Monday, February 2, 2009

The media needs to take a positive and proactive role in the James Arthur Johnson case

The front page headline story of the February 1, 2009 Sunday, News & Observer is titled “After injustice, Durham man’s eyes are on the future,” and recounts what is, unfortunately, not an uncommon example of justice experienced by the poor, people of color, and disenfranchised in North Carolina. The article is about Erick Daniels, a 15 year old African American boy who was accused of armed robbery, tried as an adult, identified by the victim from a school yearbook based on the shape of his eyebrows, charged without probable cause and without any evidence linking him to the crime, prosecuted by an overly zealous prosecutor who took advantage of glaring missteps by the boy’s defense attorney, and convicted and sentenced to ten to fourteen years. He ended up serving seven of those years before recently being released by a judge when his case was brought up on appeal by a defense attorney seeking a new trial (another incarcerated criminal with a lengthy record of armed robberies and who fit the initial description of the perpetrator had confessed to the crime -- and the prosecutor had failed to interview him).

I found staff writer Anne Blythe’s opening two paragraphs to be so insightful and paradoxical that they merit repeating, and are presented hereafter:

“Their names became a three-count indictment of the incompetence and injustices of the Durham court system: Dave Evans, Collin Finnerty, and Reade Seligmann, the Duke lacrosse players wrongly accused of gang-raping an escort service dancer.

"As the nation followed the legal travails of the players, there was another young man who shared many of their circumstances but lacked their advantages in resisting a wrongful charge.”

To me, mentioning the Duke lacrosse players’ names in the same breath as Erick Daniels, and insinuating that they all kindred brothers who shared the same misfortune at the hands of Carolina justice, is sacrilegious. (However, I applaud Ms. Blythe's attempt to show the disparity of treatment faced by the different parties.) On the night of the armed robbery, Daniels was attending a basketball game at the Durham YMCA, whereas on the night when the alleged gang-rape took place, the three Durham lacrosse defendants attended a party (where the alleged crime took place) which included under-aged drinking and entertainment by two strippers. The Duke lacrosse team, which was notorious for its raucous parties, had been previously warned by the university’s administration to behave with more restraint and act more responsible. Whereas Daniels served seven years behind bars, the three lacrosse players spent not a single day in jail. The prosecutor in the Duke lacrosse case, Mike Nifong, was persecuted, prosecuted and disbarred by the North Carolina State Bar (the only prosecutor to be disbarred since its inception), in his investigation into a series of crimes that took place during the party was quashed by North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper. He also took the extraordinary step of proclaiming that the three Duke defendants were innocent. While Erick Daniels has not received a pardon or a penny in compensation for his wrongful seven year incarceration, the Duke defendants received seven million dollars each from Duke University, and are currently in the courts seeking ten million dollars each from the cash-strapped city of Durham.

Those innocent individuals who were wrongly convicted by North Carolina’s selective justice system based on Class and Color and who shared a magnitude of unjust suffering on par with Daniels, were never mentioned in the article. They include:
1. Theodore Jerry Williams - who filed a law suit against authorities and, in retaliation, was beaten up and falsely charged with assaulting a prison guard. Facing 15 years on the trumped up charge, crucial exculpatory evidence which he requested for his defense was destroyed by the prosecutor. When the court dropped charges against Williams due to the destruction of the evidence, the Attorney General’s Office vigorously appealed.

2. Floyd Brown – a severely retarded man who was held fourteen (14) years without a trial, based on a prosecutorial-manufactured confession which mental health experts stated that he could not possibly have authored.

3. Alan Gell – a man who served nearly a decade in prison, fifty percent on death row, after being convicted when the prosecutors withheld, from the defense, exculpatory evidence which definitely excluded him from being a possible murder suspect in the crime for which he served time.

4. James Arthur Johnson – a young African American man who served 39 months in jail after presenting Wilson police officers with information which solved a heinous murder of a Wilson teen. Without evidence tying him to the crime, the prosecutor based their case on statements made by the killer who implicated Johnson only after he was told by investigators that Johnson had “snitched” on him.

