Perry County, Alabama Judge Marvin Wiggins is facing ethics charges this week for offering defendants summoned to his courtroom the chance to donate blood outside the courthouse in lieu of paying outstanding fines/court costs that would put them in jail if they remained unpaid. The Southern Poverty Law Center says he was forcing
No one in Washington fears throwing the first stone, especially Senators. They accuse each other of crimes and cover-ups – usually requesting prosecution by the Justice Department – regardless of the Senate Ethics Committee’s investigative results.
With the Senate chamber hanging off a rockledge of criminality, it’s most puzzling why the entire Senate didn’t back Senator James Webb’s (D-VA) National Criminal Justice Commission Act. After all, if each of the stones stuck, many senators would land in the criminal justice system themselves.
Senators have stalled Webb’s legislation for his entire term and without good reason. Comparatively speaking, the cost of the commission to be established by the law – $14 million – broke no beltway banks, so money was an unlikely barrier to support. The law’s goal – establishing a blue-ribbon panel of experts to conduct a complete, top-down scrutiny of the nation’s criminal justice system – shouldn’t have been too politically polarizing.
By itself, the National Criminal Justice Commission Act did nothing to the prosecution of criminal defendants except seek to understand the present system since the last nationwide analysis occurred more than 45 years ago. The Commission Webb wanted to establish would have been a stepping-stone to reform, not the change itself. All that Webb’s law wanted to do was to know what to do. It wasn’t much more than a study bill.
Statistics on crime and punishment are just like those newsy health bulletins that confuse everyone. Caffeine good for you. Caffeine bad. Premedicate with antibiotics before dental visit. Or don’t. Up to you. Alcohol is bad but wine, which contains alcohol, is good for you. But only one glass. Maybe two. But a Big Gulp in Manhattan will kill you. That’s why we hear things like: Crime’s up. No, it’s down but prison populations are up, because they’re potheads. I mean, dope fiends.
Public health researchers reconcile these competing claims with studies call meta-analyses; a meta-analysis is a study that studies other studies and attempts to synthesize conclusions into one universal truth. Or maybe a couple.
The National Criminal Justice Commission Act was poised to be the meta-analysis of the criminal world, synthesizing sentence durations, corrections data, foster care trends (for children of inmates), substance abuse research and re-entry strategies into one answer for reform. All we have now is a trend herd, out of which emerges a promising number here, a sluggish rate change there. We have no idea what to do.
Webb’s legislation rolled away from the Senate without gathering any moss, not because we couldn’t find answers, but because, once answers reveal themselves, the answers must lead us. No one knows what a criminal justice meta-analysis will unearth. Maybe longer sentences for certain crimes. Sentence reform advocates wouldn’t like that. What if the “treatment” everyone wants instead of jail works only on the fourth or fifth try, like so much research suggests? Do we make three or four futile attempts at taxpayer expense? What happens if it looks like the draconian Rockefeller drug laws might reduce crime and prison populations if we gave them a few more years to work? Every mass incarceration protester would have to drop his sign.
Revealed by meta-analysis, certain answers will devalue someone’s entire life’s work. Certain answers we just don’t want because they end questions, stone-cold. If questions remain, so does uncertainty and uncertainty is the perfect way to justify doing nothing.
The reason why Webb’s bill failed is the same reason why our prison’s are filled: once you know the right thing to do, you’re obligated to do it. To avoid obligation, you simply ignore what you’re expected to do which is easier now that the Senate has erected a gravestone on Jim Webb’s legislation. R.I.P. – Reform Isn’t Probable.
Something happens to the idle mind. It doesn’t just atrophy and wither. It has death throes. Right before its demise, it grows strong and fast so it can race in any and every direction, especially towards places it shouldn’t go. Not dangerous places, just mental wasteland. And all you can do is wave goodbye to it as takes off.
Weekends in prison are good for idling. Except for an occasional church service, nothing happens. More nothing happens on those Monday holidays that extend the weekends. Martin Luther King, Presidents’, Memorial, Labor and Columbus days brutalize our brains and push us towards the brink.
“Chandra, can you come out here, please?” Cerise called. Cerise was an attorney before she got to prison for an embezzlement conviction. She had a job as a “trash worker” here in the unit. Twice a day, would she gather all the garbage bags that had been deposited in the lobby, chuck them in a dumpster and wheel the dumpster down the walkway to a compactor. When I first met Cerise, she thought she had landed quite a gig with that job.
“I’m telling you, trash worker is the way to go. Fifteen minutes, twice a day. Forget Food Prep and smelling like onions all day from 3:30 in the morning. You have the rest of the day to yourself.”
“Exactly. There’s nothing else to do all day but work,” I said, rejecting her advice.
Cerise would spend the rest of her days waiting for her New York Times, which arrived late when it was on time, if it arrived at all. If the mailroom had been slacking for a while, she would be handed a stack of them at once and she would be set for days. Of course, the days preceding the stack left her idle outside of her twice-daily jaunts to the compactor, now even more so since they axed the trash position and instead just ask for volunteers.
