Southern Exposure

Southern Exposure is my ruminations, reflections and personal descriptions of the ten weeks I'll be spending living and working as a legal intern in the deep South.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Sweet Home Alabama

Ok...well, not quite. After spending 10 weeks in the Deep South, I’m not quite ready to call Alabama home. Home to me is where I am now, back in New York City. It’s also my family home in Maryland, where I grew up. Though my summer internship at the Equal Justice Initiative and my experience living in Montgomery have made a lasting impression on me, I leave Alabama knowing that I came as an outsider and I left as an outsider, albeit one who has at least gained an appreciation for the way of life down south.

As I have hopefully conveyed on these pages, Alabama’s criminal justice system is characterized by systematic flaws that result in racial and socio-economic prejudice, in trials that are ripe with ineffective defense attorneys, and in excessive punishments, including but not limited to the death penalty and to life without parole, being pursued by overzealous prosecutors. Though I can only rely upon my limited experience to answer this question, I have repeatedly wondered this summer whether alternatives to Alabama exist that offer better criminal justice systems. Clearly, states that have public defender offices are in a better position than Alabama because they have the means to provide indigent defendants with more effective counsel. States that have abolished the death penalty are also a step ahead because they have recognized that the death penalty does not achieve deterrence, nor can it ever be imposed in a fair and equitable manner.

An ideal criminal justice system would involve prosecutors who present their cases before juries and then ask them to impose a punishment that is fair; i.e., a punishment that deters crime and provides retribution for the victims and for society, while recognizing that individual defendants cannot be defined solely by their criminal acts, but by the circumstances that led the defendants to commit them. As I mentioned earlier, an ideal system in my mind would also greatly resemble a child welfare program that assigns individual caseworkers to inmates to determine when and if they are ready to be released. For many reasons, no state has ever supported such a criminal justice system. The cost of hiring and training caseworkers and then administering non-uniform prison sentences would be astronomical. Furthermore, litigation in our country is adversarial in nature, so prosecutors and defense attorneys alike have little incentive to strive for a happy middle ground, but instead advocate for their position to the extreme and then let the judge and jury settle the matter at hand. As employees of the state, prosecutors (and often judges) are also subject to the whims of politics, and go to excesses to portray themselves as tough on crime instead of advocates for justice.

Along these lines, another question I ask myself is whether I could ever see myself being a prosecutor. A common refrain in the public defense world is that once you have worked as a prosecutor, you can never go back to representing indigent defendants because you have crossed a line from which you cannot return. I found such a hard-line stance difficult to swallow at the beginning of the summer; now, I understand this perspective. Even the best-intentioned prosecutors are restricted by sentencing requirements, by their superiors’ political ambitions, and by their own career aspirations. I would also imagine that many prosecutors lose sight of attaining justice and become cynical after being exposed to an endless series of criminals and criminal acts. From my vantage point as a young law student, I would like to believe that I can defy these odds and prosecute criminals in the name of justice and equality, but I don’t yet know whether such a conviction is realistic in today’s world.

Aside from the intellectual challenges that I pondered over the summer, I truly enjoyed living in the south. Looking over my tongue-in-cheek list of goals that I created for myself at the outset, I’m happy to say that I can check off pretty much all of them. I went to a Southern Baptist Church and loved it; I traveled throughout the southern states to get a flavor for the south’s civil rights history; I entertained myself with Rick & Bubba in the morning to appreciate the values and cultural norms of red-state America; I enjoyed being on the receiving end of southern hospitality; and, yes, I even learned to appreciate some country music and took slide guitar lessons (which were only moderately successful I might add).

As for my blog – I’ve really enjoyed being able to reflect on my experiences and to share them with all the readers who have chosen to click on my website or receive my emails. And of course, I appreciate all the feedback I’ve received both online and offline. Thank you. With classes starting all too soon and with my life returning back to the normal and somewhat less-interesting life of just another second-year law student in New York, I can’t promise that I’ll be able to continue to post regularly but I do hope to be able to add the occasional posting or thought online, and always welcome your comments.

Until then, it’s been a pleasure y’all.

