AMERICAN JUSTICE? raises the question of whether there is really justice in America. The experience of my wife being confronted by the justice system led me to question this.
It all began in October 2008, when my wife was wrongfully accused by a disturbed 13-year old of trying to run him over in front of our home in a middle-class suburb of Big Pebble, East Kansas (I have changed the names and location to protect the innocent and the not-so-innocent). Before then, for the past few months, she had been having a running feud with a group of 7-13 year old kids because she didn’t want them playing in an intersection in front of the house next door to us.
But now, the false charge of one of these kids led to her arrest for aggravated assault, and the police dragged her kicking and screaming from a neighborhood restaurant without telling her why. Adding fuel to the charge, the renter next door, a social worker who led the kids in various activities, filed a petition to have Carol involuntarily committed to a mental institution after his own 13-year old son lied, claiming he saw Carol trying to run over his friend.
The result was a nightmare in a criminal justice system gone amok, where Carol faced two separate prosecutors and judges – one for the involuntary commitment case, the other for the aggravated assault case. Showing a total disregard for a responsible investigation of the facts and hearing both sides the story, the prosecutors trusted the lies of the boys and the neighbor, while they disregarded any conflicting evidence. Based on this one-sided presentation, one judge granted the petition to send Carol to a psych ward for five days, leading her to become severely depressed ever since. The other prosecutor and judge teamed up with neighbors to force us out of the neighborhood as part of a plea bargain. Eventually, to avoid a trial and possible 16-year prison sentence, we moved out and sold our house at a loss.
The costs of this unfair prosecution were truly staggering – both emotionally and financially. Not only did my wife suffer the trauma of being a victim of the system, but I had to take time off from work to care for her. Eventually, the battle cost us well over $100,000, mainly due to having to cover two mortgages until our house sold, treatment costs, hotel bills, and moving expenses.
As this all unrolled, I began to learn about the true injustices of the criminal justice system. For example, our own lawyer contributed to our plight by thinking that the involuntary commitment was a frivolous charge that would soon be tossed out by a judge. Not so. As we struggled to overcome each new hurdle in the adjudication process on the aggravated assault charge, we learned that the Chief Deputy Prosecutor, who supervised the other two prosecutors, lived a block away from us, and his own two children were among the group who played with Carol’s accuser. So from the beginning he had a conflict of interest, which contributed to his office’s overly aggressive prosecution of Carol.
This horrendous experience with a criminal justice system run as if by neighborhood vigilantes led me to want to learn more about how and why this happens. This analysis led to the second part of the book. As I discovered, while our case was a personal nightmare from which we are still recovering, the case reflects the all too common reality that anyone charged with a crime faces. While some of these charges and prosecutions may be justified, a great many are not, especially when defendants lack the resources to hire effective attorneys to defend them. In such cases, prosecutors pursue unjust prosecutions based on false testimony because they have not done anything to ascertain the truth of the charges presented to them by the police or witnesses. Even worse, some prosecutors act uncritically and overly aggressively because they have personal ties to those making those false claims. Then, too, my wife’s case reflects a general problem of kids providing fabricated or exaggerated evidence that can lead to a miscarriage of justice, as in our case, when a case is built up against a defendant, or more accurately a victim, based on their lies.
Unfortunately, as the book describes, currently there is little that anyone in this situation can do, because prosecutors typically can claim immunity from prosecution, as long as they can show they were acting in good faith based on the scope of their job. Judges with bias, coverage by the media and inept legal representation also play a part.
Part II of AMERICAN JUSTICE? has been written to provide a critique of the criminal justice system as it now operates. Accordingly, after telling our story, the book provides a springboard for discussing major problems in the criminal justice system, including prosecutorial misconduct and the juvenile lies that sometimes contribute to these false prosecutions, and everything in between.
In summary, the book describes what happened after Carol’s arrest and mental evaluation, how we were forced to accept a plea deal to move out of the neighborhood. It also describes the fallout from that experience, whereby Carol has remained badly traumatized, severely depressed and very anxious and fearful even many years later.
In addition, the book discusses the pervasive problem of prosecutorial misconduct and how the justice system has sometimes used of the lies of kids to build a case leading to a conviction or a plea bargain to avoid a trial. It analyzes the role of kids, social workers, prosecutors, judges, the media and police by providing examples of other well-known cases to illustrate. The book also points out how just going through the process, even if innocent, can create turmoil for the victims of these cases, even if they are finally found not guilty by a judge or jury. However, American Justice? also suggests a number of specific measures that could help fix the system and invites a national dialog on the subject.