The opposite of ‘whatever’

A family member heard a radio story from “The Takeaway,” with a phrase he knew would mean something to SorryWatch.

screen grab

On the day of his release.

In Alabama, Anthony Ray Hinton was freed from prison after 3 decades. He’d been convicted of two murders committed during restaurant robberies in 1985. He always said he was innocent.

The case was weak. He was punched in at work at the time of the murders. At a warehouse where the workers were locked in. But a witness to a third robbery, shown a bunch of photos, picked Hinton out. The police found Hinton’s mother’s gun at the house where he and his mother lived. They said bullets at the scene of the crime matched that gun. Hinton had an incompetent lawyer who thought he wasn’t allowed enough money to hire a decent ballistic expert to challenge the idea that the bullet matched the gun. So the lawyer hired a one-eyed guy who had trouble using a microscope, and the prosecution made his testimony – that the bullets couldn’t be shown to match – look ridiculous.

Hinton was convicted and sent to Death Row. He said he was innocent. Whatever. Don’t they all?

There he sat, year after year. His appeals were turned down. His mother died. Every night he prayed “Lord, deliver me from this place.”

The Equal Justice Initiative took his case in 1998. They hired 3 different experts to look at the bullets. They all said no one could tell if those bullets matched that gun. So the EJI asked the State of Alabama to take another look. They refused. They said they didn’t need to, since they had already locked up Hinton and they knew he was guilty.

Photo: Steve Petteway. Public domain.

Supreme Court, 2010. Hold your horses. What’s your hurry?

The EJI, with lawyer Bryan Stevenson, appealed to the Supreme Court. Which was in no hurry. Tra la la. In 2014, they said Alabama should give Hinton a new trial. A better trial. Like, a fair trial.

‘Okay, FINE, we’ll look at the bullets – huh. Apparently there’s no way to match them to the gun. Huh. And the ones from different robberies don’t match each other. Whatever. Let’s just drop it.’

The D.A. dismissed the charges. Hinton was released. After 28 years.

Since they only let you use a plastic spoon in prison, he had to learn to eat with a fork again. He’s happy to be able to go outside. To eat fish and hush puppies. To visit his mother’s grave.

Does he have complaints, this Godly man? He told Corey G. Johnson of the Marshall Project, “These crooked D.A.s and police officers and racist people had lied on me and convicted me of a horrible crime for something I didn’t do. They stole my 30s, they stole my 40s, they stole my 50s. I could not afford to give them my soul.”

He has noticed no one apologized. “I haven’t even had a black senator or anyone from the legislature apologize. Nobody. Nobody who worked with the state has said, ‘I’m sorry for what happened to you.’ Nope. Nobody.” (In our view, they should apologize not for ‘what happened,’ but for what was done.)

Photo: Altairisfar (Jeffrey Reed). Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

“This is Alabama.”
State Supreme Court building

Asked if he’d be suing, Hinton said, “I haven’t talked about it, and Mr. Stevenson hasn’t talked about it. Believe it or not, I would feel relieved if they would just come clean and somebody would say, ‘Hey, we’re sorry.’ But you know, this is Alabama. I don’t think we should have to make them pay me, but if that’s what it takes and if that’s what Mr. Stevenson thinks we should do, then that’s what we’ll do.”

Another reporter asked if he wanted revenge. “’Revenge is mine’ said the Lord. One day, the true revenge will come to those that played a part in sentencing me to death. I do not hate these mens that did this to me. I once did. But you know, no one in the State of Alabama to this day, have come up to me and say ‘Mr. Hinton, I’m sorry.’ No governor, no legislator, I haven’t been given not one dime from the State of Alabama. And they took 30 years of my life. They haven’t even had the decency to apologize. But I can’t worry about how someone treat me. My mom told me, ‘You are responsible for how you treat others. You are not responsible for how they treat you.’

“And with that, I get up every morning and I try to smile. I try to bring joy to those that are sad. And not one time did I forgive those men because they asked me to. I forgave those men, not so they can sleep good at night, but so I can sleep good at night.”

Consider that while the State of Alabama entertained itself by prosecuting Hinton, grandstanding about his alleged guilt and their determination to punish him as severely as possible, and refusing to re-examine the evidence, the real murderer or murderers walked free. Prosecutors who are truly tough on crime would not waste time going after random black guys. Really tough prosecutors go after really guilty people, black or not.

SorryWatch is fascinated by Hinton’s wish for an apology. An apology can’t give him back 30 years. It can’t give him the chance to go to his mother’s funeral.

But he’s not the only person who’s suffered horribly who says ‘They didn’t even apologize.” Here are a few from SorryWatch files.

Photo: Tim Rodenberg. Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

Rikers Island from a plane.

In New York, 17-year-old Kalief Browder was arrested for robbery and held on Rikers Island. He’d been vaguely fingered by a stranger as one of the guys who’d stolen his backpack weeks earlier. He hadn’t done it and he refused to plead guilty. His family couldn’t pay $10,000 bail. Court appearances produced nothing but threats to lock him up for 15 years if he didn’t confess. He turned 18 on Rikers. He turned 19 on Rikers. He turned 20 on Rikers – when one day, after 33 months, suddenly the government said the case was dismissed. He could go. “They just dismissed the case and they think it’s all right. No apology, no nothing.”

One Sunday afternoon Roger Roux was bicycling a few miles from home when he was hit and killed by a car under unclear circumstances. The driver didn’t stop. His grieving son said the mystery made things “even worse… just not having an apology from the person that did this. It’s very hard.”

