Losing the America I Thought I Had

Losing the America I Thought I Had February 26, 2020

I’ve been increasingly appalled, in the past few months, by stories of atrocious police and judicial misconduct. Season 2 of the In the Dark podcast tells the story of Curtis Flowers, a black man in Winona, Mississippi, who has been tried six times by the same white prosecutor only to have each trial overturned. The podcast went through Flowers’ story in detail, revealing massive prosecutorial misconduct in episode after episode. How can a prosecutor lie on the stand—as this prosecutor did—and yet face no consequences whatsoever?

And then there’s the story of Nathaniel Woods, who is scheduled to be executed next week for the murder of three police officers, even though he didn’t actually kill anyone at all. In Alabama, you can be convicted of murder and sentenced to death for being an accomplice. But according to Woods, he wasn’t even that.

The prosecution alleges that Woods lured three police officers to a house in Birmingham, Alabama, so that his accomplice, Kerry Spencer, could shoot and kill them. The defense alleges that there was no conspiracy at all. Spencer testified that he woke from a nap to find the police officers beating up Woods and a gun pointed at his head, at which point he reached for his gun and shot at the three officers in defense.

The shooting of the three officers took place in the home of Tyran Cooper, a drug dealer who had been extorted by the officers for years. That’s right—the officers were extorting money from local drug dealers as the price of doing business. That’s called corruption, and probably worse. Cooper had recently fallen behind on his extortion payments, which is why the officers were at the house hassling Woods in the first place.

Woods is black. So is Spencer, who is still on death row. The three police officers were white. Among the factors that hampered Woods’ defense: Alabama has no state-wide public defender system. Woods struggled to maintain an attorney, and each lawyer who represented him made serious mistakes, including missed filing deadlines.

I used to think that corruption was something that happened in other places, or other times. My 30s has been a period of growing disillusionment. I’ve also wanted to see the atrocities that occurred in the South as something that happened in the past. Yes, I know there are still problems. But I guess I thought those problems didn’t involve frame jobs reminiscent of the Emmett Till murder (Flowers was first suspected of being the perpetrator of a quadruple homicide at a furniture store because he’d looked the wrong way at a white woman).

I also had no idea that a prosecutor found by a higher court to have engaged in racial bias in juror selection would be allowed to retry the same case with no repercussions for his actions at all.

In Mississippi, prosecutors are elected and can’t be removed for misconduct. If a prosecutor engages in misconduct, the voters are supposed to remove him. Not so, in Winona, Mississippi, where white people keep re-electing the same white prosecutor no matter how much evidence comes up that he has engaged in serious misconduct. In my youthful idealism, I had assumed that things like this didn’t happen.

We’re a country of law and justice, rights and freedom. Right?

I wanted to believe. I certainly grew up believing. Not so my daughter. Not yet in middle school, my daughter is already quick to belt out “that’s corruption!” at even a whiff of double dealing. My daughter, who is growing up listening to NPR coverage of the president’s corruption. My daughter, who lives in a city where corrupt politicians are taken down in stings run by the FBI. My daughter, who listens to the radio and pays attention to the news.

Maybe that was my problem. Maybe I didn’t pay enough attention, before. But I don’t think that was my only problem. Does high school government class cover corruption? Does it address situation like Curtis Flowers’, or Nathaniel Woods’? I wouldn’t know, because I was homeschooled. But if it doesn’t, it should.

Some days I lean toward libertarianism. After all, what is the police but a group the state has granted the right to exercise violence against others? Certainly, the police is supposed to be fair and to enforce the laws, but is that really how it works out? I’ve heard way too many stories of police corruption and malfeasance to assume so. I’ve heard way too many stories of police and politicians alike shaking down others for money, or favors.

I’m not interested in hearing how much better we have it than people do in other places. For one thing, I’m not sure we have it as much better as we think we do. For another, what I’m grappling with his the disconnect between the America I have and the America I thought I had. I’m trying my country against my ideal. I don’t think that’s unfair, because America claims to be that ideal. We are special. We have rights and freedoms others don’t. We are better than everyone else. This rhetoric makes it feel like that much more of a betrayal.

Perhaps I’m becoming more of a cynic. I certainly feel more jaded. Welcome to 2020, I suppose. While you’re here, take a moment to sign the petition to stop the execution of Nathaniel Woods.

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