Just Mercy and the Reality of Wrongful Convictions

By Ishita Sethi

While African Americans comprise only 13% of the American population, they represent a majority of innocent defendants wrongfully convicted and later exonerated by courts. There are more than 1,800 innocent defendants who were framed and wrongfully convicted in 15 large-scale police scandals who have since been cleared in “group exonerations.” They account for approximately 47 percent of the 1,900 exonerations indexed by the National Registry of Exonerations (as of October 2016). This racial disparity is prominent as we explore the movie “Just Mercy” which highlights the conviction of Walter McMillian, who was wrongfully given capital punishment.

Destin Cretton’s Just Mercy is a steadfast journey through the real-life story of a black-man and how he is wrongfully sent to death-row for a murder he didn’t commit.  The movie exposes the persistent racial injustice in the criminal justice system in the USA. Bryan Stevenson is an African-American lawyer, also the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative.

The mere fact that a black-man is “black” makes him a criminal in America- just as a line in the movie states, “you are guilty from the moment you are born”. Considering the false-conviction of the 14-year-old George Stinney Jr.– the youngest American to be executed, only for his conviction to be overturned– and the case of Julius Jones, who has been on death row in Oklahoma for nineteen years for a 1999 murder he’s always said he had no part in, it is clear that the practice of false imprisonment was rampant back in 1944 and continues to be rampant even in 2021. The kind of racism that existed 80-years back continues to stain American culture to this day.

In the present essay, the author seeks to delve into the racial-prejudice in the USA while focusing on the bigoted judicial system and capital punishment in USA.

Wrongful Conviction of African-Americans

The issue of false-conviction of black-people looms largely throughout the movie. Walter McMillian was convicted and sentenced to death for the murder of a white-woman. McMillian was held on Death-Row prior to being convicted. His trial only lasted for a day and a half, and an absolutely white jury ignored multiple witnesses-all of them being black. Walter spent six-years in Alabama Death-Row because of a fabricated testimony given by a white man named Ralph Myers who was coerced, to the extent of torture, by the police to give false testimony so as to frame McMillian. He was sentenced to death by the trial judge overriding the jury’s life-sentence.

We live in a world where a white-person is innocent until proven guilty and a black-person is guilty until proven innocent. This systematic-racism is rooted so deep into the mindsets of people, that they often choose to turn a blind-eye to the crystal-clear evidence of false incrimination of a person of colour.

Racism in the judicial system in the USA has been institutionalised and normalised to such an extent that today, it’s something normal, something which is expected for everyone in the society. In fact, 1 in 3 black boys expect to be put behind bars at least once in their lifetimes, as could 1 in every 6 Latino men- emphasis supplied on expect– compared to 1 of every 17 whiteboys.

The USA operates two different criminal justice systems; one for wealthy people and one for poor people and people of colour. An adversary system with full constitutional protections is available to the wealthy, most of whom are white. However, poor and minority defendants experience the criminal justice system in a drastically different way compared to the former.

“The opposite of poverty is not wealth. The opposite of poverty is injustice.”

                                                                                          -Bryan Stevenson

In a scene where Bryan Stevenson is working towards understanding the inmates in the death-row trial in Alabama, we come across the contrasts in treatment of white and black inmates. Noticeably, there was only one white-inmate shown, who expressed how supportive the prosecutor appointed to him was, saying how he was almost “pitiful” whereas the multiple black-inmates said their lawyers never talked to them about setting up a defence, saying how they met the lawyer three-times. When the money ran out, the prosecutors ran. The lawyers appointed to persons of colour by the court were practically useless, and the trials of persons of colour lasted for less than an hour, almost as if it was pre-decided that a black-man can only be a criminal. Prominently, only lawyers who themselves are persons of colour made efforts to ensure justice to those who deserve it.

Racism in the Judicial System of the USA

The death-penalty is mostly forced onto poor people who cannot manage to pay for an effective lawyer. Death-row inmates and capital-defendants are not given adequate legal representation under the death-penalty in the USA. The quality of a defendant’s legal team has the most impact on whether or not he is sentenced to death. Stevenson rightly said, inadequate legal assistance, racist-bias and the legal system’s indifference to innocence made Anthony Hinton’s case a classic example of the racial bias that persists in the American legal system. Ineffective defence lawyers contribute to false convictions and death sentences and by failing, even refusing to object at trial, they make it tougher to rectify false-convictions on appeal. Counsel is not allowed after the first appeal. As a result, post-conviction proceedings offer little hope to death-row inmates. Furthermore, they have to present fresh evidence and follow complicated procedural rules.

Capital trials usually involve only one person of colour: the accused. There are many instances where prosecutors cite pretextual reasons for excluding persons of colour from juries. African-Americans have been thrown off of juries because they were deemed ‘low intelligent’, and countless other reasons that have been deemed “race-neutral” in the courts. Again, we circle back to the predetermined notions of people involving anti-black sentiments.

Before his trial even began, the sheriff arranged for McMillian to be placed on death-row, even though he hadn’t been convicted of a crime yet. One of the three main essentials of natural-justice is fair hearing. McMillian was deprived of his basic rights as a citizen of the USA, as a human being- merely owing to his skin colour.

A white-man named Brandon Fruscella was sentenced to 60-days for killing a black woman. Walter McMillian was on death-row in Alabama for 6-years under the false accusation of having murdered a white-woman.

Conclusion

Walter McMillian was amongst the first exonerees from death-row. Additional exonerations followed as a result of a 60-Minutes-Segment and other national news coverage of his case. Today, over 160 people who were on death-row have been proved innocent and released from death-row.Death row in itself is such a severe punishment even to those who deserve it, but not even ensuring that the ones who are being murdered by electrocution are in actual fact innocent is inhumane. It goes against the purpose of the judicial system, which is to give justice. Justice to Walter McMillian, justice to the woman who was murdered, and justice to the thousands of people of colour who are wrongfully convicted only because the color of their skin.

Ishita Sethi is a student of law in Jindal Global University.

Image credits – Indian Express

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