Innocent African American Men in Prison?

The issue that concerns me here is not the huge % of our prisoners who are African Americans, but how many of these are innocent?

I have been robbed by African American men three times — once on the subway and once when a man snuck in our open front door one hot summer day the grabbed my billfold and my wife’s purse sitting by the front door. My wife saw him from the end of a long hall and alerted me. I went in fast pursuit — out a back door to our building which caught me up with him racing up the hill towards Broadway. I pursued him and found my billfold around the corner he had just turned. Unfortunately for him he then rushed down the next street towards Riverside Park where at the corner was a police patrol that permanently guarded one of our elected officials. I yelled to them that I had been robbed. He jumped over a wall into the park. The police caught him near the river. In our meeting in court he greeted me like an old friend. However, I could not testify that I had seen him with my wallet. My wife was too far down our hall to identify him. So the end result was a short sentence — I happened to sit down next to him at a local diner about six months later. We recognized each other and he took off. A nice lady found my wife’s purse several months later jammed between some rocks near the Hudson River and kindly returned it to us. Needless to say he was no genius — that greeting when they brought him into court!

The second occasion on a subway a man sat own next to me and demanded my money. I pretended not to have understood him, so he yelled the demand again which resounded through the half full subway car. He said he had a gun in his pocket and all those there looked the other way and I gave him the $20.00 in my billfold. I had the train stopped and the police asked whether I wanted to ride with them to look for the man. I said that there was no reason to because I would not be able to recognize him. I was watching his pocket and his face was distorted. No way I could pick out the robber.

The third experience was on a train to Philadelphia with my wife for a holiday visit to her mother. I was carrying an old a battered billfold, so I had given all my stuff in it for her to carry in her purse and kept only a $20.00 bill in case we somehow got separated. One guy bumped me hard and apologized while the other extracted my billfold from my pocket. I immediately realized what had happened — we were near Newark by then. They had moved to another car, so I had the train conductors announce that a pickpocket team was working the train. Half an hour later they passed me by and we smiled at each other. I could not be completely sure they were the team, so did not seek to have them arrested — was glad to have gotten rid of the old billfold.

There was actually a minor fourth incident on a crowded bus when I felt a guy trying to pry loose my billfold. I told him to quit it. He got out at the next stop.

Had I been a vindictive person I could have modified the stories a bit and claimed that these guys were the perps. But I was a legal philosopher and did not want to have people convicted by error. I fear that this is not always the case when one hears of people identifying people they only saw in a dark parking lot from a considerable distance away. In one particular well publicized case the man was not picked up at the scene, but from a lineup and convicted of murder despite his claims of innocence and friend’s that he was at another location at the time of the shooting.

My wife and I lived in Harlem for several years and she particularly did decades of community service there. We were both aware that it is sometimes difficult to recognize people across race and ethnic lines, even if one knows them pretty well. Neither of us had any crime problems during our Harlem years.

“A war is just if there is no alternative, and the resort to arms is legitimate if they represent your last hope.” (Livy cited by Machiavelli)

Ed Kent [blind copies]

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