Thursday, January 18, 2007

Innocence lost

Long ago I remember lying the floor of my grandparents living room floor. I remember lying beside my Pappaw (grandfather) watching the television show Quincy, M.E. I still try to watch it when I can. It was a powerful show. And it sparked an interest in becoming a forensic pathologist (coroner). At 7 years old, I wanted to be like Quincy. That show, as well as my love for all things C.S.I., has laid a foundation for something that really has hacked me off.

I finished reading John Grisham's newest book, The Innocent Man. The book is a non-fiction narrative of the events surrounding Ron Williamson, a man convicted of a murder he did not commit. The main story takes place in Ada, Oklahoma. This is the area I grew up. I went to college there. Lisa lived there a big chunk of her life. And I remember some of the names and events that are retold in this book.

This is an emotionally draining read. The events surrounding the death of Debbie Carter are horrible. But Grisham's focus is on the travesty of justice committed against Ron Williamson. Williamson was a man who was clinical diagnosed with severe mental/emotional problems. He was known in the community as a someone who was different. He was never violent but was prone to verbal outbursts (according to Grisham's telling of his life).

Williamson and an on-again/off-again friend were pegged by the police as the primary suspects in the death of Debbie Carter. The efforts of the local police department and the prosecutors office narrowed to find the proof needed to convict Ron and his friend. Grisham paints the police and prosecutor as vindictive and unwavering in their belief of Williamson's guilt. So unwavering that they sought no other suspects in the case even when evidence pointed clearly toward other potential perpetrators.

But the book is clearly written to draw a line for the reader. The system of justice we operate under has some very large holes. Holes where innocent men and women get sucked out of life and put into a hellish nightmare. Some of those people are fortunate to find true justice and escape from their hell on earth. But they are crippled by it for the rest of their lives. And some of those who are trapped never make it out. Some even lose their lives due to the errors of our justice system.

Most of us will never have to experience what Ron Williamson and his family had to go through. Most of us will live semi-happy lives free in this big, beautiful world. And most of us will remain oblivious to the plight of innocent men and women suffering because our justice system feels compelled to find a guilty person. Even if it isn't the right person. As long as they can get the right kind of evidence in place and show the jury of "peers" that it was possible the person could do it, then they have done their job.

All those years ago watching Quincy and today watching C.S.I. it seemed so simple to make sure that innocent men and women didn't pay for a crime they hadn't committed. But this book has made it clear to me that sometimes the world isn't fair. Sometimes we don't care about true justice. We only want someone to blame and someone to punish. I'm not talking about the victims and their families. They have a right to want vengeance and justice (those two are not the same thing, by the way). No, I'm talking about those of us who have no vested interest in the crime. We believe it is a horrible thing and that someone should pay. But do we care that it is the right person? Do we truly care about the truth of who is responsible?

The most infuriating narrative in the book for me had nothing to do with the prosecutor's crusade to vilify two innocent men. Although that really hacked me off at times. No, the most infuriating event in the book happened after Ron and his friend had been cleared of all charges and released. The church that Ron's family had been lifelong members of, and his sister was the organist there, refused to allow Ron's family to hold a press conference and reception in their facilities. The pastor wouldn't even acknowledge during the service following his release. The reason: it might be dangerous since some people in town still believed they were guilty.

Luke 4:4 And Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit, and news about Him spread through all the surrounding district. 15 And He began teaching in their synagogues and was praised by all. 16 And He came to Nazareth, where He had been brought up; and as was His custom, He entered the synagogue on the Sabbath, and stood up to read. 17 And the book of the prophet Isaiah was handed to Him. And He opened the book and found the place where it was written, 18 "THE SPIRIT OF THE LORD IS UPON ME, BECAUSE HE ANOINTED ME TO PREACH THE GOSPEL TO THE POOR. HE HAS SENT ME TO PROCLAIM RELEASE TO THE CAPTIVES, AND RECOVERY OF SIGHT TO THE BLIND, TO SET FREE THOSE WHO ARE OPPRESSED, 19 TO PROCLAIM THE FAVORABLE YEAR OF THE LORD." 20 And He closed the book, gave it back to the attendant and sat down; and the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on Him. 21 And He began to say to them, "Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing."

Where was Jesus the day that Ron Williamson was released from his hell on earth - right by Ron's side. But I don't see that Jesus was anywhere in that church his family attended.

We should be leading the fight to see those who are oppressed set free, especially if they are not guilty. We should be working to proclaim release for the captives, and shouting the loudest if the innocent suffer. And the least we should do is to offer comfort and compassion to those who live broken lives when they have been released. We should be proclaiming the favor of God in their lives through our efforts to love and receive them.
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