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Saturday, May 3, 2008

Prison blues

Today's Los Angeles Times features a story about two former Black Panthers imprisoned some 35 years ago for the killing of a guard at Louisiana's notorious Louisiana State Penitentiary, better known as Angola. Herman Wallace and Albert Woodfox, Black Panthers from New Orleans who were serving time for armed robberies, were convicted of stabbing Brent Miller. But now Miller's widow thinks they were probably innocent, after she and a guy named Billie Mizell, described in the Times as a legal investigator and fledgling author, figured out that all of the witnesses against Wallace and Woodfox were prisoners who either had been promised leniency in return for their testimony or who later recanted their testimony. (The article is also worth reading for its descriptions of the horrendous conditions Angola prisoners lived in.)

Anyone who has been paying attention knows that there have been lots of these kinds of stories in the press lately, largely due to DNA testing which has exonerated hundreds of prisoners, many of whom have been locked up for decades. The Innocence Project, which has led the way in reopening these old cases, counts 216 such exonerations on its Web site. Of course, a very high proportion of these prisoners are Black, making the imprisonment of innocent men (and probably some women too) a living legacy of the kind of racism that made (often) all-white juries so willing to vote guilty and gave so many prosecutors high conviction rates. Perhaps at least some of the comments of the Reverend Jeremiah Wright are not quite so anachronistic as they sound to many people. (For some good sense on the media's obsessive-compulsive, all-Wright all the time campaign, read Bob Herbert's column in today's New York Times.)

There must be thousands more innocent prisoners out there (or in there), some of whom might be exonerated one day, but many who will die innocent--not to mention the thousands who are already gone. I think most Americans realize this, which may also be one reason why so many are queasy about the "lock 'em up and throw away the key" policy at Guantanamo: Just because someone is doing the time doesn't mean they did the crime. At the very least, we can hope that future juries will look at a prosecutor's evidence very skeptically, which, after all, is what the concept of "reasonable doubt" requires them to do.

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