The American criminal justice system is grossly unfair. Here are the worst stories of the year.
Every year, stories emerge that serve as a reminder that the American system of justice means injustice for too many, with some receiving little or no punishment for egregious offenses, while others receive harsh or faulty punishment for much less. Here are some of the worst injustices of 2013:
1. An Alabama blogger is still sitting in a jail cell for exercising his First Amendment rights
Blogger Roger Shuler drew the ire of the powers that be when he continued to write about the alleged extramarital affair of a prominent lawyer rumored to be running for Congress. The lawyer and son of former Alabama governor Bob Riley, Robert Riley, Jr., won a temporary restraining order thatprohibited
Shuler from writing anything about Riley’s alleged extramarital affair and other related stories. The order itself was almost certainly a violation of First Amendment law. But Alabama officials took the dispute a step further when they pursued him for a traffic stop andarrested him for contempt
. In spite of advocacy from the ACLU and others, Shuler has now been in ajail cell for two months
for his journalism.
2. A teen spent three years in jail without a conviction or trial
Kalief Browder was a 16 - year - old sophomore in high school walking home from a party in the Bronx when he was arrested on a tip that he robbed someone three weeks earlier. He was hauled off to Rikers Island, a prison known for punishing conditions and overuse of force, and was held because he couldn’t pay the $10,000 bail. Browder went to court on several occasions, but he was never scheduled for trial. After33 months in jail
, Browder said a judge offered freedom in exchange for a guilty plea, threatening that he could face 15 years in jail if convicted. He refused. Then one day, he was released with no explanation. While Browder was behind bars, he missed years of his childhood, and is now aiming to attain his GED. Browder spent a particularly long time behind bars before his trial, but the practice of holding those charged but not convicted who cannot afford bail for months isall - too - common
. In fact, the U. S. Supreme Court dismissed the appeal last term of a Louisiana man whowaited seven years behind bars
without a trial because the state stalled in appointing him a lawyer.
3. A man who killed an escort for refusing sex was acquitted by a jury
On Christmas Eve, Ezekiel Gilbert hired escort Lenora Ivie Frago and gave her $150 as what he believed was a payment for sex. But when she didn’t deliver that, Gilbert shot her in the neck and she died several months later from critical injuries. A juryacquitted Gilbertafter his lawyer argued that he was authorized to use deadly force under a Texas provision that goes even farther than Florida’s Stand Your Ground law in authorizing the use of deadly force to “retrieve stolen property at night. ” As in any jury trial, we’llnever knowif that’s the reasoning the jury accepted when it acquitted Gilbert. Regardless, he will not face any criminal penalty for the shooting.
4. A wealthy teen used the ‘Affluenza’ defense to skirt jail time for four deaths
After 16 - year - old Ethan Couch took an intoxicated ride around town with his friends that ended with four deaths and several others critically injured, Couch pleaded guilty to intoxication homicide. But when his lawyer argued at trial that he was not capable of taking responsible for his own actions because of a condition known as “affluenza” that afflicts the very wealthy, the judgesentenced him to ten years’ probation
in a plush Southern California rehabilitation facility, for which his parents would cover the $450,000 per year bill. The travesty here is not that Couch was sentenced so lightly. He was a juvenile who, there is reason to believe, did not have good parental supervision and may be receptive to rehabilitation. What is alarming is that Couch was able to use his wealth to secure a lighter punishment for a crime that would have seen other Texas juveniles go to
jail. Other juveniles sentenced by the same judge who presided over Couch’s case saw sentences of ten years for asingle punch that killed a stranger
androbberies at a Halloween party
that led to one injury. And around the state, others sentenced for intoxicated manslaughter have seen sentences of15 years
5. A man whose testimony was beaten out of him spent 30 years in prison before he was released last month
More than a decade ago, a special prosecutor undertook an investigation that revealed a longtime Chicago Police Department detective and commander had routinely tortured black men to coerce them into confessions or false testimony. Some of the convictions were reversed. A few others were pardoned by then - Governor Ryan. And Jon Graham Burge was convicted on related perjury charges and sent to jail. But Burge’s misconduct is still taking its toll on many of the 148 people who claimed abuseJust last month
, a man who spent more than 30 years in jailwas released
after Judge Richard Walsh found that officers had lied about beating Stanley Wrice with a flashlight and a 20 - inch piece of rubber, and about imposing similar treatment on a witness in Wrice’s case to elicit
false testimony against him. Even as the emergence of DNA evidence has exposed the frequency of wrongful convictions, justice comes slowly or not at all for those who have already been convicted, including those whosat on death row
6. Top Enron fraudster will spend less time in prison than a father who sold his own pain pills
John Horner had no record of drug - dealing when he wassentenced to a 25 - year mandatory minimum prison term
for selling some of his own pain pills to an undercover informant who befriended him and told him he could not afford both his rent and his prescription medication. Horner, a fast - food restaurant worker and a father, had been prescribed the pain medication because of an injury in which he lost an eye, according to a BBC report. If, as expected, he serves all 25 years, Horner will be 72 when he is released, and he will have spent more time in prison than the former Enron CEO who was convicted in one of the largest corporate fraud schemes in modern history. While Jeffrey Skilling used his expensive legal claims as leverage toreach a deal
to serve as little 14 years, Horner is one of thousands of drug offenders serving draconian mandatory minimum sentences that far exceed this. There are nowmore than 3,000 inmates
serving life without parole sentences for nonviolent offenses, mostly drugs.
