Innocence and Freedom

On 19 October 2010, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals found Michael Anthony Green innocent, of rape charges for which he spent 27 years in prison, the AP reported the following day.

Mr. Green was 18 when he was arrested in 1983, and was released on new DNA evidence in July 2011, at the age of 44. The tests showed that Mr. Green had not abducted or raped a woman in Houston at that time, but that four other men, who have since been identified, had committed the crime.

Mr. Green is eligible to apply for compensation from the state of Texas for his wrongful conviction. Under state law, Texas owes him eighty thousand dollars ($80,000) for each year of his incarceration – that comes to over two million dollars in settlement money. His lawyer said that he plans to apply for a pardon from Governor Rick Perry (R). Since his release, Mr. Green has worked as a paralegal for his lawyer, Bob Wicoff. Mr. Wicoff informed Mr. Green of the court’s recent decision to set aside his conviction after the DNA tests confirmed his innocence.

But although the exoneration of Mr. Green demonstrates how powerful the technical and scientific instruments of justice can be, his case also reveals fundamental contradictions in the social and legal systems that administer and enforce such justice.

First, the statute of limitations on the 1983 rape has expired. Even though the four men who committed that sexual assault have been identified, they cannot be prosecuted, since the crime occurred over ten years ago. They need not even register as sex offenders, since they have not been convicted of this crime in a court of law (and can never be, until Texas law adapts to updates in DNA testing). The powerful scientific evidence that has cleared Mr. Green cannot legally affect the men whose guilt it demonstrates.

Second, while Mr. Green stands to make a small fortune from his ordeal, his entire adulthood has been enclosed and shaped by the largest prison system in the world.  Despite the court’s formal ruling on his innocence, Mr. Green has already suffered consequences of incarceration. Indeed, when released in July (on a $500 bond), he had spent half again as much of his life behind bars as time he had been free. Monetary reimbursement from the state of Texas imagines serving time as an inmate to be a job in itself; gubernatorial pardon imagines a wrongful conviction to be a conviction nonetheless. At one and the same time, the state brands Mr. Green an exemplary outsider, and as just another average citizen.

Michael Anthony Green’s exoneration reminds us of the suffering that victims of a duplicitous and prosecutorial legal-penal system undergo every day. How many of them receive the awards and retribution that Mr. Green has? Only a few dozen a year. How many of the victims of the crimes, for which some innocents have been imprisoned, find the same justice? One shudders, and thinks, none.

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