10 Most Appalling Failures of the American Justice System This Year

Every year, stories emerge that serve as a reminder that the American system of justice means injustice for too many, with some receiving little or no punishment for egregious offenses, while others receive harsh or faulty punishment for much less. Here are some of the worst injustices of 2013:

1. An Alabama blogger is still sitting in a jail cell for exercising his First Amendment rights

Blogger Roger Shuler drew the ire of the powers that be when he continued to write about the alleged extramarital affair of a prominent lawyer rumored to be running for Congress. The lawyer and son of former Alabama governor Bob Riley, Robert Riley, Jr., won a temporary restraining order that prohibited Shuler from writing anything about Riley’s alleged extramarital affair and other related stories. The order itself was almost certainly a violation of First Amendment law. But Alabama officials took the dispute a step further when they pursued him for a traffic stop and arrested him for contempt. In spite of advocacy from the ACLU and others, Shuler has now been in a jail cell for two months for his journalism.

2. A teen spent three years in jail without a conviction or trial

Kalief Browder was a 16-year-old sophomore in high school walking home from a party in the Bronx when he was arrested on a tip that he robbed someone three weeks earlier. He was hauled off to Rikers Island, a prison known for punishing conditions and overuse of force, and was held because he couldn’t pay the $10,000 bail. Browder went to court on several occasions, but he was never scheduled for trial. After 33 months in jail, Browder said a judge offered freedom in exchange for a guilty plea, threatening that he could face 15 years in jail if convicted. He refused. Then one day, he was released with no explanation. While Browder was behind bars, he missed years of his childhood, and is now aiming to attain his GED. Browder spent a particularly long time behind bars before his trial, but the practice of holding those charged but not convicted who cannot afford bail for months is all-too-common. In fact, the U.S. Supreme Court dismissed the appeal last term of a Louisiana man who waited seven years behind bars without a trial because the state stalled in appointing him a lawyer.

3. A man who killed an escort for refusing sex was acquitted by a jury

On Christmas Eve, Ezekiel Gilbert hired escort Lenora Ivie Frago and gave her $150 as what he believed was a payment for sex. But when she didn’t deliver that, Gilbert shot her in the neck and she died several months later from critical injuries. A jury acquitted Gilbert after his lawyer argued that he was authorized to use deadly force under a Texas provision that goes even farther than Florida’s Stand Your Ground law in authorizing the use of deadly force to “retrieve stolen property at night.” As in any jury trial, we’ll never know if that’s the reasoning the jury accepted when it acquitted Gilbert. Regardless, he will not face any criminal penalty for the shooting.

4. A wealthy teen used the ‘Affluenza’ defense to skirt jail time for four deaths

After 16-year-old Ethan Couch took an intoxicated ride around town with his friends that ended with four deaths and several others critically injured, Couch pleaded guilty to intoxication homicide. But when his lawyer argued at trial that he was not capable of taking responsible for his own actions because of a condition known as “affluenza” that afflicts the very wealthy, the judge sentenced him to ten years’ probation in a plush Southern California rehabilitation facility, for which his parents would cover the $450,000 per year bill.

The travesty here is not that Couch was sentenced so lightly. He was a juvenile who, there is reason to believe, did not have good parental supervision and may be receptive to rehabilitation. What is alarming is that Couch was able to use his wealth to secure a lighter punishment for a crime that would have seen other Texas juveniles go to jail. Other juveniles sentenced by the same judge who presided over Couch’s case saw sentences of ten years for a single punch that killed a stranger and robberies at a Halloween party that led to one injury. And around the state, others sentenced for intoxicated manslaughter have seen sentences of 15 years and five years in prison.

5. A man whose testimony was beaten out of him spent 30 years in prison before he was released last month

More than a decade ago, a special prosecutor undertook an investigation that revealed a longtime Chicago Police Department detective and commander had routinely tortured black men to coerce them into confessions or false testimony. Some of the convictions were reversed. A few others were pardoned by then-Governor Ryan. And Jon Graham Burge was convicted on related perjury charges and sent to jail.