7. College quarterback escapes any charges in rape case
In November 2012, a female student at Florida State University accused FSU quarterback Jameis Winston of sexual assault. Instead of taking the case seriously, however, Tallahasee police conducted a flawed and mismanaged investigation, evenwarning the victim’s attorney
that “that Tallahassee was a big football town and the victim needs to think long and hard before proceeding against(Winston). ” The state attorney’s office then conducted an investigation that centered more on the victim than on the suspect, according to the victim’s attorney, resulting in a “complete failure of a rape investigation
. ” The state ultimatelydecided
not to bring charges
against Winston, and we’ll never know for sure whether he’s innocent or guilty because no one took the case seriously enough to find out.
8. A black man remains on death row after testimony that blacks are more dangerous
Duane Buck is sitting on death row for a sentence that came after a psychologist testified that blacks are more likely to commit crimes. In 2000, when the psychologist’s comments were first reported, then - Texas Attorney General John Cornyndeclared
that the state would not stand in the way of a new sentencing. But while Duane Buck has sinceaverted execution
, Texas courts have denied several motions to reconsider his case, and an appeals court ruled once again in November that hecould not be resentenced
9. George Zimmerman acquitted
Few injustices garnered as much attention and outrage as the public trial and acquittal of George Zimmerman for shooting to death 17 - year - old Trayvon Martin. It was as much an outrage for the outcome as for the tragedy it represents: The shooting of a young black unarmed teen, and an American legal system and culture that supports it. While Zimmerman ultimately opted not to seek immunity from trial under Florida’s Stand Your Ground law, it nonethelessplayed a crucial role
at several stages of the case: First, in prosecutors’ decision to delay charging Zimmerman, and later, as a key element of the instructions jurors relied on in making their decisions. Several jurors whospoke about their deliberations
media described howthose jury instructions shaped their decision - making
. Zimmerman has since been accused of domestic violence in several incidents involving guns. But each time, the victims later retracted their stories. And with no adjudication against him, there isnothing stopping Zimmerman
from carrying his guns.
10. Shooters around the country granted immunity for causing death
A South Carolina manwho shot and killed
an innocent 17 - year - old sitting in his car across the street. AnAlabama woman
who shot her ex - boyfriend’s step - son as he walked up her driveway. A Florida man whokilled an acquaintance
after he threatened to beat him up. Each of these defendants was granted immunity under the state Stand Your Ground laws that gained notoriety after the death of Trayvon Martin, while others like Marissa Alexander were serving 20 years in prison for firing a warning shot in self - defense(before a judgereleased her
pending a new trial.) Yet even in Florida, the legislature has continued to reject any moves to roll back the law, and is insteadadvancing a bill
to expand it.
[box type = " info " font = " arial " fontsize = " 9 " radius = " 10 "]Nicole Flatow
is the Deputy Editor of ThinkProgress Justice. Previously, she was Associate Director of Communications for the American Constitution Society. Nicole has also worked for several legal and general circulation newspapers, including The Daily Record and The New York Law Journal, and was a legal fellow at Bread for the City, where she represented low - income D. C. residents in housing and public benefits matters. She received her J. D. from the University of Virginia School of Law, and her B. A. in Philosophy, Politics and Law from Binghamton University, where she was editor in chief of her campus newspaper.[/ box]