While the Economy Churns, The Innocent Still Suffer

When Anthony Faison and Charles Shepherd were released from jail the other day, you’d have thought it was some kind of big, once-in-a-lifetime event that happens only every thousand years or so. Mr. Faison, 35, and Mr. Shepherd, 38, were released from the penitentiary where they’d been confined after being convicted in 1987 for the murder of a livery driver, a crime they didn’t commit. The two, who had wrongfully spent their young manhood behind bars, are nothing special. The incarceration of the innocent happens all the time.

What makes Messrs. Faison and Shepherd different is that after 14 years of confinement they were finally freed, though not thanks to the judge, the prosecutors or the cops who locked them up and threw away the key. They-and we-have Michael S. Race, a private investigator, to thank. He dug up the truth pro bono and found out who had done the killing out of a sense of justice that the officials in the case lack.

A paucity of Michael S. Races makes it impossible to find justice for all the innocent who have been condemned. Their number, on death row and off, probably is in the tens of thousands. That we are routinely executing a certain unknown number of innocents is a sure thing. The cases of tainted convictions are endless, here in New York and everywhere else.

The same May 15 issue of The New York Times describing Messrs. Faison and Shepherd’s manumission carried a story out of Oklahoma relating an uproar over no less than 1,700 convictions obtained by the testimony of an allegedly incompetent police chemist; 11 of those convicted have already been executed. Boston is reeling after learning that the F.B.I. kept a man in prison for years for a murder it knew he didn’t commit.

Month after month, year after year, stories about the imprisoning of the innocent hit the airwaves and the papers and ripple off somewhere-after which things settle down until the next horror story pops up, out of the control of the embarrassed (but rarely contrite) authorities. And every time it happens, the story is presented in a man-bites-dog context as a rare event, when common sense tells us that the piling up of hundreds and thousands of these cases leads to the ineluctable conclusion that injustice is the norm down at the courthouse.

The man who should answer for the crime committed against Messrs. Faison and Shepherd is Criminal Court Judge Robert S. Kreindler. Whether Judge Kreindler is a brute, an idiot, an overly proud office-holder or just a slob is a matter of opinion. Whatever you want to call him, his indifference to being the instrument of a terrible act of injustice comes out in the newspaper description of his behavior when irrefutable evidence forced him to set his victims free. The paper indicated that Judge Kreindler was trying everything he could think of to keep these two men in prison. He wiggled and whined and carried on until Mr. Shepherd’s younger brother walked out of the courtroom “in disgust,” saying of the judge, “If he had taken that much time 14 years ago to check the evidence, we wouldn’t be here.”

Mr. Shepherd’s brother put his finger on something important when he said if the judge had taken the time-but the judge didn’t and the cops didn’t and the crime lab didn’t, and nobody else did, either. Everybody did the usual slapdash, good-enough-for-government-work job. The big thing is that the case transcends Judge Kreindler’s being a putz. The whole criminal-justice operation in the city, in the state and across the nation doesn’t take the time and can’t, because there wouldn’t be enough people running the system to take the time, even if the system were designed to make sure that justice was done case by case, person by person. We have a mass production set up, engineered for failure. The people in the state capitals who run it have elected to go along with a high failure rate instead of spending the money and recruiting the people needed to get somewhat closer to a zero-defect outcome. Like many a manufacturing company, they find it much easier and cheaper to pay for the recalls than to invest the money for a lemon-free production line.

To a greater or lesser extent, the same holds true throughout society when it comes to taking care of or dealing with people. For example, the perpetual failure of the criminal-justice system is matched and overmatched by the perpetual failure of foster care. If there is a foster-care system in any state, county or city that is doing right by the children unlucky enough to fall into its jurisdiction, this writer has not heard about it. Oh, yes, some are less awful than others, but you’ve got to cry large, salty tears for the children.

It would take a great deal of money, and more and better people, to rescue the young ones. We have the money, but we won’t spend it; we have the people, but they won’t do it. Recently the United States failed to get itself reelected to the United Nations’ Human Rights Commission, and there was much huffing and puffing about disgusting places like Sudan and Libya and China getting voted onto it. But let’s pose a question: Given the respective wealth of our two societies, how much superior is the United States’ treatment of its children to the sweated labor Chinese children must endure? Given what the Chinese have and what we have, how come we look down our noses at them? If there were a unit of measurement for societal effort for children, how well would we stack up?

Everything that is true about foster care is true about nursing homes, another scandal ad perpetuam. Time after time, the patients (inmates?) are found tied to their beds, tortured by bed sores, starving for water and floating in their own piss. The exposés are repeated and reported until we’re sick of hearing about them, so they drop off Alive at Five until the next time and the next time. We won’t spend the money to make it better-and if we did, it wouldn’t matter, because we don’t have the people to give good care.

I am under the perhaps erroneous impression that in many of the countries we used to call “backward” and now call “developing,” the best young people go into professions like teaching. With heroic and honored exceptions, our smartest and most promising young people are swept off to law school and other sewers, where they can begin their ascent to the higher ranks of the American kleptocracy. Teachers in our country are so honored that, in the State of Maine, they must be fingerprinted before they are issued their certificates. Only in a place where the people have lost their status would we be entertaining proposals to make teachers “responsible” by linking their compensation to their pupils’ test scores. Here is the child, dehumanized and transformed into a salami in the deli section, with the teacher expected to slice and weigh it for the customer-parent.

We have created a society that makes an endless cock-a-doodle-do about the sacredness of the individual but increasingly treats each and every person with the roughness and indifference of a Russian bureaucracy, a service society that is allowing all the important services to unravel and disintegrate while proudly enumerating the many different kinds of cafe latte they serve at Starbucks. When we had to make a choice, we picked Wal-Mart over foster care.

But what can you expect when the pressure is always on us to consume stuff-colored stuff, bright stuff, fancy stuff, stuff to wear, stuff to show, every kind of stuff that every factory in the world can crank out? The loudspeakers never stop urging us to skip the essential services and buy the stuff. Every month when the consumer-confidence and retail-shopping numbers come out, the big shots on Wall Street and in Washington are elated or suicidal. Prosperity depends on our lining up at Wal-Mart and buying more stuff. Here’s a country where the poor have color TV’s, refrigeration, autos, air conditioning even, but we’ve got to buy more. The global economy depends on it, they say.

All the extra stuff we’re bludgeoned into consuming is the effort, the attention and the money that doesn’t go into those vital services that are falling apart, even as we push our shopping carts down the aisles of Home Depot. America has become the world’s Strasbourg goose. They’ve got us by the neck, they’ve forced open our jaws, they’ve got the funnel between our teeth and they’re pouring the grain down our gullets-and the sounds you hear in the background are not mall Muzak. They are the foster children tied to their beds and screaming; they are the wrongly jailed banging their cups against the bars; they are the nursing-home inmates moaning in their puke. But don’t listen-go out and buy more stuff, and keep the global economy spinning.

While the Economy Churns, The Innocent Still Suffer