OPINION

OPINION | MIKE MASTERSON: $17. 5 million miscarriage of justice


"It is better 100 guilty persons should escape than that one innocent person should suffer."--Benjamin Franklin

Valued readers know I've had a career-long interest in highlighting innocent men and women being wrongly convicted and imprisoned, often for decades. To me, imprisoning innocent people has always represented the most terrible thing a society can inflict on its members.

And so when I see story after story of innocents freed from incarceration after gross malfeasance was discovered with their arrests and convictions, I'm compelled to call closer attention to the gross and inexcusable injustice.

It's also the only reason I am against the death penalty. The number of mistakenly executed people has reached 195 in our land of the free, according to those who keep such records.

Whenever such miscarriage happens by intention, it should result in a serious price for those who contributed to the injustice.

And that's what happened in New York earlier this month when national news reported that George Bell, a Black man, had been exonerated after spending over two decades in prison for murders he didn't commit in Queens, N.Y.

Bell will receive a $17.5 million settlement from New York City, an apparent record payout, according to his lawyer and city data, The New York Times reported.

Bell had been wrongly convicted, with Gary Johnson and Rohan Bolt, for the killing in 1996 of the owner of a check-cashing store in East Elmhurst and an off-duty police officer who was providing security. He was sentenced in 1999 to life without parole.

A New York judge threw out the three men's convictions in 2021 and admonished prosecutors for withholding evidence that could have cast doubt on the men's guilt; prosecutors were also found to have made false statements at trial.

"These three defendants were undoubtedly wronged by the district attorney's office's misconduct," Judge Joseph A. Zayas of the Appellate Division of the state Supreme Court, wrote in his decision, according to The Times.

Mr. Bell's settlement is the largest the city has paid for a wrongful conviction. his attorney said.

"It recognizes the horrible suffering that a young, innocent man went through facing the death penalty for three years and life without parole for 21 more," the attorney told the Times.

The exonerations of all three men happened after the Queens district attorney, in her first year on the job. created a unit to review cases that could have resulted in wrongful convictions. Conveniently, it found no intentional misconduct in the three men's cases.

However, during a hearing, the judge said the prosecution had "completely abdicated its truth-seeking role in these cases." Two prosecutors who had overseen those cases later resigned. No mention of disbarment or civil suit?

The Times also reported that in recent years, growing numbers of convictions from the 1990 have been vacated. "District attorneys have also created conviction integrity units to review potentially wrongful convictions. In the 2022 fiscal year, New York City settled cases involving 16 wrongful convictions, the most of any single year ... . The settlements totaled nearly $87 million."

Sixteen wrongful convictions in one year! Talk about a profound loss of public faith in the criminal justice system.

Signs at 39,000 feet

It's been my experience that people recognize what I've come to call GodNods in various ways, including mysterious sightings and events that can carry deeply spiritual significance.

Such was the case with retired Air Force Gen. Jerry Cook about 20 years ago, when he said he and his co-pilot were flying a Citation jet in a thin layer of clouds one afternoon along a familiar route in the east. Jerry had flown all over the world and experienced pretty much everything in the skies a veteran pilot could see.

But that would change on this day.

Cruising peacefully in smooth air at 39,000 feet, Jerry said he glanced to his left and slightly upward to a sight that startled him.

There, out his window shining amid the clouds, were three beaming crosses arranged with the center cross slightly higher than the others to form a perfect pyramid. He blinked hard and stared until turning to his co-pilot to ask if he was seeing the same unbelievable sight.

Since the co-pilot had been staring in the same direction with his mouth agape, the answer was obvious. They continued to watch in silence. Seeing flashes of sunlight through sparse clouds was commonplace to both pilots. But neither had ever witnessed anything like these perfectly created and arranged Christian symbols.

The brilliantly lighted crosses continued on the same heading as their plane for a while until they simply faded away.

He said both men afterwards were alarmed and admitted to wondering if the next thing they'd hear was "the sound of trumpets," which in Revelation symbolizes angels announcing the coming apocalypse.

Another victim of pits

A 69-year-old DeKalb County Ga. woman was recovering in a hospital this week after several dogs attacked her during an otherwise peaceful early morning walk with her small dog.

Sadie Bispham was returning to her home from after walking her Shih Tzu LuLu, who somehow survived the attack that was loud enough to awaken sleeping neighbors.

After hearing screams for help, several neighbors came to help.

"I ran off to the house to get a broom, because I was like, 'I don't think I can handle those dogs,'" one neighbor told a reporter. But witnesses say the dogs kept biting as the much beloved woman they call Miss Sadie fought them for 10 minutes.

"They just would not leave her alone. She fought and fought and fought these dogs," Chermaine Hicks, Bispham's daughter, was quoted saying. She said her mother now has puncture wounds to her back, neck, leg and arm. "It's horrible, horrible. Her leg is awful."

Neighbors told a TV reporter the dogs finally stopped savaging the older woman after the owner came out of his home. The man had moved into the community about three months ago and neighbors since have feared a mauling could happen.

"I told [the owner], you know I have cameras all around. It's on video that your dogs are constantly outside, and not on a leash,'" a neighbor told the reporter.

I wonder how many of these horror stories have to be reported until our own local, state and county elected officials take meaningful action to seriously penalize large-dog owners who fail to adequately restrain their proven dangerous, even deadly, animals to protect innocent Arkansans.

Now go out into the world and treat everyone you meet exactly like you want them to treat you.

Mike Masterson is a longtime Arkansas journalist, was editor of three Arkansas dailies and headed the master's journalism program at Ohio State University. Email him at [email protected].


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