24 March, 2010

America - Fail!

After 16 Years in Prison, a Whole New World

To sum up the story, Greg Taylor was freed from prison, 16 years after being wrongfully convicted of murdering a prostitute. The State of North Carolina dug deep upon his release and handed him a $45 check for a room that night. I should imagine it took him at least seven hours to find a motel that would accept only $45 for a night and no credit card for a security deposit.

The disgusting thing about this story - okay, the most disgusting thing about this story then - is that it further proves that we have completely lost sight of one of the most fundamental ideals of the original America in favor of the one of the most common sins of the current America. The prosecutor who so zealously made the case against Mr. Taylor was fighting for what amounts to be no more than a notch on a bedpost. A deep notch, to be sure, but a notch nonetheless.

An upwardly mobile prosecutor advances his or her own political cache with each successfully fought high-profile case. He or she is commended on their numbers alone; the quality of work behind those numbers is beside the point. The same thing can be said for the police officers who “solved” this case and so many cases like it across the country. Their job is to get their man. Their man may not be the man who perpetrated the crime but that’s not really their concern. Their concern is decorations and commendations. Which have more to do with numbers, again. We’re obsessed with numbers but could care less about the truth behind those numbers.

The phrase Innocent until proven guilty has become an empty idea that no longer matters to the ever-increasing empty heads of our fellow countrymen and leaders. Never mind the fact that it is one of the most basic tenets that we built this country on. I know, it’s a shock - we did not, in fact, build this country on mass-manufactured plastic flags in which to wave and proclaim a patriotism we don’t actually possess because we don’t even know what our country stands for anymore.

America began as a statement. As an English major and a lover of philosophy, this is my favorite part. In what once were a few colonies of settlers still beholden to a far-away and unpopular king, a germ of an idea for a just and progressive society began. Our forefathers had grown weary of and had chosen to escape a fading world in which the Few heaped a lifetime of overwhelming injustices upon the Many. The migration began in the name of religious freedom which is merely a nuanced subset under the very large umbrella of Freedom of Thought.

In the foundation of this new freedom, the architects planted a few basic kernels that seem simple on the surface but have power enough to suspend and sustain America indefinitely. One of those being the utterly modern concept of the presumption of innocence. Up till this point, the basis of a guilty verdict was made almost solely on a person’s social strata rather than the merits of the case. If a man of wealth accused a destitute woman of a crime, the prosecutor didn’t need to bother with burden of proof. The wealthy man won. The destitute woman’s morality was in question merely because her parents and her parents’ parents ad infinitum didn’t have the money to live on the right side of the tracks.

The concept of presumed innocence was a large leap for civilization in the 18th century but our forefathers saw it as an important declaration for the kind of country they hoped would flower under their feet. It gave an ordinary citizen rights that he or she hadn’t had before and it put the priority on fairness over fear. It says that we are more concerned with the crime of punishing an innocent person than we are with the retribution of a guilty one.

This isn’t an easy concept, and for anyone who has been a victim of crime - especially any form of violent crime - this may be downright impossible to grasp, but the fact of the matter is, in a country that is as concerned with the freedom of its citizens as America claims to be, that freedom can’t come with self-serving exceptions. Oh, except when someone falsely accuses you of a crime. Oh, except when an ambitious prosecutor needs another notch on his bedpost. Oh, except when an apathetic cop found you standing in the wrong place at the wrong time and came to the wrong conclusion. That’s not freedom, that’s luck. Luck doesn’t belong in a progressive society anymore than slavery does. Nor should we rely upon it.

In many ways, the America of today bears little similarity to the America that was borne of high-minded ideals. It’s a shame, perhaps even a crime, but it is what it is. We are a different species these days, more hungry for power and fame than for thought and process. Mr. Taylor is not the first guy to spend 16 years in jail for a crime he didn’t commit, nor will he be the last. We have willfully returned to an age where our society prioritizes fear over fair, greed over good, so it should come as no surprise that our prisons are rife with innocent people who can only hope that they will one day be exonerated and all the better if it comes within their lifetime.

It’s not even safe to be a law-abiding citizen these days.

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