Tuesday, November 28, 2006

The $1.95 death sentence, and other neglected stories

Via Eric Muller: new Legal History Blog by Mary Dudziak, author of the great book Cold War Civil Rights: Race and the Image of American Democracy. She's posted a link to her own recent essay "The Case of 'Death for a Dollar Ninety-Five': Finding America in American Injustice," which is beautifully written and worth reading.

This is a story about a case long forgotten. It was a case that needed to be forgotten, to safeguard the meaning of American justice. The case of "Death for a Dollar Ninety-Five" began one July night in Marion, Alabama, in 1957, and soon captured the attention of the world. It involved an African American man, a white woman, and the robbery of a small amount of change late in the evening. The conviction was swift and the penalty was death. International criticism soon rained down on the Alabama Governor and the American Secretary of State, leading to clemency and a life sentence. For $1.95. And the case was forgotten. This story helps us to see the way narratives of American justice and injustice are managed. The United States identifies itself with the rule of law, and so miscarriages of justice are often perceived as breaches in that identity, violations of the nation's own core principles. Resolutions of miscarriages of injustice, this paper will argue, are often about repairing a breach in American identity, making America whole again. What happens to the person at the center of the story is, at best, secondary. For the story to turn out right, the nation is restored, and the person is forgotten.

Sounds a little like John Grisham's new book, a nonfiction story that came out of a New York Times obit he read of a man who faced a combination of negligent prosecution and incompetent defense counsel, then thanks to better lawyers and DNA evidence was spared the death penalty and walked out of prison a free man. After that, he drank himself to death.

Related, as Dudziak notes: the Triangle Legal History Seminar. Eric is speaking this Friday.

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