Sunday, December 20, 2009

Innocence and Anger

So, did you happen to catch the recent headlines about the case involving James Bain? Mr. Bain is 54 years old. Mr. Bain is black. In 1974 Mr. Bain was convicted of kidnapping and raping a 9-year old boy and sent to prison to serve a life sentence for that crime. Mr. Bain served 35 years of his sentence. Then, on December 17, 2009 Mr. Bain walked out of prison a free man after DNA evidence conclusively proved that he was innocent. The DNA evidence did not prove that Mr. Bain was “not guilty” mind you. It proved that he was innocent.

Since the advent of DNA testing technology, Mr. Bain has been lobbying justice officials to conduct genetic testing on samples taken from the crime scene. At least four times Mr. Bain petitioned to have the genetic evidence tested. At each and every turn, these efforts were rebuffed by justice officials aided by the courts. Rebuffed by those very same people whose supposed mission in life is a “search for the truth.” Rebuffed until the Innocence Project took up his cause.

Mr. Bain was a 19 year old kid when he was sent away to be forgotten. Now he’s going home to see his mama as a graying pre-senior. He’s going home to resume his interrupted studies in reading and writing. He’s going home to try to re-learn how to live his life. He’s going home to pick up whatever pieces of that life remain. But he’s not going home angry.

Mr. Bain has lost 3½ decades of his life. Thirty-five fucking years! How does he make up for that? How do we make it up to him? What can we possible say to Mr. Bain to make amends for our crimes against him? “I’m sorry Mr. Bain?” “You’re a free man Mr. Bain?” “Good Luck Mr. Bain?” That’s what we say to make ourselves feel better so that we can pretend we’re contrite and then hurry and forget about the whole sordid affair. That may be salve for our guilty souls, but it just doesn’t seem anywhere near adequate the dress the irreparable wound we have inflicted.

I’ve heard it said that these types of cases prove that the system works. To the contrary, it proves that there is something seriously wrong with the system. A system that deprives an innocent person of their liberty for 3½ decades isn’t working. A system that refuses to dispassionately and objectively conduct post-conviction DNA analyses to guard against the possibility of a wrongful conviction because of a failure to adhere to procedural niceties isn’t working. A system that allows police and prosecutors to ignore and/or withhold exonerating evidence for no purpose other than to pad conviction ratios isn’t working. A system that relies upon subtle racism in order to convict a disproportionate number of black and brown men isn’t working. A system that is completely unresponsive to those with lesser or no financial means isn’t working. And a system that allows us to close our eyes to this travesty and go on living smug in the belief that our ways are irreproachable isn’t working.

I can’t wrap my mind around Mr. Bain’s lack of anger. Perhaps after thirty-five years of pain, suffering, and isolation his anger has simply been drained from him. Or perhaps he’s just a bigger man than I. Whichever it is, he need not worry. I’ll volunteer to be angry enough for the both of us.

Visit the Innocence Project on-line at

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