforcers of our great system—and I include cops on the beat, parole officers, and those “officers of the court,” the lawyers, prosecutors and judges; as well as the soldiers who kill for the empire in wars and “police actions” around the globe like Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, et. al.—have a very clear assignment. It is not to protect the innocent, the poor, the helpless women and children we hear and see so much about on the TV programs designed to valorize and glorify the FBI, the cops, and our heroes in battle. It is to protect the life, liberty and property of the rich and the powerful. All other functions are in the nature of a “by the way.” This is easiest to see in foreign policy. The wars we have engaged in over the last half-century and more have been increasingly (perhaps always) aimed at places and countries where American business has vital property interests and investments. Since America is a global empire whose chief policy is “globalization,” the bases meant to protect these investments now number more than 1,000 (“The Worldwide Network of U.S. Military Bases,, counts 737 foreign bases in 63 countries, plus bases in continental U.S., covering millions of acres). Any nation that dares to arrogate to itself too much of its own natural or unnatural resources is quickly disabused of the notion, by force if necessary. The war in Iraq is only the latest large example of this procedure. Smaller actions in Guatemala, Honduras, and Haiti, and threats to Venezuela, Peru, Ecuador and Pakistan provide smaller instances. If we accept Proudhon’s notion that “property is theft” (we could also use deSade’s formulation, “Tracing the right of property back to its source, one infallibly arrives at usurpation” or Saint Ambrose’s “the superfluous property which you hold you have stolen”), we can conclude that “law” enforcement (including the military) primarily serves to protect systems of organized theft and the enslavement of the masses. Looking at the history of supposed free democracies like our own and, more recently, Israel, we can see that nation states are organized around this simple principle: expropriate the land and resources from the indigenous (and necessarily weaker) people who live there, and then create powerful armies and constabularies to protect and extend the theft—both the original one, and the continuing subtler expropriations by those in power (usually those who got to steal the property earliest).

“Justice” can then be shaped in two ways: for the masses, systems of mass propaganda to persuade the plebes that all have the same opportunities to gain power and obtain justice; for the elites, welcome access to the halls of legislation creating the “justice” that allows them to increasingly consolidate their power and add to their property. Thus, both property and justice are cumulative, increasing almost like forces of nature. In the opposite direction, slavery is also cumulative, increasing in proportion as justice for the many diminishes. By slavery, here, I mean not only the original kind enslaving those from Africa; I mean also the kind of powerlessness that led the Norfolk 4 (and thousands of others like them) to serve years in prison, even though a rational assessment of the evidence would have freed them years before. I mean the loss of property by millions in the housing and retirement-fund debacle of 2008, at the same time that the financial perpetrators of that debacle made off with billions, much of it provided by the government (i.e. John Q. Taxpayer) without any accountability whatever, with, rather, more wealth than ever.

As for the solution to this systemic rapine, I don’t have much to offer. One thought that occurs, though, especially after witnessing the outrageous injustice in the Norfolk 4 case, is this: turn the tables. Give the rich (and their Republican lackeys) a choice, one reflective of the choice offered to coerced suspects: they can either share the burden of the debacle they helped create by paying far more taxes, or they can take their chances as targets of the revolutionary tumbrels even now rumbling towards them. It’s their choice (and isn’t free choice the value our system cherishes most?)

Lawrence DiStasi

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