Darryl Hunt, Jonathan Gregory Hoffman, Charles Wayne Munsey, and the list goes on of individuals unjustly convicted and deprived of their freedom, charged without probable cause, and with egregious misconduct by their prosecutors.

Like Ms. Blythe accurately mentions in her article, “Erick Daniels is not a household name.” But neither are the names of Theodore Jerry Williams, Floyd Brown, Alan Gell, James Arthur Johnson, Darryl Hunt, Jonathan Gregory Hoffman, Charles Wayne Munsey, and others who have been falsely convicted by the state’s selective justice system. The media, including the News & Observer, is directly responsible for the plight of these men being minimized. Nationally and locally, the media selectively focuses its spotlight on individuals of power and privilege when it comes to possibly being victimized by the justice system. Ms. Blythe’s February 1, 2009 article reinforces once again the false notion and prevailing misconception among the public that Evans, Finnerty, and Seligmann are the poster children for those who have been maltreated by the justice system.

It is the media, which continues to heap accolades and adoration upon the Duke Lacrosse defendants while it (the media) simultaneously carries out a brutal, unjust and biased attack against their prosecutor (Mike Nifong), that set the stage for the subsequent law suits against the city of Durham (which has already cost upwards of one million taxpayer dollars in legal expenses), Duke University, and other Durham residents and employees by the three defendants, their out-of-state families, and 41 un-indicted Duke lacrosse players.

It is the media that has also elected to remain silent when it comes to questionable activities in controversial criminal cases. The News & Observer, for example, refused to write one word about the curious activities taking place in the James Arthur Johnson case. The trial judge refused the defense motion for a change of venue from the city of Wilson (which had been racially divided due to actions and statements by the prosecutors and police), and instead insisted on a jury being selected from neighboring Edgecombe county and bussed in for the trial. This flurry of activity which took place in November 2008, was never covered by Ms. Blythe, or anyone else from that newspaper.

What I find most troubling about the News & Observer is its editorial silence. During the seven years Erick Daniels was incarcerated, there was not one column devoted to the unjust plight of this young man. Even after a May 2007 article in the Independent Weekly brought the Daniels’ injustice to light for most of the Triangle area public, the News & Observer editorial staff remained mum on the subject.

What I would challenge the News & Observer to do is to make itself relevant by taking a proactive position on the James Arthur Johnson “accessory after the fact” trial that is scheduled to begin later this month. The editorial staff, among other things, should broach the question of why the $20,000 reward (which Johnson earned) has not been given to him, and why the State is wasting taxpayer money on a bogus case against Johnson which is propped up only to afford protection for Wilson prosecutor Bill Wolfe from a complaint of prosecutorial misconduct lodged with the State Bar.

The media holds great public influence and, therefore, has a great responsibility to the public it serves. With regards to the state’s criminal justice system, the media has welded that power irresponsibly and to the detriment of falsely convicted citizens who are poor, of color, and are disenfranchised. When the media suggests that the Duke Lacrosse defendants are poster children of the failures of the Tar Heel state’s criminal justice system, and intimates that former Durham District Attorney Mike Nifong represents the worst wayward and malevolent state prosecutor, it is perpetrating a big hoax on its readers, viewers, and subscribers.

Once more, I challenge the editorial staff of the News & Observer to become relevant in the important social issues, and at the same time, do the right thing. The newspaper needs to publish its position on issues related to the James Johnson case before it comes to trial, instead of doing like it did in the Erick Daniels case and speaking up “after the fact.” (The News & Observer published its first editorial about Erick Daniels after the judge hearing the appeal motion, dropped the charges against him.)

One last thing: if the News & Observer is truly concerned about the plight of young Erick Daniels, the least it could do is write an editorial demanding that the newly elected governor give him a pardon, and that the state immediately commence the paltry payments for his wrongful incarceration.. which amounts to less than $1,700.00 a month.

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