Final grits count: 8 regular grits, 4 cheese grits

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

The Real World

I’ve never really watched the show and don’t have any aspirations to be on it, but I’m pretty sure that my living situation down here in Prattville is a close replicate of what life is like on the Real World. Prattville is a sleepy town located right outside of Montgomery that smells constantly like ice cream waffle cones thanks to the nearby International Paper mill. I found my roommate, Maud, after posting on Craig’s List, and have been delighted with the find. The house is spacious (especially compared to New York standards!), the price is great and Maud is an easy-going, friendly and laid back person to live with. (I still haven’t figured out how old she is, but I’m guessing 30-something to early 40s). Maud is so easy going in fact, that she hasn’t been working the last few months, and spends a lot of time a the house watching television, surfing the web and drinking beer. She drinks a lot of beer.

Maud is also gay, and that fact, along with her generous and laid back personality, accounts for a lot of the excitement we’ve had in the place for the last 2+ months. Unlike cities in the northeast, the gay community in places like Montgomery is not supported by city politicians or a bevy of nonprofit organizations, nor does it coalesce in certain neighborhoods that provide social outlets and group support. Instead, Maud is like a fish out of water in a neighborhood that’s comprised of mostly military and retired military families. And she’s not the only one. Throughout the summer we’ve had a parade of wandering characters (straight and gay) staying in the house or passing through, who know that Maud is liberal with her beer stash and is always happy to offer a place to crash on the living room futon or in one of the spare bedrooms.

First there was Maud’s friend, Mae Belle, who had been living in the house for a few months before I arrived but went back to her on-again, off-again girlfriend right before I moved in. When Mae Belle left, she forgot to take the three rusted shotguns she had been keeping with her and had to come back for them. Three weeks later she pulled into the driveway one night and didn’t leave the futon again for about a month except to go to work during the day, content to drink beer and watch TV at night until she and her girlfriend decided to get back together.

No sooner had we said goodbye to Mae Belle, then Maud’s ex-girlfriend, Sue, and her high-school-age son showed up. Of all the people we’ve had staying with us this past summer, Maud’s ex is the only one that should not have been there, but she claimed she needed to come to take a break from her boyfriend. Maud’s ex and her siblings all live in trailer parks on the road between Montgomery and Tuscaloosa. Many of them are alcoholics and petty criminals, eager to take advantage of a woman like Maud, who’s both generous and lonely. Over Christmas, for example, Sue invited her whole family to come to Maud’s for Christmas dinner since none of the trailers could accommodate all of them. One of the guests repaid Maud’s hospitality by stealing blank checks from her checkbook.

During the few days that Sue parked herself in our house this summer, her son unlocked the windows in Maud’s bedroom so he could make an easy, and illicit, return. (That never happened.) One week later, Sue’s sister showed up drunk, probably at Sue’s prompting, with her mentally disabled infant daughter and dog in tow looking for some beer. (Maud refused and got her out as quickly as possible). Despite all of this, Maud made sure to buy a birthday gift for Sue’s son, and replaced Sue’s bed with a new one when she said she couldn’t afford one of her own.

One day I showed up and a guy was sitting on the couch, smoking cigarettes and watching television. I didn’t see him move an inch from his spot until two days later when he decided to go back to work. Another day, yet another guy showed up - an old friend of Maud’s who used to live in the house. He drove Maud home from a bar one night after she was in no condition to drive back, and didn’t leave the house for two days.

Earlier this week, I returned home in the evening to find a woman sprawled out on the couch. As I learned the next morning, Terry is a Navajo woman and divorcee from New Mexico who’s lived all over the States, and is crashing in our house for an indeterminate amount of time, while she and Maud spend the days drinking, watching television and cooking.

In case we didn't have enough people coming through, we also had 3 dogs and 2 cats roaming around at different points during the summer. (1 of the cats belongs to Maud).

All this might make my living situation sound out of control or unpleasant. The truth is I haven’t felt that way at all. Besides offering me a window into the different lives that people lead here, everyone with the exception of Sue has been friendly and easy to get along with, especially Maud. I’m not sure this would work in New York, but then again, whoever said living in the Big Apple was like living in the real world??

