Don't Steal This Television
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A man does thirty-five years in prison for stealing a $149 television. Case files from the gulag? Try North Carolina.
In 1970, Junior Allen, a black sharecropper, walked into an unoccupied house in Johnson County, North Carolina and stole a white woman's television. He hid the set in a nearby wooded area and returned to his work camp. Later confronted by police, he confessed. With prior arrests for burglaries and an assault, a jury found Allen guilty of second-degree burglary and, under the law of the day, sentenced him to life in prison.
The North Carolina legislature has since changed the law (second degree burglary now carries three years) and legal experts say the now-deceased judge probably expected Allen would be paroled. Allen was denied parole 25 times.
In May 2005, after a law professor bird-dogged the case for three years, the 60-year-old Allen walked out of the Orange Correctional Center, a stooped and bitter symbol of a miscarriage of justice.
"I think about it every morning and every night," Allen, who now lives with his sister in rural Georgia, told AlterNet. "That was my life."
How can a man do three decades for stealing a television? The white woman's family has long claimed that Allen beat her. But he was only charged with burglary, and Richard Rosen, the University of North Carolina law professor who took on the case, told AlterNet that court records and transcripts are clear.
"There is no question that that allegation has become somewhat of a myth in the family now," he said. There is absolutely nothing in the record that supports it. We're talking rural North Carolina in 1970," Rosen continued. "There is no way a large African American man roughs up an 87-year-old white woman and doesn't get charged with it.
The parole board maintains that it was Allen's behavior in prison that kept him locked up. He was far from a model prisoner. Over the course of his 35 years in prison, he racked up some 60 infractions ranging from gambling to the use of foul language to a weapons possession charge. Allen says the infractions were fabricated. What's more, he watched violent inmates with the same kinds of citations come and go. Rosen said all but eight of the charges were minor, like having unauthorized money, the kinds of things it's impossible to live without in prison, Rosen said. He never attacked a guard or another inmate.
While race played a role in Allen's sentence and continued time in prison, it wasn't the only factor. African Americans serve on North Carolina's parole commission, and the director of the board is black.
"I think in the end it was a case of embarrassment for the state of North Carolina when this finally got publicized," said Rosen. "Allen just fell through the cracks. He just got lost and nobody paid attention. When Allen's case started to get media attention, the people involved began covering their tracks. The state realized that for 25 to 30 years they were paying between $25,000 and $30,000 a year to keep a 65-year-old man in prison for stealing a TV."
Neither North Carolina's parole board nor the office of Democratic Governor Michael F. Easley responded to interview requests.
"When I speak or write about this case, people cant believe it," said Reverend Bernice Powell Jackson, executive director of the United Church of Christ's Justice and Witness Ministries. "People assume it was a case of three strikes, that it was some kind of automatic punishment. It wasn't. It's really hard for people to believe that the criminal justice system could go this much awry."
Because Allen's sentence was legal in North Carolina at the time, he has no legal recourse. Instead, just five months free, Allen is slowly trying to get his life back. Jobs are scare and even looking for work means getting a photo I.D., which means getting a birth certificate, which meant spending a month shuttling between Georgia and Alabama, where he was born. Nowadays, he spends his time looking and hoping for work, watching television, doing grocery shopping and running errands. He wants to start fishing. He's not interested in talking to reporters. As for work, he's hoping to use the forklift-driving skills he acquired in prison.
Officials in North Carolina have stated to the media that they are reviewing other cases of people convicted under overreaching laws. But it's too late for Allen, former inmate number 0004604.
"I feel like I been cheated," he said at the end of our phone conversation. "I lost time that I won't never make up no more."
Kelly Hearn is a former UPI staff writer who lives in Washington DC and Latin America. His work has appeared in the Christian Science Monitor, American Prospect, and other publications.