Trials: Every Verdict Tells a Story

March 13, 2014

I am in the process of trying a case in Wayne County Circuit Court on behalf of a little girl who was forced to be born in a jail cell because her mother was imprisoned and denied necessary medical care by a local hospital. As I was taking the drive to court this morning I heard a radio report of a hunger strike among prisoners in California protesting that state’s practice of condemning large number of prisoners to solitary confinement. That state already is under a court order to relieve massive overcrowding. I wonder how it is that we have become a country that imprisons more people than any other nation in the world.  

In Michigan, one of the largest segments of employment, especially in the Upper Peninsula, is corrections. In a state with more prisons than some countries have, more prisons are being built. If one were to base a guess on what is happening with the prison system based on who is there, one could say that our country has decided to imprison African-American males as a social policy, and the mentally ill, and non-violent drug users. 

Violent crime is at an historic low, yet our prison population is at an historic high. I wonder if imprisonment has become the default setting on a society that refuses to address the social problems that require more effort and long-term investment. Just like the medical and prison staff who turned their eyes away from a woman and child in need, as a society we turn our eyes away from those in need: the mentally ill and homeless, the impoverished, the marginalized in our society. 

Or when we can’t avert our eyes, we imprison them. 

 

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Fear Wins Out

May 26, 2009

I was involved in a trial recently that reminded me of an old movie called “Fear Strikes Out”. It was the story of a professional baseball player named Jimmy Piersall who regained his career after developing a psychiatric illness. It was produced in the early 1960’s during a time when we treated people who had mental illness much more humanely than we do now. You see, in the 1970’s we emptied and closed State Mental Institutions and in the 1980’s destroyed the “social safety net”. State mental institutions were far from perfect, but much more humane and cost-effective than what has evolved since then. Today, many mentally ill people are either homeless or serially jailed, at great expense to tax payers. The result is that people are sometimes confronted and frightened by acutely mentally ill on the streets and jails are overcrowded with people who barely get necessary treatment. It is a cruel and costly system.

I just finished a trial involving the Canton, Ohio police killing a man who was suffering from a mental illness. The father of two was wandering the streets near his home, naked and bloody. He was obviously mentally ill and frightened people, although he had threatened no one and committed no crime. In fact, as the police pulled up, he held out his hands and asked for help. The police, I think reacting from fear, immediately sprayed him with chemical pepper gas, tazed him and handcuffed him. The entire event was witnessed by many people and much of what followed was videotaped. As the the man lay handcuffed and face down on the street, the police beat, kicked and tazed the defenseless man repeatedly. Ultimately, he died from being asphyxiated.

The Ohio jury came to a verdict that I feel reflects the fact that fear, as opposed to compassion, is the hallmark of our society at the moment. They did find the City of Canton, Ohio guilty of failing to train the police officers properly, but exonerated the police who had beaten and killed a defenseless man!

It is sad that people, even trained police officers, in America today have allowed fear to justify behavior that would have never been tolerated even a decade ago. Whether it is torturing mentally ill people or terrorists. We have to ask ourselves if maybe we have allowed fear to “win out”. As the man I represented was being being beaten and tazed as he lay on the ground he kept calling out “I love you” to the police officers who were killing him. I wonder, who was truly mentally ill in this case?