When There Is No Humanity Justice Gets It So, So Wrong

Hate to be negative, but humanity and the capacity of the criminal justice system to get it right, are an interesting dichotomy. Yes dichotomy. Rarely, if ever, are they singing from the same hymn book. Instead of being at one and working together, one or the other, or both, go missing in action. But, every now and again these noble principles are forced to undergo a pressure test. In this case pushed under the legal microscope, in the form of the re-hearing of two criminal cases that certainly tested my faith in humanity and represented dramatic illustrations of how the American justice system got it terribly, terribly wrong. In the first example, a New York man, spent 29 years in prison for kidnap and murder, finally walking free after a judge overturned his conviction, saying it was based on a false confession.

David McCallum, was aged 16, when he was arrested for murder in 1985. Now, 30 year later, and a man approaching middle age, he was overcome with emotion after a Brooklyn Supreme Court Judge exonerated him. All I can say is, thank God for a crusading District Attorney who saw a wrong and knew he had to right that wrong. The packed courtroom broke into loud applause on hearing the ruling. McCallum and fellow teenager, Willie Stuckey, also 16 at the time, were arrested for the 1985 kidnapping and murder of 20-year-old Nathan Blenner in Queens. Children discovered Blenner’s body on disused land in Brooklyn. He’d been shot once in the head. McCallum and Stuckey, were arrested a short time later and confessed to the crime.  Each suspect initially blamed the other for the murder during videotaped interviews, but both quickly recanted. But their confessions were not worth the paper they were written on. Their confessions had contradictions and what the Brooklyn district attorney, Kenneth Thompson, called “false fed evidence,” or details about the crime that appeared to have been provided by others. McCallum and Stuckey had long maintained their innocence. But a jury convicted the two teenagers in 1986 of second-degree murder, kidnapping, robbery and criminal possession of a weapon. Stuckey died of a heart attack in prison in 2001 at the age of 31, but McCallum, who is now 47, persevered in the attempts at clearing his name. His efforts were boosted when his case was championed by Rubin (Hurricane) Carter, a former professional boxer, who was wrongly convicted of murder in 1967, and spent 19 years in prison before being freed. Carter wrote a deathbed letter to District Attorney Thompson, asking him to investigate the case. In the letter, Carter wrote of McCallum and Stuckey: “Their two confessions, gained by force and trickery, are not corroborated even by each other; they read as if two different crimes were committed.”

District Attorney Thompson said he needed little persuasion to re-examine the case. And his subsequent inquiry found no DNA or physical evidence or credible testimony, to link McCallum or Stuckey to the abduction or the killing. As bad as this case is, the news just gets worse. At a news conference, Thompson said he had “inherited a legacy of disgrace with respect to wrongful conviction cases.” In other words, there were many more cases just like David McCallum. A Conviction Review Unit established by Thompson and headed by a Harvard Law School professor, has resulted in the overturning of nine convictions this year.

In the State Supreme Court in Brooklyn, Assistant district attorney, Mark Hale, told the judge, that the McCallum and Stuckey convictions were tainted by false testimony and their confessions were “the product of improper suggestion, improper inducement and perhaps coercion.”  Prosecutors said the convictions in the murder of Blenner in October 1985 had been marked by inconsistencies. While Stuckey told the police that three shots were fired, McCallum said there had only been one. Each described the other as being close to the man when he was shot, but neither had evidence of skin stippling, which often accompanies a shooting at close range. Both suspects said the murder took place at night but the medical examiner said the time of death was 3:15 pm. Among other evidence that Thompson said was discredited, Stuckey confessed to making a comment about a Buick Regal to a woman in Queens about an hour before Blenner’s abduction. The woman told detectives that the two men she encountered were in their 20s and that one had braided hair. The descriptions did not fit either Stuckey or McCallum, who both had close-cropped hair. The District Attorney suggested that the comment about the Buick Regal had been fed to Stuckey, perhaps by the police, to make the confession look more authentic. Thompson said additional doubt was cast on the case when prosecutors began to believe that one of the main witnesses, testified untruthfully. That man, whom Thompson did not name, was the first to link Stuckey to the case, telling investigators that he had given the murder weapon to an aunt who then transferred it to Stuckey before the killing of Blenner. The aunt, Thompson said, refuted the account. McCallum’s shoulders sagged as the judge announced, “I will dismiss the indictment.” He rested his head on a table in the well of the court, as one of his lawyers and the mother of Stuckey, patted his back.McCallum left the courtroom to applause from dozens of supporters, McCallum’s mother sat next to her son in court, gripping his hand and comforting him as the judge overturned the indictment. She later left the court in tears, refusing to talk to the media. McCallum, dressed in a white shirt, beige jacket and khaki pants, emerged from court with a smile and hugged his overjoyed family as dozens of supporters clapped. He then briefly spoke with reporters in a courthouse hallway. “I feel like I want to go home, finally,” he told reporters, admitting that he had at times lost hope of being freed. “I’m very, very happy but I’m very, very sad at the same time,” he said, adding he wished that Stuckey walked free with him. “This is a bittersweet moment because I’m walking out alone,” he said. “There’s somebody else who is supposed to be walking out with me but he isn’t, and that’s Willie Stuckey.” He said his first wish was to walk on the footpath, and then go home and enjoy his mother’s cooking. He had no special requests, saying that after 29 years of prison food, anything she cooked would be wonderful. His mother rushed to embrace her son in the corridor. “I kept praying and hoping for this day to come,” she said.

Despite spending all that time in prison for a crime he didn’t do, David McCallum could at least walk to freedom. The same couldn’t be said for a black 14-year-old teenager,named George Stinney, who was sent to the electric chair more than 70 years ago, wrongly convicted of the murders of two white girls in a segregated mill town, in South Carolina. Finally, a modern day judge reviewed the case, overturning Stinney’s conviction, saying the state committed a great injustice. George Stinney was a child when he was arrested in 1944 and convicted of murder in a trial lasting one day —and then executed. All of these events taking place in a three month time frame, and without an appeal. The speed in which South Carolina delivered its ‘justice’ against the youngest person ever executed in the United States, in the 20th century, was found to be both shocking and extremely unfair, according to a Circuit Judge. “I can think of no greater injustice,” the judge wrote. Stinney’s case, long spoken of by civil rights activists, as an example of how a black person could be wrongly convicted by a southern justice system that sanctioned legal discrimination, when investigators, prosecutors and juries were all white. The two girls, aged 7 and 11, were beaten to death. A search by dozens of people, found their bodies and investigators arrested Stinney, saying witnesses saw him with the girls as they were picking flowers. Stinney was not permitted to speak to his parents, and authorities later claimed he confessed. His supporters said he was a small, frail boy and so scared that he would have said whatever he thought the authorities wanted to hear. They said there was no physical evidence linking him to the murders. In the saddest part of his story, his executioners noted he was so tiny that the electric chair straps didn’t fit him, and an electrode was too big for his leg.

This year, a Circuit Court Judge heard testimony during a two-day hearing. Most of the evidence from the original trial disappeared long ago and most of the witnesses were dead. It took the judge nearly four times as long to issue her ruling, as it did for George Stinney to go from arrest to execution. The judge’s 29 page order included references to the 1931 Scottsboro Boys case in Alabama, where nine black teens were convicted of raping two white women. Eight of them were sentenced to death. Fortunately, the convictions were eventually overturned before the teens went to the gas chamber and the charges were dropped. In the George Stinney case, the Circuit Judge made a point of saying that Stinney did not even get the consideration of an appeal. So, finally there is justice, and some humanity, for George Stinney. What a shame and a travesty that he wasn’t alive to appreciate it.

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