Monday, August 07, 2006

State of the Union

Here’s a list of all the states I’ve visited and associated stats:

States I’ve visited: 38 (Almost 39...after I visit Minnesota in September)
States I still need to visit: 12
(See below for a complete listing)

States I’ve traveled to this summer:

Favorite State:
Maryland, of course!
Runners up:
New York City (ok, that's not a state)

Least-Favorite State:
I’m not going to answer this one because every state I’ve been to has something good about it, but I think most people from the Northeast would pick New Jersey.

State with the friendliest people:
It’s a toss up between Colorado, California (San Francisco), Alabama and Mississippi

Most scenic state:

Least scenic state:

States I Still Need to Go to (Ranked in order of preference):
Washington & Oregon
North Dakota & Montana

State with the most far-out but worthwhile tourist site:
Iowa’s Field of Dreams

States I could see myself raising a family in:
Maryland / D.C. Area

States I could see myself retiring to:
New York
Maryland (DC Area)
(Florida is conspicuously absent from this list...though I can't promise it won't happen)

State I think will be the first to secede from the Union:

State that should host the Olympics:
States I've Been To:
Alabama, Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware
Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Louisiana, Maine
Maryland, Massachussets, Michigan, Mississippi, Nebraska
Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York
North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island
South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas
Utah, Vermont, Virginia, West Virginia, Wisconsin

States I still have to get to:
Alaska, Arkansas, Hawaii, Idaho, Kansas, Kentucky
Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, North Dakota
Oregon, Washington

Friday, August 04, 2006

Mississippi Burning

In the 1960s, Mississippi proved to be one of the most deeply entrenched, if not the most, deeply entrenched state in the Union to resist the African American civil rights movement. As the director of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee’s (SNCC) Mississippi Project, Bob Moses, often compared to the Biblical Moses in the context of the Civil Rights movement, led voter registration and education drives in rural towns across the Mississippi Delta such as Greenwood and Rureville. During his campaign, Moses suffered constant physical beatings and threats at the hands of law enforcement, as well as regular jailings.

When James Meredith sought to become the first registered black student at Ole Miss in 1962 in Oxford, Mississippi (also the birthplace of William Faulkner), Governor Ross Barnett’s steadfast refusal to allow it to take place sparked riots that resulted in two people dead and nearly 80 wounded, many of whom were U.S. Marshals sent in by the Kennedy Administration. Eighteen months later, three civil rights workers - James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner - were killed in Philadelphia, MS after being released from the Neshoba County jail, where they had been booked for a few hours on charges of speeding. (Chaney was from Mississippi and Goodman and Schwerner were from NYC). Edgar Ray Killen, a member of the Neshoba County Klu Klux Klan was only convicted of conspiracy to murder them 13 months ago. That’s right....only 13 months ago. The deaths of Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner inspired the movie Mississippi Burning.

Last weekend, I took a road trip to neighboring Mississippi along with my friends Bobby and Rhonda. Though we went to enjoy the sites and scenery in the central and southwestern parts of the state, Mississippi’s notorious clash with race relations was never far from our mind or from our itinerary. Our first stop was in Vicksburg, site of the famous Siege of Vicksburg. Vicksburg played a crucial role in the Civil War because it was situated on a high bluff overlooking the Mississippi River, and thus was necessary to control traffic on the waterway. In June of 1863, Union forces laid siege to the city and 47 days later, on July 4th, Confederate soldiers surrendered, marking a major turning point in the war. (As a result of this defeat, the town of Vicksburg didn’t celebrate July 4th until recently). The National Military Park in Vicksburg is the south’s equivalent to the National Military Park in Gettysburg, Pa., and we spent the day touring the park and walking downtown along the Mississippi River.

