I was sickened today. My stomach turned like a blender after reading the story of James Bain, a black man who was recently freed after 35-years of false incarceration for a crime he did not commit. DNA evidence freed him, but only after he lost three decades of freedom, starting as a 19-year old boy and ending as a 54-year old man who should be preparing for retirement after a long career.
He was not able to have children. He was not able to go to college. He was not able to experience three decades of love and life, and was instead fed a daily helping of cold, miserable living in the state penitentiary, all served to him by a nation that has committed itself to mass incarceration of black men as a path toward solving society’s problems.
Mr. Bain is a God-fearing man, and I respect that. It is clearly the love of God that leads him to continuously state that he is not angry for the 35 years of life that the system stole from he and his family. I think his approach is healthy, given that three decades of such psychological venom would have killed him or driven him insane. But I must confess that I am angry for Mr. Bain, and we should all be angry for him. This should never have happened, and the fact that it could have been prevented should be disturbing to us all.
James Bain is not Henry Louis Gates, so you will never hear Barack Obama mention his 35-year inconvenience at any press conference. This says a great deal about class in America, since Obama was willing to do speak boldly and sloppily on behalf of a Harvard crony who spent an hour in jail. I hope and pray for the day that Obama and others can feel as much empathy for a regular man on the street like Bain as they do for privileged Americans who spend their summers on Martha’s Vineyard.
Here is what we need now, and we should not stop asking for it until it’s done:
1) Adequate counsel: I am willing to bet that James Bain did not have good attorneys. The overworked, underpaid and underskilled public defenders given to individuals caught in this system need to be given the resources that they need in order to ensure a fair trial. The days of taking a guilty plea just to avoid additional prison time should be put to an end. Justice should not be available only to those who can afford to buy it.
2) There should be adequate recourse: I’ll be damned if we have the right to take 35 years of a person’s life and not give that person some opportunity to be compensated. James Bain should be given $10 million dollars from the Federal government for the nightmare created by this system. If we can bail out wealthy bankers, then we can afford to give $10 million dollars to every wrongly-convicted American in our criminal justice system.
3) Legality should not impede morality: I don’t care if the rules and procedures say that a person should not get another trial. I don’t want to hear about legal precedent and attorney-client privilege as barriers to truth and justice. The goal of the justice system should be simple: If there is strong reason to believe the person is innocent, their case should be heard by appropriate authorities. When there are cases such as that of Rodney Stanberry in Alabama, where even Stevie Wonder can see that the person did not commit the crime, we should be outraged that a pack of stodgy lawyers and judges are protecting their careers by letting innocent men and women lose their lives.
4) There should be accountability: I need a full investigation regarding how James Bain spent 35-years in prison for a crime he did not commit. I don’t want to see hugs and smiles from judges and lawyers who feel that they’ve somehow done James a favor. The image of the “eternally grateful negro” might create a feel good moment for some, but James Bain has a reason to demand that those responsible for his false incarceration be made to pay for their mistakes. If there was a prosecutor, judge, witness or police officer responsible for sending this man to prison while knowing that he did not commit the crime, those individuals should be led to feel the same punishment that was inflicted upon James himself. At the very least, they should be part of the financial compensation package given to Mr. Bain.
The case of James Bain still makes my stomach turn. I am hopeful that Eric Holder, Barack Obama and other black men will love James Bain the same way they love their Harvard homeboys. As I mentioned in a CNN special about what President Obama has done for black men, I am left wondering if he has spent a second wondering about men like James Bain. I wonder if he would be willing to make a professional sacrifice in order to save their lives. A life is a life and yours is not any more valuable than his own. Fix this system Mr. Obama – we need you.