At least I can distract myself with writing and legal work on my appeals and working in a kitchen. It must be hard for Cerise in here regardless – she’s bright, has a law degree and a master’s – because living in and amongst the uneducated wears on you after a while. Outside of the Times, nothing stimulates her mind. So she creates activities sometimes that would appear nutty but they’re just her idle mind’s defense.
“What’s up, Cerise?”
“Trixie and I need your education and legal expertise to adjudicate something very serious, a dispute that has been raging for a while. And since it is Columbus Day…”
“And nothing else is happening…” I finished her thought.
“Yeah, well, that and the fact that today would be a great day to make decisions about Italian culture.”
“What does that mean?”
“Here, just sit down and listen. Trixie here claims to be Italian and I say she is not. I am going to try the case and prove to you and to her that she is not Italian,” Cerise pronounced, one finger pointing in the air as part of her Atticus Finch schtick.
“You can do this, Bozelko, because you’re Italian and I know you’re gonna side with me,” Trixie warned me. She’s been imprisoned for the last nineteen years, since she was nineteen herself, for a gang-related murder. To keep her mind alive in seg, she created her own ant colony with the bugs that crawled into her cell. She played with infestation to keep her mind alive for a sentence longer than her life span was when she got here.
“I’m not Italian, so I can’t do this,” I said in an effort to dart from the farce.
“Your last name ends in a vowel,” Trixie pressed me.
“And yet, I remain Polish,” I conceded.
“See? That is your only understanding of nationality! The trial is about to begin! Chandra, sit over there because you’re the judge because you already know the answers to these questions.”
“I’m calling a mistrial right now,” I announced and started back into my cell.
“No, it will take five minutes,” Cerise pulled me back toward the TV area. “Do you want opening arguments?”
“No…I…no…you guys have way too much free time.” My exasperation was pleading with them for mercy.
“Okay, we’ll cut right to direct examination,” Cerise agreed. “Now, Trixie, answer these questions to the best of your knowledge and belief. Please be seated in the witness chair,” she directed her to a ripped vinyl couch.
Trixie didn’t move from where she was leaning against the wall.
“Okay, you can stay there. First question: what is the tarantella?”
“A spider. No. A movie actor. Errr …director.”
“What is the Marriage of Figaro?”
“An Italian wedding with the soup with the little meatballs.”
“What and when is the Feast of San Gennaro?”
“Every Sunday when Italian families have a big, family dinner.”
“Who sculpted the David and where is it located?”
“I don’t know who sculpted him but if he’s the guy with the slingshot, then he’s in Israel.”
“Trixie,” I interrupted. “If this whole charade is about whether you’re Italian or not, do you think any of the answers would lead you to Israel? Think of another country…starts with “I”…”
“Italy! He’s in Italy!” Trixie shouted with that final relief you feel when you think you’ve landed on the right answer.
“I’m…I’m objecting to this judicial intervention,” Cerise said to me softly because she knew if she objected too strenuously, then there goes the judge.
“Overruled,” I said. “She still didn’t answer correctly. Harmless error.” What the fuck is wrong with me that slid into this nuthouse shit so easily? “Proceed.”
“What is the Uffizzi Gallery and where is it located?”
“It’s a museum in Italy,” Trixie answered and winked at me in gratitude for the geography tip.
“What is the Ponte Vecchio?”
“I don’t know that, but that’s only one question wrong.”
“Enrico Caruso and Luciano Pavarotti sang what as whats?”
“She’s technically not wrong,” I told Cerise.
“To close my case, I argue that Trixie is not Italian because she was not only not born in Italy but she knows no Italian culture.”
“Rebuttal, Trixie?” I asked, because I have a judicial temperament and shit.
“Is there anything else you want to say? To explain why you are Italian.”
“Yes, umm…my mother cooks everything, well, a lot, with sauce and I used to want to be in the Mafia but I don’t want to anymore because I’m done with crime.”
“The Mafia is for men!” Cerise yelled, attempting to correct what should never even be acknowledged.
I was so bored, I actually started to feel grateful for this opportunity to burn seven minutes of my holiday. I welcomed the chance to fill less than a quarter hour with something totally inane. That’s how screwed up my life is.
“Okay, I am ready to render my decision. We have explored and celebrated every Italian stereotype and gross generality here today. Based on the evidence, I hold that you, Trixie….”
Cerise and Trixie focused on my intently for the decision.
“Jesus, we’re bored, huh? Okay, I hold that, Trixie, you are from Waterbury, and you have all the characteristics that such origin carries with it.”
At the same time, from Trixie: “I knew it. She said I was Italian.”
And from Cerise: “No, she didn’t. Waterbury isn’t ethnically homogenous like that anymore.”
“That is my ruling, and it stands.” Before I could dismiss the litigants, a ruling came from a higher court.