From Vicksburg, we followed the Mississippi River southwest and made our way to Natchez, a town known for its antebellum (i.e., pre-civil war) homes, and for its history as the center of the Natchez Indian Tribe. Today, Natchez is a quaint collection of beautiful antebellum mansions, a bunch of small-town bars and restaurants on Main Street, and a gigantic casino boat on the Mississippi River. The town turned out to be one of the most tourist-friendly places I’ve been to all summer. Though we were quickly identified as the “Yankees in town,” we had a whole group of friends to hang out with after a night of checking out the local watering holes. By the same token, Natchez also seemed to me to be one of the most conspicuously separated towns that I’ve been in all summer. The bars that we went to were almost 100% white, and we wound up being engaged in an hour-long conversation with a musician from Louisiana who didn’t beat around the bush when he told us that he didn’t want to sound prejudiced, but he thought too many African Americans were on welfare and simply sat around on their laurels taking advantage of tax payers’ money. Especially the ones affected by Hurricane Katrina.

On Sunday, we made our way back north to Jackson, along the Natchez Trace Parkway, which goes from Natchez all the way up into Tennessee, and commemorates the migration route of the Natchez Trace Indians. Jackson was the site of some of the most famous civil rights events in the 1960s. The first Freedom Ride ended in Jackson, MS in June 1961 when the riders, who consisted of both black and white activists seeking to integrate Greyhound’s southern bus system, were arrested upon arriving in the city. Two years later, Medgar Evers, the head of the Mississippi chapter of the NAACP, was killed by a white supremacist in front of his home.

Today, downtown Jackson is a pretty bland place with the exception of a few cafes and bars. Using a guidebook for direction however, we drove through the streets to pass by sites where sit-ins and integration protests took place 40 years ago, and then wound up at Millsaps College. In 1965, Millsaps College became the first private college in the south to integrate. On Sunday, it was hosting the New Orleans Saints training camp, which was really why we went there in the first place. (Though the Saints’ highly touted draft pick, Reggie Bush, had ended his contract holdout the day we went to training camp, he didn’t report to camp until Tuesday because he couldn’t get a flight out of LA). Seeing players who had biceps twice the size of my thighs put together was a pretty remarkable sight.

Just as the sun was setting Sunday evening, we arrived at our last stop of the trip - Philadelphia, Mississippi. Our time there was relatively brief, but driving through the streets and seeing the poverty that still permeates the black section of town brought echoes of what James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner must have seen when they came on a mission to effect positive social change. Seeing the memorial to them in front of the small Neshoba County Baptist Church, also reminded me that my work in Alabama this summer is the offspring of the cause that they died for.

With that, we made our way back to Montgomery, Alabama. There are still places I want to see in Mississippi. I want to hear the blues music of the Mississippi Delta (that’s the northeastern part of the state) where, legend has it, the blues player Robert Leroy Johnson sold his soul to the devil at a railroad crossing, and died at the age of 27 after recording only 29 songs. (Those 29 songs are now among the most famous blues songs to ever have been played.) I’d also like to travel to Oxford, birthplace of William Faulkner and home to the University of Mississippi. Last, but not least, I wouldn’t mind swinging through Tupelo, Mississippi, birthplace of none other than Elvis Presley.

I’ll just have to save that for the next time I make my way down south.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

The Public Defender

Going back to some common refrains that I’ve heard about the death penalty and our criminal justice system in general….Before I came here, I assumed that every state had a public defender's office to represent accused criminals who couldn't afford their own attorney. I think most people make the same assumption. Everyone has a right to an attorney, so it seems only natural that a public defender would represent a defendant if they couldn’t hire their own lawyer.

Well, it turns out I was wrong. Alabama does not have a public defender’s office. Instead, private attorneys are appointed by the court to represent indigent defendants. Until 1999, attorneys that were appointed to represent capital punishment defendants at trial received a maximum of $2000 to defend their client. Today, the cap has been removed for trial attorneys (though the billing rate per hour is still pretty meager), but not for attorneys who represent death row clients on appeal. In contrast to Alabama’s system of court-appointed attorneys, states that have public defender offices provide funding for the office that is then matched by the federal government. Public defenders work on representing poor defendants 100% of the time, unlike the private attorneys who represent indigent defendants in Alabama.

