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The Mirage of Justice

Posted on Jan 17, 2016

By Chris Hedges

  The online documentary “Making a Murderer” illuminates the corruption and unfairness of the American system of justice. Above, Steven Avery, one of the subjects of the film. (Netflix)

If you are poor, you will almost never go to trial—instead you will be forced to accept a plea deal offered by government prosecutors. If you are poor, the word of the police, who are not averse to fabricating or tampering with evidence, manipulating witnesses and planting guns or drugs, will be accepted in a courtroom as if it was the word of God. If you are poor, and especially if you are of color, almost anyone who can verify your innocence will have a police record of some kind and thereby will be invalidated as a witness. If you are poor, you will be railroaded in an assembly-line production, from a town or city where there are no jobs, through the police stations, county jails and courts directly into prison. And if you are poor, because you don’t have money for adequate legal defense, you will serve sentences that are decades longer than those for equivalent crimes anywhere else in the industrialized world.

If you are a poor person of color in America you understand this with a visceral fear. You have no chance. Being poor has become a crime. And this makes mass incarceration the most pressing civil rights issue of our era.

The 10-part online documentary “Making a Murderer,” by writer-directors Moira Demos and Laura Ricciardi, chronicles the endemic corruption of the judicial system. The film focuses on the case of Steven Avery and his nephew, Brendan Dassey, who were given life sentences for murder without any tangible evidence linking them to the crime. As admirable as the documentary was, however, it focused on a case where the main defendant, Avery, had competent defense. He was also white. The blatant corruption of, and probable conspiracy by, the Manitowoc County Sheriff’s Office in Wisconsin and then-Calumet County District Attorney Ken Kratz is nothing compared with what goes on in the well-oiled and deeply cynical system in place in inner-city courts. The accused in poor urban centers are lined up daily like sheep in a chute and shipped to prison with a startling alacrity. The attempts by those who put Avery and Dassey behind bars to vilify them further after the release of the film misses the point: The two men, like most of the rest of the poor behind bars in the United States, did not receive a fair trial. Whether they did or did not murder Teresa Halbach—and the film makes a strong case that they did not—is a moot point. 

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Once you are charged in America, whether you did the crime or not, you are almost always found guilty. Because of this, as many activists have discovered, the courts already are being used as a fundamental weapon of repression, and this abuse will explode in size should there be widespread unrest and dissent. Our civil liberties have been transformed into privileges—what Matt Taibbi in “The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap” calls “conditional rights and conditional citizenship”—that are, especially in poor communities, routinely revoked. Once rights become privileges, none of us are safe.     

In any totalitarian society, including an American society ruled by its own species of inverted totalitarianism, the state invests tremendous amounts of energy into making the judicial system appear as if it functions impartially. And the harsher the totalitarian system becomes, the more effort it puts into disclaiming its identity. The Nazis, as did the Soviet Union under Stalin, broke the accused down in grueling and psychologically crippling interrogations—much the same way the hapless and confused Dassey is manipulated and lied to by interrogators in the film—to make them sign false confessions. Totalitarian states need the facade of justice to keep the public passive.

The Guardian newspaper reported: “The Innocence Project has kept detailed records on the 337 cases across the [United States] where prisoners have been exonerated as a result of DNA testing since 1989. The group’s researchers found that false confessions were made in 28 percent of all the DNA-related exonerations, a striking proportion in itself. But when you look only at homicide convictions—by definition the most serious cases—false confessions are the leading cause of miscarriages of justice, accounting for a full 63% of the 113 exonerations.”

“[T]he interrogator-butcher isn’t interested in logic,” Alexander Solzhenitsyn writes in “The Gulag Archipelago,” “he just wants to catch two or three phrases. He knows what he wants. And as for us—we are totally unprepared for anything. From childhood on we are educated and trained—for our own profession; for our civil duties; for military service; to take care of our bodily needs; to behave well; even to appreciate beauty (well, this last not really all that much!). But neither our education, nor our upbringing, nor our experience prepares us in the slightest for the greatest trial of our lives: being arrested for nothing and interrogated about nothing.”

If the illusion of justice is shattered, the credibility and viability of the state are jeopardized. The spectacle of court, its solemnity and stately courthouses, its legal rituals and language, is part of the theater. The press, as was seen in the film, serves as an echo machine for the state, condemning the accused before he or she begins trial. Television shows and movies about crime investigators and the hunt for killers and terrorists feed the fictitious narrative. The reality is that almost no one who is imprisoned in America has gotten a trial. There is rarely an impartial investigation. A staggering 97 percent of all federal cases and 95 percent of all state felony cases are resolved through plea bargaining. Of the 2.2 million people we have incarcerated at the moment—25 percent of the world’s prison population—2 million never had a trial. And significant percentages of them are innocent.


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