“VOLUNTEERS FOR TRASH WORKER ON THE DOOR! TRASH WORKERS!”
“I gotta go,” Cerise departed from us with energy that was waiting for something real to do, even if it was just to take out the garbage.
“Yeah,” Trixie acquiesced. “I need to finish my application for Wesleyan.”
“Ay, Madonna,” I murmured as I went back into my cell and bid my brain adieu.
When your life and OJ Simpson’s ride the same rails, you know your life has gone off track.
This month [May 2013], in two courtrooms separated by 20 states, both OJ and I took the witness stand as petitioners in habeas corpus cases – to grab real Get-Out-of-Jail-Free cards. Both OJ and I think our juries did not acquit because our lawyers were not fit. In other words, our lawyers did such shitty jobs at our trials that we could have won if they had just done an average job.
Our appearances were all the more resonant because, fifty years ago this May, in the decision of Gideon v. Wainwright, the country’s highest court held that every criminal defendant has not only the right to an attorney but the right that the attorney perform right.
During any court proceeding, it’s hard enough to prove that something actually happened because the judge can take into account so many aspects of someone’s testimony: bias, demeanor, background. Habeas corpus petitioners scale an even higher obstacle because we have to prove that something that didn’t happen…but it would have happened…if the lawyers’ crappy performance at trial had not happened. It’s like proving that, if things had been different, they wouldn’t be the same. A habeas corpus case is a cinch and an impossibility at the same time. It’s almost impossible to cure a screw job from your attorney.
You need a new lawyer to prosecute a claim of ineffective assistance counsel against your first attorney who didn’t do his job. Sometimes you need a third attorney to claim ineffective assistance by your habeas trial attorney. Getting effective assistance of counsel is like playing with those Russian stacking dolls and you are the tiniest one of all, locked in the middle, your freedom blocked by other people. For a long time, there were no bigger people to block OJ. I wonder how he feels now. Juice as the tiniest little gnome in the game.
“These cases never win,” the marshal told me in the bump of an elevator ride the courthouse’s second floor where everyone was waiting for the star witness: me.
Wearing three sweatshirts to ward off the cold of lock-up and shackled with 18 inches of chain above laceless sneakers (the round, plastic tips of laces serve as makeshift handcuff keys and can pop open all of the hideous hardware inmates wear to court), I provided a very un-glamourous entrance. As opposed to a criminal trial, habeas proceedings are much less dramatic. No bombshell testimony or blood-stained accessories to try on. No evidence in printed plastic bags sealed with official, colored tape.
Criminal trials at least pretend to be fair. Habeas proceedings? Not so much. Just to file a habeas, you have to be an inmate convicted of a crime. Your standing to start the whole affair is that you were the loser in the last proceeding. The whole thing sounds like a huge sour grapes story that the inmate tries to sell to the court so drunk with power from those same, sour, purple fruit that it can’t even listen anymore.
OJ is doing time now for the murders committed 18 years ago, not for any shenanigans in a cheap hotel room. People say that’s justice but it’s not. A Vegas dust-up doesn’t warrant a thirty-year sentence. Justice would connect crime and consequence more closely to put someone in prison.
It might be karma for the Juice, or Moirai, or exactly what he paid for. When Karma locks you up and one of the Moirai is your warden, you might not have committed the crime, but you’re not innocent.
After I swore to tell the truth on the stand in my habeas trial, I did. I testified that I didn’t order anything on others’ credit cards, or sign their names but I realized, as I sat in the most comfortable chair that’s received my ass in more than five years and answered questions on direct examination, that I’m not innocent.
My hour on the witness stand wasn’t an opportune time for my mistakes to crystallize in my mind but it was then I realized just how badly I mistreated people, bullied some, totally disrespected my family. I was entitled, mean, oblivious to anyone’s interests but mine and I had chosen the wrong interests so I was stupid, too. I don’t have enough paper to list out all the shitty things I’ve done that weren’t crimes.
And I was manipulative, too, convincing everyone and myself that I was just some sweet kid, so kind that karma repaid me with this experience of explaining my innocence, of realizing just how long I had been off track, stuck at the station with more baggage than any railroad car could hold.
So I continued and explained why I, the tiniest gnome, couldn’t have been the five-foot, eight-inch tall woman flagging down the Fedex driver in the cul-de-sac. Talked about inverse karma: how if one thing hadn’t happened (Attorney Angelica Papastavros’ horrid representation of me) then another thing (my convictions) wouldn’t have happened. If I had been different, my life could have stayed the same.
Incarceration makes you question everything you’ve ever done or thought, even the good things, palpating every decision you’ve ever made to see where your life went off track. Rehabilitation is just honest re-evaluation and not much else.
I wonder how OJ is doing now, running inventory over his life. It might be easier for him. Sometimes crime is the cleaner way to live. You violate, you rehabilitate, you accelerate, back on track.