In 2011, 30 people died in a Listeria outbreak, eventually traced to contaminated melons. In 2014, the farm owners pled guilty to charges. At that point, they apologized. One woman who’d watched her husband die of the Listeria infection said she was angry that they hadn’t apologized before. “What would it have taken for their lawyers to have written a letter? You know, maybe that would have helped at the beginning with the trauma that we were going through.”

Photo: Author unknown. Public domain.

M84 stun grenade. Not for use around children.

In Georgia one morning – 3 a.m. – in 2014 a 19-month-old was badly hurt when a SWAT team seeking a low-level drug dealer hurled a flashbang grenade through a window into the kid’s playpen, where he was sleeping. The SWAT team said they didn’t know a family with four kids lived there, apparently not having received advanced training that would have let them notice a minivan with four carseats parked in the driveway by the door. No dealer was there. The child spent a month in the hospital, some in a medical coma. His mother remarked, “They have not made a phone call, no card, no teddy bear, no balloon no nothing of anything of an apology to my family or my son.”

Earlier this year Jesse Bright, an Uber driver in North Carolina, was hassled by cops and sheriff’s deputies after he took a passenger to an address they said was a drug house. When he started recording the encounter, they told him it was illegal to record – new law! – and if he continued, they’d jail him. Bright, who’s also a lawyer, knew that was a lie. Eventually the cops let him go, but when Bright pursued the issue of the lie, the officer and the department stonewalled him. The Washington Post wrote, “Bright said he didn’t initially want to share his story to the media, but when [Sergeant] Becker refused to return his phone calls and the department never apologized, he decided to go public.”

Another story about false imprisonment from the SorryWatch vault quoted Frank O’Connell, who was wrongly convicted of murder and spent 27 years in prison. As reported in The New Yorker, he said, “I will accept twelve million with a public apology, or fourteen million with a private apology to me and my family, or eighteen million with no apology whatsoever.”

We’ve found that some people are skeptical about apologies. They say apologies are just words. They say people are forced to say words that don’t make any difference, to go through a demeaning ritual that doesn’t do any good. What’s the point?

Engraved by Neagle. Public domain.Here’s the point. When people hurt other people, those who are harmed are also hurt by the injustice. Consider these people who’ve been gravely harmed – orphaned, widowed, or framed for a crime they didn’t commit. Their baby attacked. No apology can make scars go away. No apology can bring back a dead parent or spouse. No apology can bring back years of life in prison.

But people in those situations still want apologies. An apology acknowledges injustice. It says that society cares about unfairness. It says ‘That should not have happened to you.’

It’s a contrast to an uncaring, hit-and-run world, where no one bothers to acknowledge that bad things were done. It’s the opposite of ‘whatever.’

An apology says ‘You matter. What happens to you matters. It matters enough that we say so. Our pride and our convenience are not worth more than your life, your father’s life, your child’s life.’

If an apology cannot mend a tear in the fabric of the human world, it can put a patch on the tear.

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8 Responses to The opposite of ‘whatever’

  1. nettie says:

    Thanks for that, sumac. Such compelling writing. These stories remind me a little of Paul Woodruff’s book “Reverence: Renewing a Forgotten Virtue.”
    Woodruff is a classicist who has spent a lot of time translating and studying Greek philosophers. One of the points he makes is that, in a civilised society, it’s incumbent upon a person who holds more power, people like teachers, policemen and even parents, to maintain a heightened attitude of reverence toward the people he/she has power over. It occurred to me that this extends even to the dynamics between a couple. If there seems to be a power imbalance, the one who feels more powerful is always going to be in danger of abusing their power and must try to remain vigilant about that. I suppose getting down off of one’s high horse to say sorry after you’ve trampled someone would be a part of that.

    • sumac says:

      What an interesting parallel. And I like the image of getting off the trampling horse….

      • nettie says:

        I actually got that wrong. Sorry, it isn’t reverence for the weaker person but more a reverence for the distance between oneself and the divine, an awareness of one’s own ability to make mistakes which keeps us from committing hubris. Woodruff contends that reverence is the thing that protects the weaker people in a society. I can’t find the book at the moment, but he explains it much better than I’m doing in this interview with Bill Moyers.

  2. David Doty says:

    Tell it, sister!

  3. Susan Oliver says:

    I sit here, humbled not only by the writing but by the wisdom.


  4. this piece made me cry!

  5. JDM says:

    I’ve thought a wrongful conviction being overturned should trigger an automatic payment of $1 million per year of jail time. Having more consequences for those – prosecutors, police, and judges – who commit crimes to get the conviction would be good, but just start with money.

    And the thing that gets me, perhaps most, is that when you hear of these cases where gross injustice is deliberately done or perpetuated after ward, that means they’re letting some guilty person go free. If I had a relation to the victim that would infuriate me. I don’t often hear of such fury being expressed.

  6. tanita says:

    This just makes me want to SCREAM and weep. I …yeah. The “whatever” is … unconscionable. HOW LONG are we going to accept the truth of “well, this is Alabama?” Aren’t Southerners even a tiny bit ashamed? And yet: it took – and takes – so much for people to rise up against obvious (45) incompetence and lawlessness.

    And yet, I hear this guy: they stole twenty eight years of his life. He truly cannot afford to give them anything more, and they certainly give no effs for him. Let God sort it, and move on. But, oh, how deeply, egregiously, and grossly unfair.

    *goes back to throwing things*

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