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‘Guilty Until Proven Innocent’: Not the American Way

By Congressman John Lewis and Bryan Stevenson  | 5/24/2013, noon
Congressman John Lewis

After serving 42 years in an Arizona prison for a crime he didn’t commit, a 58-year-old man was finally released this April. When Louis Taylor was just 16, he ventured out of his comfort zone to try a happy hour advertised by an upscale Tucson hotel, a typical foray for an adventurous teenage boy. Unfortunately, that night a fire broke out that ultimately claimed 29 lives. In that moment, Taylor stopped being typical and became extraordinary. He did not run from the danger as most people would. Instead he took responsibility. He was spotted during the crisis busily helping people escape the flames, escorting guests to safety and assisting people on stretchers.

Ordinarily, he would have been hailed a teenage hero for demonstrating a civic duty only expected of grown men. Yet eyewitness accounts of his beyond-the-call-of-duty service were not credited as outstanding demonstrations of good character. To police and even some bystanders his very presence made him automatically suspect. More than the possibility that he could have saved someone’s life, people were consumed by their sense that he “did not belong in a fancy Tucson hotel”.

The forensic evidence suggested faulty electrical wiring or some building defect as the likely cause, not arson, but scientific facts could not derail a hardwired determination that because Taylor was black, he had to be at fault. His youth, his innocence, and even his dramatic work to save and comfort the victims were imperceptible and irrelevant.

Outraged citizens wanted the death penalty. A profiler was brought in who swore under oath that the likely perpetrator was “a black teenager.” Taylor was convicted by an all-white jury and sentenced to multiple life sentences, ensuring he would die in prison. Fortunately, the Arizona Justice Project recently took up the case. New research from the National Academy of Science proved there was no evidence of arson in the fire. Wrongly convicted, Taylor was finally released-42 years later.

It would be hard to call Mr. Taylor lucky, but the truth is thousands just like him, including innocent children, are being victimized by a presumption of guilt that never sees black and brown youth as blameless, as engaged in proverbial “good, clean, fun”, as harmless.   Instead it attributes to them every violence and vice, even if those suspicions contradict the facts.

The presumption of guilt follows too many poor and minority children to school, a place where children should be nurtured and supported, not criminalized and incarcerated. Yet the pipeline from school to jail is so insidious, many parents now fear schools as much as they fear the criminal justice system.

 Children as young as five years old are being led out of classrooms in handcuffs for acting out or throwing temper tantrums. They have been arrested for throwing an eraser at a teacher, breaking a pencil, and having rap lyrics in a locker. Black children constitute 18 percent of the nation’s public school population but 40% of the children who are suspended or expelled.

In the year when this nation will celebrate the Supreme Court’s historic ruling to create a right to counsel for indigent people accused of crimes, protections for the poor and innocent are almost non-existent. 

The Innocent Defendant’s Dilemma, a recent study, describes how the blameless, particularly those who are poor, find it an onerous, nearly impossible burden to prove their innocence. With few resources for defense, they find themselves trapped by a system that presumes their guilt. Since the odds seem hopelessly stacked against them, many innocent individuals reluctantly plead guilty to avoid the longest prison terms or even death.

We have come a great distance in the last 50 years, but we still have not fully escaped the miseducation and distortions created by America’s policies of racial injustice. These problems demand remedies, and we must admit this nation may require some form of therapy before we can freely reconcile ourselves to a better future.

As Taylor’s story reminds us, out of sight is hardly out of mind. It is an abysmal violation of human dignity.