Left Coast Voices

"I would hurl words into the darkness and wait for an echo. If an echo sounded, no matter how faintly, I would send other words to tell, to march, to fight." Richard Wright, American Hunger

Archive for the tag “The Innocence Project”

The Ones Not Executed

June is a special month for my family. In a few weeks, my eldest son will complete a rite-of-passage as he stands before our community and fulfills three obligations as he becomes an adult in the eyes of Judaism. He will lead the community in prayers, read from the Torah (Old Testament), and teach a lesson from the passage he had read.

The Torah portion deals with the death penalty as a man found gathering wood on the Sabbath is stoned by the entire community and the Israelites are condemned to die in the Wilderness and never enter the land of milk and honey.

As my son read this and we talked about the scenarios and lessons that could be gleaned, we discussed the death penalty and ways of punishing people when they do wrong.

What happens, however, when the wrong person is condemned? We are discovering, with the help of technology, that people who have been arrested, tried and convicted, are sometimes simply the wrong person in the wrong place at the wrong time. 

Last year, during my annual week of service on the Gulf Coast with students, we met two men who had each served over 20 years each in jail for crimes that neither had committed. One had been on death row. These two men were exonerated because of the use of DNA testing in post-conviction criminal cases. DNA testing has proved that more than 250 people had been innocent and had sat in prison for an average of 13 years – the age my son is as he reaches his bar mitzvah (his rite-of-passage).

It is hard to imagine. My eyes filled with tears when one told us of the son or daughter that he had never held. He was now in the process of getting to know his now grown up child. How can a person be compensated for this? Any aspiration he once had for a good education and career have long disappeared.

The Innocence Project is an advocacy group who would like every state to have an exoneree compensation law that reflects the guidelines set out on a federal level (23 states do not at the time of writing). Current federal guidelines provide the wrongly incarcerated up to $50,000 per year of wrongful incarceration, and $100,000 per year served on death row. “The beauty of a compensation statute is that it provides a formula that treats everyone equally,” says Rebecca Brown, policy advocate for The Innocence Project.

I believe it is important to financially compensate exonerees and ensure that they can live out the rest of their lives with dignity and meaning. There is an important place for an advocacy group such The Innocence Project.

But I can’t loose the image of the man in New Orleans, who never got to hold his child and now must pick up the pieces with his adult child. I will soon stand by my son in front of our community, a son that I have stood by for thirteen years and will for many more. There are some things that you cannot put a price on.

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Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at http://www.alonshalev.com/ and on Twitter (@alonshalevsf).

Troy Davis – Revisiting the Death Penalty

Troy Davis was arrested and convicted of murder of police officer Mark MacPhail in Savannah, Georgia, on August 19, 1989. Officer MacPhail was working as a Burger King security guard and intervened to defend a man being assaulted in a nearby parking lot. Two weeks ago, Davis was executed for his crime.

Mark MacPhail

Davis maintained that he was innocent from the very beginning and several witnesses recanted their testimony and the murder weapon was never found. A fuller account of the trial can be found here but what is clear is that there was a full process and many opportunities along the way for the death sentence to be commuted. But it wasn’t. Here is another account of the trial from a perspective that Davis was indeed guilty.

Troy Davis

I am surprised to find that, among my largely liberal friends, the jury is also out about the death penalty. The few people I know who have someone close to them been a victim of violent crime seem to favor keeping it. The further right we go, the more we are reminded that it costs millions of dollars to keep someone alive on death row and they get better medical and dental help than our war veterans.

One of the most powerful experiences that I had during my annual trips with students to help rebuild the Gulf Coast was a meeting with two men who sat on death row for 20+ years and were exonerated. They have a long list of men who were executed who’s guilt was in question and for whom the advances of DNA technology might also have proved their innocence. There is an organization called the Innocence Project that I wrote about a few months ago, who work with exonerees. 

It seems that when a person takes another life and admits to the crime that the death penalty has its place, but when there is doubt, I fail to understand how we continue to take the person’s life.

Your views? 

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Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist (now available on Kindle) and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at http://www.alonshalev.com/and on Twitter (#alonshalevsf).

 

 

 

What is a year of your life worth? Priceless

One of the haunting experiences that I had during my annual week of service on the Gulf Coast with students, did not come from victims of Hurricanes’ Katrina or Rita, or their consequences. It came form meeting two men who had served over 20 years each in jail for crimes that neither had committed. One had been on death row. These two men were exonerated because of the use of DNA testing in post-conviction criminal cases. DNA testing has helped exonerate more than 250 innocent people. These innocent men and women sat in prison for an average of 13 years.

It is hard to imagine. My eyes filled with tears when one told us of the son or daughter that he had never held. He was now in the process of getting to know his now grown up child. How can a person be compensated for this? Any aspiration he once had for a good education and career have long disappeared.

Exonerees who sat on Death Row

I read an interesting article by Tina Trenkner called Paying For Lost Time. Ms. Trenker reviews what financial compensation is available which seems to be build upon how much they might have earned.

“Depending on the state, the wrongfully convicted could get social services and up to $80,000 per year–or get nothing at all. Twenty-seven states and Washington, D.C., provide compensation and/or services, but many states have provisions that could make an exoneree ineligible for such damages, including having a prior felony conviction or submitting a guilty plea when not guilty. Twenty-three states have no provisions, but the exonerated could sue or request compensation through a private bill, requiring a legislator to sponsor it–both options are difficult to pursue.”

Ms. Trenker then introduced (for me at least) an organization called The Innocence Project, which is an advocacy group who would like every state to have an exoneree compensation law that reflects the guidelines set out on a federal level. Current federal guidelines: Provide the wrongly incarcerated up to $50,000 per year of wrongful incarceration, and $100,000 per year served on death row. “The beauty of a compensation statute is that it provides a formula that treats everyone equally,” says Rebecca Brown, policy advocate for The Innocence Project.

The Innocence Project

I believe it is important to financially compensate exonerees and ensure that they can live out the rest of their lives with dignity and meaning. There is an important place for an advocacy group such The Innocence Project.

But I can’t loose the image of the man in New Orleans, who never got to hold his child and now must pick up the pieces with his adult child. There are some things that you cannot put a price on.

——————————————————————————————————

Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist (now available on Kindle) and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at http://www.alonshalev.com/and on Twitter (#alonshalevsf).

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