Alabama’s system has several consequences that necessitate organizations like Equal Justice Initiative, the organization I’m interning at this summer, to actively seek reform of the state criminal justice system while extending their own resources to capacity in order to represent clients on death row. First of all, the attorneys that are appointed to represent indigent defendants have an incentive to spend as little time as possible representing each defendant so that they can earn more money. This means that the quality of their counsel is extremely poor. Criminal indigent defense attorneys are also usually not the “cream of the crop” so-to-speak because if they had regular, paying clients than they wouldn’t have to accept the discounted fees offered by the state to represent indigent defendants.

Not surprisingly, 70 percent of the people presently on death row were convicted when the fees for indigent defense lawyers were capped at $2,000. Partly as a result of this astonishing statistic, ineffective counsel is one of the most common arguments that’s made on appeal to try and secure a new trial. In one case that I’m working on now for instance, our client’s attorney was only given about $100 to hire a forensic expert to testify on his client's behalf. The forensic expert had to analyze bullets found at the crime scene, which turned out to be the main evidence against the defendant. Because of the meager allowance that he got from the state, the defendant’s attorney wound up hiring an “expert” who did not know how to use the machine to analyze bullet markings, and who was blind in one eye. Today, this client sits on death row, despite extraordinarily strong evidence - including evidence that the bullets don’t match his gun - that he is actually innocent of the crime committed.

There’s a saying that it’s better to be rich and guilty than innocent and poor. That’s especially true in Alabama.

Friday, July 28, 2006

Reverend Robert Graetz

Unfortunately, this week has been tough, and I sit here tonight with swirling emotions struggling to write this blog. Though my summer has been an amazing one, as I hopefully have conveyed on these pages, not every day is easy. Besides the complicated nature of the work in which I’ve been engaged, I realize the difficulty of living in a place and culture that is virtually foreign to me: relationships with the people I love and care about can change while I’m gone; phone and email conversations are not substitutes for the comfort of friends and family back home; and even the up-to-the minute nature of online news doesn’t replace the experience of living through the headlines, whether they be good or bad.

I wanted to briefly share an inspirational experience that I had tonight. In 1955, Reverend Robert Graetz, who is white, was called to become the minister of Montgomery’s all-black Trinity Church, fresh out of seminary in Ohio. Several months after his appointment, an African American woman, who used Rev. Graetz’s church for youth meetings, was arrested for refusing to leave her seat in the front of the bus. Rev. Graetz called Rosa Parks that night to confirm what had taken place, and the next day stood up in his pulpit and became one of the first ministers, white or black, to publicly support the Montgomery bus boycott. Following his declaration of support, Rev. Graetz became one of the leaders of the boycott, an active participant in the civil rights movement, and a close friend of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Earlier tonight I had the opportunity to hear Rev. Graetz speak in his adopted hometown of Montgomery (he’s now semi-retired and living in Ohio). In the audience sat a virtual “who’s who” of civil rights activists: Judge Thomas Gray, whose brother, Fred Gray, is the renowned civil rights attorney made famous when he represented the bus boycotters in court; Reva Harris, a close friend of Dr. King’s, whose husband organized an African American taxi service during the boycott and who provided shelter to 31 Freedom Riders when they came to Montgomery; the niece of E.D. Nixon, considered the “Father of the Civil Rights Movement”; and finally, several members of Trinity Church who actively participated in the boycott.

Though I have experienced something of this sort in my own family, for one of the first times in my life, I observed people treat others of a different race than their own as if they were all part of the same family. The God that Rev. Graetz invoked was not the God of war or of divisiveness, but of compassion, of unity and of respect. Rev. Graetz spoke of the need for the Church and for society to be more accepting of homosexuality, and related to the audience that his oldest son, who was gay, died of AIDS in the 1980s. His son came out, however, with the full support of his family, which I can only imagine as being extremely difficult given the fact that the Lutheran Church only welcomed gays and lesbians in the 1990s.

Rev. Graetz also imparted his advice to the next generation, emphasizing not only the importance of knowing our collective history, but also the need for people to exercise the right to vote. This advice was particularly relevant given President Bush’s signing of the Voting Rights Act today, but also had special meaning for me since I recently visited the Voting Rights Museum in Selma. On a related topic, Rev. Graetz discussed what it means to put one’s life on the line for a cause in which he believed. As he put it, he and the other civil rights leaders knew that some of them would die fighting for their rights, but decided that they were willing to do so in order to be able to change the lives of the generation that succeeded them. (Rev. Graetz’s house was bombed several times in 1956 and 1957).

