Sunday, January 04, 2004


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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.


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By William Fisher

Second-guessing is always easy and should be avoided whenever possible. This is particularly true in the dynamic and ambiguous world of geopolitics. But sometimes one cannot resist. The year-end message of Secretary of State Colin Powell makes this one of those times.

The principal reason is that Secretary Powell’s message is unabashedly self-congratulatory. The year just ended is wrapped in red ribbon, bright and attractive. There were no missteps, no errors, no mistakes, no misguided priorities, no missed opportunities.

The Bush Administration, the Secretary writes, can review the past and plan the future “with confidence because President George W. Bush's vision is clear and right: America's formidable power must continue to be deployed on behalf of principles that are simultaneously American, but that are also beyond and greater than ourselves.”

A substantial part of Powell’s message predictably focuses on Iraq and Afghanistan. “The Afghan people”, he writes, “…now have a constitution, a rapidly advancing market economy and new hope as they look toward national elections. “

The facts on the ground are a lot messier. As of yesterday, Afghanistan does indeed have a draft constitution. But Amnesty International reports that intimidation and fear of retribution have prevented some delegates from participating freely. “Dominance by strong political and armed factional leaders and the absence of the rule of law in many parts of the country contributes to an atmosphere of insecurity for delegates who wish to act independently of powerful political groups. Some delegates fear for their safety of their families and for their own lives, especially after they return home at the end of the CLJ,” Amnesty says.

The country’s “rapidly advancing market economy”, cited by Secretary Powell, is in fact being led by poppy production. The Karzai Government controls virtually nothing outside Kabul, the warlords have become uneasy allies, the US has failed to provide anything approaching the magnitude of funding originally promised, and there is much evidence of the resurgence of the Taliban. It is only a slight exaggeration to say that, in the wake of 9/11, the US invaded this country, overthrew the Taliban government and then, effectively, walked away – to Iraq – leaving Afghanistan looking pretty much like the moonscape it found there.

On Iraq, the Secretary writes, “The aspirations of a free and talented Iraqi nation are also taking wing, now that Saddam Hussein's murderous regime is no more…We are working to return sovereignty to the Iraqi people through a fair and open process and to ensure that the country receives the maximum feasible debt relief. As the Coalition Provisional Authority closes its doors on June 30…we will open an embassy in Baghdad.”

We are all happy that Saddam Hussein was captured. But Howard Dean is right: we are no safer today than we were before his capture. Insurgency did not collapse. There may be fewer attacks on Coalition forces, but US military spokesmen note they are becoming more sophisticated and more coordinated. There is no doubt that the Bush Administration desperately wants to be out of Iraq before the run-up to the 2004 Presidential election. To this end, the Coalition has adopted an almost certainly unachievable timetable for returning sovereignty to the Iraqis. But what kind of government will we leave behind, and who will elect/appoint it? Then there is the issue of reconstruction. Who will rebuild this shattered country? The same people who were given the ‘no-play, no-pay’ dictum by the US Defense Department? And the same week asked to forgive Iraqi debt? Not likely.

Powell’s message also addresses the Greater Middle East. He writes: “While our efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq will continue in 2004, we are resolved as well to turn the president's goal of a free and democratic Middle East into a reality. We will expand the Middle East Partnership Initiative to encourage political, economic and educational reform throughout the region….”

Achieving Mr. Bush’s Wilsonian vision of a democratic Middle East is easy only for speechwriters. Our closest allies in the war on terrorism are the very countries Mr. Bush would democratize, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, for example. These are the same authoritarian regimes to which the US continues to cozy up, into which it has poured billions in aid, and which have talked reform and done nothing for decades. Yet Mr. Powell’s message is silent on just how these conflicting priorities are to be reconciled.

Among the more noteworthy characteristics of the Secretary’s message is the number of times he uses the pronoun ‘we’ and the near total absence of references to the United Nations or the international community. Virtually buried in the third paragraph from the bottom of his message -- after Iran, Latin America, North Korea and many other problem regions -- the Secretary asserts: “with our quartet partners -- the United Nations, the European Union and Russia -- we will help Israelis and Palestinians achieve peace, so that a free Palestine will exist alongside a secure and democratic Jewish state in Israel.”

The very positioning of the Israeli-Palestinian issue in Mr. Powell’s message speaks volumes about the Bush Administration’s strategic miscalculations about the Middle East. If the US really aspires to win the ‘hearts and minds’ battle of the Arab street, the effort needs to begin in Jerusalem, not in Baghdad or Kabul or Tehran. This means dispensing a lot of tough love to both Israelis and Palestinians, consistently and patiently over an extended period of time, as only the US has the resources and the credibility to do.

Sadly, the pragmatism of US politics suggests that anything that takes a long time and a lot of patience is very unlikely to happen in an election year.