Imagine being jailed for something you didn’t do. Not just an objective, academic ‘that’s-a-bit-unfair’ injustice, but the stomach-churning anguish of not being believed, of knowing you’re innocent but, with no advocate and no redress, you sit in your cell with little to think about but the irrational injustice of it all.
Or worse, on death row. The American justice system abounds with such stories (not to mention China’s or Iran’s or Guatemala’s or …).
In 1989, twenty six year old Carlos DeLuna was executed by lethal injection in Texas for the 1983 murder of Wanda Lopez. The evidence against him was scant, the police investigation was incompetent, and numerous leads which would have exonerated him were ignored. DeLuna himself claimed he knew who’d done the crime – someone else also called “Carlos”, an excuse ridiculed by the police and prosecution at trial. But in 1994 a Columbia University law professor easily identified a notoriously violent Texan criminal called Carlos Hernandez, who had a long list of convictions and who had bragged of Lopez’s murder to a number of different people. Carlos DeLuna was posthumously exonerated. Not guilty. Innocent, but very dead!
Or Walter McMillian, a poor African-American pulpwood worker from Alabama, who was convicted of a 1986 murder and sentenced to death: his conviction was wrongfully obtained, based on police coercion and perjury. (At the time of the murder, McMillian was at a church ‘fish fry’ with dozens of witnesses, one of whom was a police officer.) From 1990 to 1993, the Alabama Court of Appeals turned down four appeals before, in 1993, having served six years on death row, and after dogged championing by ‘innocence campaigner’ Bryan Stevenson, the Court of Appeals finally ruled that McMillan had been wrongfully convicted. Dramatised in the 2019 movie Just Mercy.
In 1989 the same Bryan Stevenson established the Equal Justice Initiative, an organisation that has since exonerated dozens of death row prisoners, plus people convicted of lesser crimes, and has documented the summary lynchings of 4,384 African-Americans in the years 1877 to 1950. All innocent.
Not to trivialise the topic, but I recently experienced a personal case of being falsely accused and misjudged; of not being believed, of knowing I was innocent. Certainly not death row stuff, or even judicial, but horrific to me. It felt desperately unfair, yet there was no recourse to a higher court, no way to clear my name. Despite my outrage, though, it served to deepen my empathy and compassion towards those who fall victim to really serious misjudgement, with life-crushing consequences.
One of the compelling aspects of the Christ’s crucifixion, in about 36CE, was his arrant innocence. He was betrayed and falsely accused; his mockery of a trial earned him a terrible death at only 33 years of age.
[Mark 14:55-56: Now the chief priests and all the council sought testimony against Jesus to put Him to death, but found none. For many bore false witness against him, but their testimonies did not agree.]
The moral from all this? I can’t think of one. Just confessing a newfound dismay at what countless human beings have had to endure, and endure today; and a determination to call out examples of real injustice wherever it is identified. There is no justice where there is injustice, but at least we can name it.