But Burge’s misconduct is still taking its toll on many of the 148 people who claimed abuseJust last month, a man who spent more than 30 years in jail was released after Judge Richard Walsh found that officers had lied about beating Stanley Wrice with a flashlight and a 20-inch piece of rubber, and about imposing similar treatment on a witness in Wrice’s case to elicit false testimony against him. Even as the emergence of DNA evidence has exposed the frequency of wrongful convictions, justice comes slowly or not at all for those who have already been convicted, including those who sat on death row.

6. Top Enron fraudster will spend less time in prison than a father who sold his own pain pills

John Horner had no record of drug-dealing when he was sentenced to a 25-year mandatory minimum prison term for selling some of his own pain pills to an undercover informant who befriended him and told him he could not afford both his rent and his prescription medication. Horner, a fast-food restaurant worker and a father, had been prescribed the pain medication because of an injury in which he lost an eye, according to a BBC report. If, as expected, he serves all 25 years, Horner will be 72 when he is released, and he will have spent more time in prison than the former Enron CEO who was convicted in one of the largest corporate fraud schemes in modern history. While Jeffrey Skilling used his expensive legal claims as leverage to reach a deal to serve as little 14 years, Horner is one of thousands of drug offenders serving draconian mandatory minimum sentences that far exceed this. There are now more than 3,000 inmates serving life without parole sentences for nonviolent offenses, mostly drugs.

7. College quarterback escapes any charges in rape case

In November 2012, a female student at Florida State University accused FSU quarterback Jameis Winston of sexual assault. Instead of taking the case seriously, however, Tallahasee police conducted a flawed and mismanaged investigation, even warning the victim’s attorneythat “that Tallahassee was a big football town and the victim needs to think long and hard before proceeding against (Winston).” The state attorney’s office then conducted an investigation that centered more on the victim than on the suspect, according to the victim’s attorney, resulting in a “complete failure of a rape investigation.” The state ultimately decided not to bring charges against Winston, and we’ll never know for sure whether he’s innocent or guilty because no one took the case seriously enough to find out.

8. A black man remains on death row after testimony that blacks are more dangerous

Duane Buck is sitting on death row for a sentence that came after a psychologist testified that blacks are more likely to commit crimes. In 2000, when the psychologist’s comments were first reported, then-Texas Attorney General John Cornyn declared that the state would not stand in the way of a new sentencing. But while Duane Buck has since averted execution, Texas courts have denied several motions to reconsider his case, and an appeals court ruled once again in November that he could not be resentenced.

9. George Zimmerman acquitted

Few injustices garnered as much attention and outrage as the public trial and acquittal of George Zimmerman for shooting to death 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. It was as much an outrage for the outcome as for the tragedy it represents: The shooting of a young black unarmed teen, and an American legal system and culture that supports it. While Zimmerman ultimately opted not to seek immunity from trial under Florida’s Stand Your Ground law, it nonetheless played a crucial role at several stages of the case: First, in prosecutors’ decision to delay charging Zimmerman, and later, as a key element of the instructions jurors relied on in making their decisions. Several jurors who spoke about their deliberations to the media described how those jury instructions shaped their decision-making.

Zimmerman has since been accused of domestic violence in several incidents involving guns. But each time, the victims later retracted their stories. And with no adjudication against him, there is nothing stopping Zimmerman from carrying his guns.

10. Shooters around the country granted immunity for causing death

A South Carolina man who shot and killed an innocent 17-year-old sitting in his car across the street. An Alabama woman who shot her ex-boyfriend’s step-son as he walked up her driveway. A Florida man who killed an acquaintance after he threatened to beat him up. Each of these defendants was granted immunity under the state Stand Your Ground laws that gained notoriety after the death of Trayvon Martin, while others like Marissa Alexander were serving 20 years in prison for firing a warning shot in self-defense (before a judge released her pending a new trial.) Yet even in Florida, the legislature has continued to reject any moves to roll back the law, and is instead advancing a bill to expand it.

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