Skip navigation
× You have 2 more free articles available this month. Subscribe today.

Crime and Punishment in America

Crime And Punishment In America

By Paul Wright

The October 7, 1992, edition of the Seattle Times reported that in Carson, CA a homeless man had been acquitted by a jury of stealing aluminum cans from a recycling bin. The man was charged with misdemeanor theft and the trial lasted four days. Faced with public criticism over the expense of the trial, Taylor Fitzmaurice, the prosecutor, is quoted as saying: "You can't steal someone else's property just because you want to eat...I feel the law must be applied equally."

 This amply illustrates what the poor have known for centuries: that laws in a capitalist society serve to safeguard the property and interests of the ruling class, i.e. those with the money. It wasn't that long ago when stealing a loaf of bread to feed your kids was a capital offense in England, as was poaching game on the huge estates of royalty. Fitzmaurice's argument has been avidly used for centuries, that wanting to eat is no excuse to steal. Whether it's a homeless man in California, landless peasants in Latin America, unemployed workers in Europe, they all run up against the "laws" of capitalist societies that are made to ensure they starve and criminalize attempts to prevent this. This takes many forms, from laws preventing collective bargaining, strikes and work place organizing, allowing scabs to be hired, on to laws against "theft." Of course large scale organized theft like the Savings and Loan rip-off, contractor fraud, etc., continue unabated.

To say the law is applied equally is a joke. It's like saying "If we find Donald Trump sleeping under this bridge we'll shoo him on his way too." Not too many millionaires are rummaging through recycling bins in order to eat. I'm sure the taxpayers of California will rest easier knowing that their recycling bins are so diligently protected by the state.

That same issue of the Seattle Times had an article where the Supreme Court is considering the question of whether a convicted prisoner's actual innocence stands in the way of his execution. The case involves Leonel Herrera, a south Texas drug runner accused of killing two cops. He was convicted of one murder and pled guilty to the other. Last February, days before his scheduled execution, new witnesses came forward to say that his brother Raul, who died in 1984, actually committed the murders. Texas state courts refused to order a hearing because Texas las requires claims of new evidence to be made within 30 days of trial. A federal judge ordered a hearing in the case but he was reversed by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals.

The state of Texas, joined by the Bush administration, argued before the Supreme Court that the constitution does not stand in the way of executing the innocent. Justice Kennedy asked if a videotape existed conclusively proving the accuseds' innocence, would it be unconstitutional to execute them. Texas prosecutor Margaret Griffey replied: "No, so long as the trial procedures (years before) were constitutional." Justice Scalia said that considering claims of innocence would put an "enormous burden" on the "system of justice."

I can't help but ask what system of justice (injustice is more appropriate) would knowingly permit the state murder of an innocent person. If the constitution doesn't protect the innocent, who does it protect? Instead of seeking a system that produces just results the ruling class prefers a system of "constitutional" trials, a classic triumph of form over substance that is not just confined to the criminal justice system but also rules supreme in electoral democracy, the marketplace, the media, etc. The question not being asked in the mainstream media is "Can't we do better than this?"

For years opponents of the death penalty have based their opposition to the death penalty, in part, on the possibility that the innocent may be wrongly executed for crimes they did not commit. A recent study showed that of the thousands executed in the U.S. in this century, about 23 were actually innocent. It is now a real possibility that the Supreme Court will answer this concern by saying "So what. They had a trial."

The outcome in Herrera's case won't be announced for a few more months. Given the Supreme Court's blood lust and hostility to the rights of prisoners and convicted defendants, I won't be surprised if Herrera joins the other 50 or so men the state of Texas has murdered since 1976.

As a digital subscriber to Prison Legal News, you can access full text and downloads for this and other premium content.

Subscribe today

Already a subscriber? Login