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By William Fisher
Rob Herbert’s New York Times article about Daryl Hunt’s 19-year imprisonment in North Carolina for a crime he did not commit triggered my own sad memories of Southern justice as it was – and sometimes still is.
In the early 1950s, I worked in central Florida as the Volusia County Bureau Chief for the Daytona Beach News-Journal. I also happened to be one of very few white correspondents for the African-American newspaper, the Baltimore Afro-American, a position that did not exactly endear me to local law enforcement. Back then, Volusia County was identified in many college sociology textbooks as the most corrupt county in the United States.
The local cops in the sleepy cowtown county seat of Deland, the county sheriff’s office, and the county courts, were part of my daily beat. In those days, law enforcement officers worked on the ‘fee system’. That meant that their incomes were dependent on the number of citizens they arrested, plus a proportion of the bail bonds the ‘suspects’ posted. One of the results of this quaint entrepreneurial arrangement was that all the cops’ paddy-wagons were mobilized every day at around sundown for sorties into what was then referred to as ‘colored town’, i.e. the part of town on the wrong side of the tracks where the ‘black folk’ lived in their shanty shacks.
Once inside the war zone, the cops swooped down and arrested everything that wasn’t nailed down. Charges ranged from drunk and disorderly to disturbing the peace to resisting arrest to driving with a broken taillight to blocking police access to a crime scene. Each night, dozens of people were arrested, put in
paddy-wagons, and dispatched to the local jail, whereupon the ‘homeland security’ fleet turned around and went back for more. Everyone, that is, save those few lucky enough to have $25 in their pockets to pay off the arresting officer. Moreover, in the best spirit of Adam Smith, there was a healthy competition between the local police and the sheriff’s office to win the headcount.
Saturday night was the biggest night of the week; the headcount climbed into the hundreds. As there was no night court, the arrested who could not come up with bond money spent the night in jail. In the morning, they appeared in court and were given a perfunctory chance to enter a plea. Those who pleaded guilty – the vast majority of prisoners – were fined. Those unable to pay were sentenced to various jail terms, usually up to 30 days. The length of the sentence was based solely on the testimony of the arresting officer. Because, in those dark days of Jim Crow justice, defendants were terrified to say anything. ‘Uppity’ blacks got the stiffest sentences.
The greatest misfortune was being black, pleading ‘not guilty’, and being tried in County Court. It will come as no surprise to anyone who has seen ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ that ‘nigra’ defendants were routinely referred to as ‘boy’ (and worse). Many of these defendants spent long periods of time in custody, uncharged and without benefit of counsel. Many were illiterate and therefore unable to read Court documents. Few could afford lawyers, so the court appointed their lawyers. I covered dozens of these ‘trials’, and witnessed many of these lawyers arriving at Court unprepared, drunk and asleep through much of the proceedings. I never witnessed a black defendant being acquitted, nor do I recall any of these cases being appealed.
Those found guilty spent indeterminate amounts of time in jail. One reason was Volusia County’s virtually non-existent record-keeping. The second reason was that the local police and sheriff’s departments received public funds for each day of a prisoner’s incarceration. For one or another of these reasons, 30-day sentences often stretched into months.
Reform came slowly to Volusia County, bit it did come. The fee system is long gone. The civil rights movement and the legislation it triggered eventually put an end to the Saturday Night Massacres. African-Americans are no longer called ‘boy’ in the Courtroom. They vote. Disney World brought a new infusion of diversity to the whole area from Orlando to Deland, and opened this antebellum vestige to people from everywhere, with money to spend.
Today law enforcement and the judicial system are not flawless, but they are as efficient and honest as those in most places across the American South. The Deland Police Department and the Volusia County Sheriff’s offices, once the private preserves of good ‘ol boy white Protestants, now include African-American officers, Latinos and women. The first woman to serve as a uniformed officer for the Sheriff’s office joined in 1972. Today, there are 40 women officers, a bit over 9% of the total force. The Sheriff’s office hired its first black deputy back in 1953. Two other African Americans joined the department in 1971 and 1972, and rose to become a Captain and Chief Deputy. The Department currently has 20 full-time sworn, African-American Deputies, or approximately 4.6% of its full-time force.
None of this provides failure-proof protection against Daryl Hunt-type miscarriages. As demonstrated by Barry Scheck’s Innocence Project, the nation’s prisons are still filled with many for whom DNA represents the only way out. Nor are the miscreants limited to the American South. Yet the evolution of one unspeakably corrupt Florida county should give all of us some reason for optimism.