Though his name may not carry the instant recognition associated with Dr. King’s, meeting Rev. Graetz tonight reinforced the fact that my work here is a continuation of the reform that he first advocated along with Dr. King and the other civil rights leaders of the 1950s and ‘60s in Montgomery. We have come a long way since the days of Martin Luther King’s and Rev. Graetz’s heroic deeds, but we still have farther to go.

P.S. Grit Count = 6 regular grits, 2 cheese grits.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

The Light at the End of the Tunnel

What does it feel like to walk through a tunnel that has no light at the end of it?

On Thursday, I was back in prison for another visit, this time to meet with a client, “CC”, who is serving a sentence of life without parole for a murder he committed when he was sixteen. Today, CC is 29 and has spent most of his 13 years in prison locked in solitary confinement. More than anything else during our visit, I felt a sense of the overwhelming despair that inevitably consumes someone who has grown up inside the walls of a prison and has virtually no chance of ever getting out.

I myself walked out of our meeting frustrated, not only at the fact that there was little I could do to ease CC’s palpable anxiety. Our 3 hours of conversation certainly put him in a better mood than when he first walked in, if only because he had a chance to enjoy human interaction and a thought-provoking discussion. From a legal point of view however, CC knows that there is little recourse available to secure a reduction in his sentence or to get him before a parole board. (This was not a part of our conversation as I was only there to check in with CC, not to provide him legal counsel).

CC’s best shot at freedom right now is to hope for a Supreme Court decision concluding that a sentence of life without parole for crimes committed as a juvenile is unconstitutional. Several organizations have begun to advocate for this to happen, though it’s unlikely to come about anytime soon. In the meantime, I was left to ponder how an individual who has grown up in prison from a dangerous kid into an articulate, remorseful and educated adult can be left to stare ahead at the four walls around him without much hope of ever seeing a light at the end of the tunnel.

The answer to me lies in the fact that our criminal justice system emphasizes uniformity and efficiency over individualized justice. Our justice system is not set up like a child welfare department, whereby case-workers monitor prisoners’ progress during incarceration to determine when they have assumed responsibility for their crimes, demonstrated remorse and matured to the point of being able to successfully re-enter society. Instead, our justice system attempts, though not always successfully, to ensure that similar crimes merit similar punishments, that criminal prosecution is executed pursuant to a protocol that protects the constitutional rights of the defendants, and that appellate courts are not bogged down by an endless series of appeals questioning the accuracy of the jury’s verdict.

This all sounds well and good, except when we consider that such a criminal justice system treats a 19-year old offender the same as a 40-year old offender, that taxpayers assume the cost of incarcerating individuals who no longer need to be locked up, and that prosecutors face incentives to maximize sentences instead of adopting a pragmatic approach that emphasizes ultimate re-entry into society. Moreover, especially when it comes to considering the death penalty, the criminal justice system tends to lose sight of the fact that human life is involved on both sides of the equation – on the victim’s side and on the perpetrator’s side. This point is made with startling clarity in the movie I saw last night, Dead Man Walking.

No doubt there are arguments in favor of our justice system as it exists today. Efficiency and uniformity keep the costs of prosecution and administration down and provide notice to potential criminals of the punishments they might face if they choose to act on their tendencies. Furthermore, our justice system mandates that when a crime is committed, all of society suffers harm and not just the immediate victim or the victim’s family. Meting out similar punishments for similar crimes is consistent with this philosophy.

Though I don’t expect our country’s justice system to be overhauled in the near future, I believe advocates of reform must figure out a way to focus their eyes on the light at the end of the tunnel – to lobby legislators and prosecutors and convince them that prisoners, especially young ones, who enjoy a ray of hope at being released might have incentives to clean up their act; to create better programs inside and outside of prison that encourage continuing education, regular communication with the outside world and positive reinforcement; and, above all, to emphasize that our criminal justice system must be more accountable to individual human beings, victims and criminal offenders alike.

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