March 22, 2015

Marty Stroud, Glenn Ford, and the Machinery of Death

Photo by Douglas Collier/The Shreveport Times
The Shreveport Times recently published a written apology from former prosecutor Marty Stroud to Glenn Ford. Stroud's words are powerful and moving, and I urge you to read the piece.

Stroud had successfully obtained the death penalty for Ford in 1984 for a murder in Shreveport, Louisiana. Ford spent 33 years in prison, the vast majority of which was spent on death row, before he was exonerated. He may now be free, but justice has not been done, and time is running out.

Louisiana, much to Stroud's surprise, but probably nobody else's, has been staunchly resisting paying Ford any sort of compensation for the years he spent in their state penitentiaries. Sadly, Ford now has stage four lung cancer; a diagnosis that speaks for itself.

I won't bore you with the details of the wrongful conviction or how Ford was finally cleared, except to point out that Ford, a black man, was convicted by an all-white jury, and defended by attorneys who did not practice criminal law and had never tried a case before a jury. The remaining history can be found online or in this article in the Washington Post. The far more interesting part of this story is Stroud's open apology to Ford, which is bundled together with both express and implicit criticisms of our system of justice. The apology is set out, with a video of Stroud's commentary, in the Shreveport Times' article.

The story, and Shroud's full acceptance of responsibility for his role in Ford's conviction and imprisonment is powerful stuff and should be read in its entirety. Stroud makes no effort to let himself off the hook, saying, for instance:
In 1984, I was 33 years old. I was arrogant, judgmental, narcissistic and very full of myself. I was not as interested in justice as I was in winning. To borrow a phrase from Al Pacino in the movie "And Justice for All," "Winning became everything."
After the death verdict in the Ford trial, I went out with others and celebrated with a few rounds of drinks. That's sick. I had been entrusted with the duty to seek the death of a fellow human being, a very solemn task that certainly did not warrant any "celebration."
In my rebuttal argument during the penalty phase of the trial, I mocked Mr. Ford, stating that this man wanted to stay alive so he could be given the opportunity to prove his innocence. I continued by saying this should be an affront to each of you jurors, for he showed no remorse, only contempt for your verdict.
How totally wrong was I.
I speak only for me and no one else.
I apologize to Glenn Ford for all the misery I have caused him and his family.
I apologize to the family of Mr. Rozeman for giving them the false hope of some closure.
I apologize to the members of the jury for not having all of the story that should have been disclosed to them.
I apologize to the court in not having been more diligent in my duty to ensure that proper disclosures of any exculpatory evidence had been provided to the defense.
Glenn Ford deserves every penny owed to him under the compensation statute.
There's more. A lot more. Stroud argues against the death penalty, saying,
We are simply incapable of devising a system that can fairly and impartially impose a sentence of death because we are all fallible human beings.
The clear reality is that the death penalty is an anathema to any society that purports to call itself civilized. 
He is right, of course. But that is almost beside the point. Ford's conviction was due far less to Stroud's willful blindness than the fact that it occurred in a system where a man facing the death penalty could be defended by lawyers who lacked experience in defending criminal cases. That they had never handled a jury trial before was the cherry on top. It's the equivalent of delegating a complex, high-risk spinal surgery to a just-out-of-med-school urology resident, and then chalking up the negative outcome to God's will.

Stroud's apology acknowledges the realities of criminal prosecutions throughout the country, local, state and federal, be they death penalty cases or run of the mill, low-level felonies. They are driven by facts that are often from questionable sources, and are handled by human beings, replete with all the failings and shortcomings innate to our species. A desire to win that distorts one's sense of doing justice, a view of a criminal prosecution as a competition in which carrying the verdict trumps all else, an absence of perspective and understanding of the process as being larger than the individual, are all inevitable within our criminal justice system.

That people are wrongly prosecuted and convicted should come as no surprise, particularly given the number of exonerations that have come to light in recent years. That there are untold numbers of innocent men and women rotting in our penitentiaries cannot be seriously disputed. That innocent men and women have no doubt been put to death by our machinery of death is equally certain.

Marty Stroud's deeply felt and moving apology raises many questions, not the least of which is what can we do to help guard against such travesties of justice going forward. Ultimately, those on our side of the fence can do little but protest and rail on about individual injustices. Barring a willingness to by those in power to implement institutional change, history will no doubt continue to repeat itself, without regard for all the other Glenn Fords and Marty Strouds in its path.

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