See something? Say something
Shortly after word got out that Brendan Dassey, one of the main subjects from the Netflix hit series “Making a Murderer,” got his conviction overturned , the following tweet (by @JuddLegum) appeared in my feed:
“Convictions of Brendan Dassey and Adnan Syed were overturned, proving any American w/a hit podcast or a Netflix doc is equal under the law”
At first glance, the tweet made me laugh. Hard. Certainly both Adnan and Brendan benefitted from the publicity drummed up by their podcast and television show, respectively. The wave of public sympathy certainly didn’t discourage closer review of their cases.
Upon further reflection, however, the tweet made me wonder: Is that what it takes to fix a miscarriage of justice? A podcast or a hit TV show? Are all the other people wrongfully incarcerated just out of luck? What will it take to get the public to look as critically at the rest of the criminal justice system as it has at Adnan’s and Brendan’s cases?
As public defenders and those that support them, we know that the Adnans and the Brendans of the world are not rare. We know that 39|PERCENT| of those exonerated for murder in 2015 were originally convicted, in part, based on false confessions, most of them coming from suspects under the age of 18 and with mental illness, intellectual disability, or both. We know that 44|PERCENT| of the exonerations from 2015 were based on guilty pleas: people admitting to crimes they did not commit. We know that, as in Adnan’s case, police officers regularly misuse informants. Most recently, thanks to an investigation performed by the U.S. Department of Justice into the Baltimore police department, we know police corruption and racial profiling is more widespread than we could have ever understood.
But our criminal justice system is failing in more ways than these flash point moments let on. It fails us in the little, routine, everyday injustices it doles out to our clients. It fails us with bail and with debtor’s prisons and by charging Spanish speakers more than English speakers. It fails us when for profit probation systems prey on the poor and when private prison transportation agencies leave riders injured, sick, or even worse, dead. It fails us when judges treat our clients like they are less than human. Like this judge. Or this one.
If these injustices are all around us, why isn’t the entire country up in arms? Why are public defenders, those fighting against these injustices every day, still vilified? Why is Hillary Clinton still having to defend herself for representing indigent criminal defendants? Why does it take a podcast or a hit TV show to get convince the public something might be rotten in Denmark?
A few reasons, I would surmise. First, like I’ve written about before, society generally speaking, does not care about what happens to our clients. Our clients are the poor, the downtrodden, and accused of committing criminal acts. They are easy for the rest of the world to write off; easy for the rest of the world to pretend they are somehow made of different material than the skin and bone that makes up all of us.
Moreover, I truly believe if most people looked behind the curtain, they would be terrified about what they saw. It is much easier, for the average citizen, to rally behind Brendan and Adnan under the belief that their stories are outliers; miscarriages of justices that are rare and must be corrected. It is easier to sleep at night not knowing how badly criminal justice reform is needed. To believe that justice for Brendan and Adnan is generally the rule, not the exception.
But we as public defenders and those that support them know the truth. Brendan’s and Adnan’s cases are only outliers because their convictions were finally overturned. The injustices that lead to their convictions are happening every moment, every day, in places all over the country.
So we must continue to fight. Not just against the flaws in our criminal justice system, but also to control the narrative about what kind of criminal justice system we really have in this country. Become the “Homeland Security” of injustice. If you see something unjust, say something. Tell your family, your friends, your coworkers. Tell NAPD. (Seriously, tell us.)
Saying something about the injustices you see every day will be tiring. It will at best almost, all of the time, fall on deaf ears, and worst, come with backlash. It almost certainly will not trigger the revolutionary response that Adnan’s and Brendan’s cases got.
But we still have to do it. Because however small, it matters. It mattered to the young woman who was brought to court with no pants on, when a judge called the jail and demanded the situation to be corrected. It mattered to the community, when Zohra Bakhtary refused to stop advocating for her client and was put in handcuffs. The community responded when the judge that ordered her handcuffed her lost his campaign for reelection in a landslide.
That is why we should all celebrate Brendan’s and Adnan’s convictions being reversed. Instead of being cynical and assuming that without a podcast or a hit TV show there is little you can do, instead of becoming overwhelmed, use Brendan and Adnan and any other high profile story you can to get others to look behind the curtain. Remind others that for every Brendan and Adnan there are hundreds of thousands more like them all over the country. Remind them that public defenders are the ones seeking to fix that. We wear the white hat, and it’s time everyone heard about it.