Unjust for All

The Angela Corey “overcharging” flap in the George Zimmerman case is only one segment of the well-designed Duval County system for giving no one who has been arrested a chance to escape without being convicted. In Duval, we have a highly efficient “convict all at all costs” approach toward criminal justice. Corey found out the hard way that her blunderbuss conduct does not work in the sunshine of national media as it does here in Duval County.

Our system makes arrest and charging by the State Attorney’s office almost the equivalent of trial and conviction. And most private citizens are absolutely unaware that this is going on. We are sold on ignoring the possibility of anyone innocent being wrongfully convicted and call this being “tough on crime.” That it is also tough on the ideal of justice that Americans assume is our standard is ignored. In Duval, that ideal is sold down the river under the guise of protecting us from crime. Perhaps the publicity brought on by the Corey debacle on national TV will convince us to examine our local system of criminal justice.

Upon arrest, the screws of this system are applied consistently to the accused — innocent, guilty or those somewhere in between. The intent is to convince an arrested person to admit to a crime and become a criminal and be incarcerated or, failing that, to suffer far worse consequences. The greater the numbers of the convicted and imprisoned, and even the number of years to serve plus being on probation, are substance for job performance evaluations for all those employed in criminal justice. Every position, from arresting officer to judge and every job in between, for self-perpetuation, requires moving bodies through and into the prisons.

By the way, the TV image of the judge as an impartial evaluator and enforcer of laws for fair trial needs to be critically examined in the real world. Is this truly the case (which it should be), or is the judge frequently acting as a part of the prosecution team? A local defense attorney told me that an impartial judge in Duval County who is interested in “only the facts” is labeled a “liberal judge,” and apparently there are few of those.

How often is there a cozy relationship between the prosecutor and the judge during depositions or trials? All one has to do to see if this bias is at work is watch the “objection” and “overrule” process at trial. In other words, chillingly, we should ask if a trial in Duval County is for the purpose of justice or for sheer conviction at any moral cost. Is judicial bias the norm, or is it rare? If it’s the norm, that’s truly a tragedy for us all. 
We perhaps need to look at our judges.

Let’s put names to the three interconnected segments of brutality used locally to obtain a near-perfect conviction record. First, overcharging: tacking on multiple charges higher than the actual facts would support to an informed person. Second, harsh jailing: mental torture and physical discomfort while awaiting trial. Third, fair trial deprivation: punishing the accused for not accepting a “plea bargain,” which is basically a confession, and forcing the county to go to the trouble of trial preparation and conducting court. If you’re offered a plea bargain and you refuse, you won’t get off so lightly when you’re convicted at trial. You have to pay for their inconvenience.

The process starts when a person is arrested and hauled off to jail in the most intimidating, degrading manner possible. Then bail is set so high to keep the accused person from escaping the brutality and dehumanization needed to force the person to confess to something less than the drastic overcharge. The arrested, now a “prisoner,” goes into the stark gray, windowless Duval County Pre-trial Detention Center. This dungeon includes sensory deprivation with plain concrete surroundings, no bed or normal mattress, rare sunlight and dehumanization including limited, uncomfortable and intimidating visitation privileges. You think prisoners sit around, eat and watch TV all day? There is no TV. A prisoner isn’t even allowed a picture of his loved ones. Sleep and exercise deprivation, part of the regimen, are an assault on a prisoner’s mental health.

Intentional or necessary? If a prisoner is being driven crazy by stress and injustice, he or she is deprived medication unless it was prescribed before incarceration. You’re intentionally being driven out of your mind? Oh, well, tough. Suffer! (Or accept your plea bargain.)

The key to this efficient three-part system is the fear and active threat to the arrested person that if he or she does not admit guilt and agree to the offer submitted, he or she stands to be convicted not only of whatever this person may have done, but also the harshest, most unrealistic charge the State Attorney’s office prosecutors think they can sell to a dumb jury. The thinking is that multiple charges may influence the jury that this person must be guilty of something. The threat of a long-term prison sentence if the person doesn’t admit guilt is enough to send most to prison under an agreed sentence — the infamous plea bargain.

And almost anyone would confess to something just to be moved out of the confines of the Duval County Pre-trial Detention Center and into the relative comfort of prison. Almost 90 percent of those charged elect not to tempt fate and take plea bargains. The sooner you accept that you’re caught in a trap and accept your plea, the sooner you get out of the Duval dungeon and into a prison. If you don’t confess, it may be up to two years before you even get a trial. Of course, by law, you may elect a “speedy trial,” right? Well, if you do, and you expect to win, you’re so dumb you deserve to be confined. What you are doing with a “speedy trial” is tantamount to giving up and accepting that you’re going to be convicted. You’ll get to the relative freedom of prison quicker that way, but you’ll be punished with a harsher sentence for making the county go to the trouble of trying you.

And convicted at trial you will be. Electing to go to trial in Duval County is almost as foolish as admitting guilt to the most ridiculously exaggerated overcharge; the outcomes are frequently the same.

Make sure you understand. As a rule, in Duval County, you don’t win at trial. All the heavy resources are on the prosecution’s side. You are given a possibly inexperienced, poorly paid “public defender” who’s overloaded with other cases, while the prosecution has all the resources of the local office and the state to take you down.

For the prosecution, there’s a team of investigators, detectives, prosecutors, assistant prosecutors and administrative assistants. They can hire (perhaps biased and unqualified) “expert” witnesses. By contrast, the defendant has lost his job and income and has only one person at his table — either a public defender, who may not even want the case, or a court-appointed attorney who may be a judge’s personal pick. The defense can’t afford to do investigations and has little or no money to pay expenses for any witnesses. You face insurmountable odds that are purposely stacked against you. Go watch a criminal trial sometime.

There is no such thing as a “fair trial” unless a defendant is wealthy or it’s a high-profile case with intense media coverage. This is where Corey went way wrong in her big case. She wasn’t expecting to have to face a competent defense on equal footing.

In Duval and commonly throughout the South, innocence is of no concern when the basis for performance evaluation of criminal justice operatives is bulk convictions and posturing for local political elections. These professionals absolutely know what they’re doing, and the system is slick, with interlocking strategies with other departments, especially the Sheriff’s Office, which runs the local dungeon for those awaiting trial. There, confinees are treated as if all persons awaiting trial are dangerous, armed psychopaths, not “innocent until proven guilty.”

The procedures are well-honed and politically approved. What does it matter if a few innocent people are convicted, as long as we sweep all criminals into this net?

This is called the American “adversarial” system of criminal justice. But how does one get a fair trial if one side is loaded with 300-pound NFL linemen, and the other side has 70-pound kids from Pop Warner? If this is the meaning of being “tough on crime,” and Corey is the type of person we want to represent justice in our system, then no wonder Duval is considered backward in other parts of the country.

We are not this backward, and we 
deserve better.

Pace retired with 40 years experience in teaching and educational leadership. He studied the workings of the Duval County judicial system through reading and while following the case of a person — now serving two life sentences — he believes was convicted without evidence for the overcharging portion of his offense. He learned from working closely with the defense attorney in this case.