Julia Dahl is the author of the Rebekah Roberts novels, the latest of which, Conviction, comes out this week. Julia is guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.
It probably won't surprise you to learn that I've never been arrested. It probably won't even surprise you to learn that for the first two decades of my life I'd never known anyone who'd been arrested, either. Likely, you can same the same thing. But not having to personally contend with the justice system doesn't mean I've been an angel. It just means I've been lucky—or, maybe more accurately, privileged.
In high school, I had friends who sold drugs. One guy I hung out with carried a wooden box with mushrooms and pot and coke in it almost everywhere he went—including school— in a duffle bag. And during my senior year, I got caught smoking pot with some friends in a hotel room in Bakersfield while we were in town for a debate tournament (no, I’m not kidding). We got suspended, but, as far as I know, no one even considered calling the police.
Was it because it was 1994? Was it because most of us were good kids otherwise? Was it because we were white? Some combination? I won’t ever know. What I do know is that I was—we were—very lucky. But I barely felt lucky. At the time, it didn’t occur to me to be afraid of the justice system. Obviously, the police were to be avoided when smoking pot, but otherwise they were your friends. The courts, the prisons—they were distant entities, but generally, if you had asked back then, I would have said they kept the “bad guys” away.
And the “bad guys” I had knowledge of were undoubtedly bad. My freshman year in high school, a wealthy local family was murdered in their home. Mom, dad, sister all shot to death over Easter weekend. Turns out, the college-age son, Dana Ewell, hired a classmate to murder them, apparently, for the family’s $8 million fortune.
It took police a while to flip the gunman, as I remember, and before the son was arrested he came to see my dad, who was a local estate attorney, to inquire about representation. My dad and his firm didn’t take him on, and a few years later, when the Ewell murders came up in conversation, my dad got quiet. Without revealing anything about what was said, he told us that when Dana Ewell came to see him, he immediately became frightened.
“It was like cold walked into the room,” said my dad. “He had shark eyes—dead and black.”
With Dana Ewell, “the system” had done its job and justice, as far as that goes, was served. I figured pretty much everyone in prison was probably like Dana: dangerous and unfit to live among us. At the very least they were guilty.
It didn’t occur to me that “the system” might not work as well for everyone until I met Tyeisha Martin in 2004. Tyeisha was 19 years old and had lived her whole life in New Orleans’ Ninth Ward. When the hurricane came she lost her home and was separated from her child. I met her at a church in Henry County, Georgia, where I was living at the time. She and several hundred “refugees” had been bused there and were awaiting federal assistance to get in touch with family and find new places to live.
Long story short, my editor at Seventeen magazine knew I was in the South and asked me to find a teenager who’d survived the hurricane to profile for the next issue. I found Tyeisha. After a couple days together, I dropped her off at the bus station in Atlanta in August, and the next March her sister, Quiana, called to tell me Tyeisha had been murdered. Shot and left in a ditch in Fort Bend County. Her daughter, Quiana said, might have seen it.
Twelve years later, there is no justice for Tyeisha and her family, and the only real attention the case got was because of my Seventeen article. Quiana and I communicate occasionally. She sends me pictures of Daniesha before a school dance, or at birthdays; I sent her a picture when I gave birth to my son.
Tyeisha’s death invited me to look under the hood of the justice system, and what I found there was often disquieting. Suddenly I learned things like the fact that if you are murdered in this country there is good chance that whoever killed you will never see the inside of a prison cell. One-third of homicide cases are never cleared—and even “clearance” doesn’t mean someone gets convicted and incarcerated. Clearance means an arrest, or the suspect is identified but unable to be arrested for some reason.
And it’s not just homicide. Look too close at the way sexual assault is investigated and prosecuted (or, more often, not investigated or prosecuted) and you’ll see a system that too often intimidates and traumatizes victims while letting evidence languish and perpetrators reoffend. Look at who gets convicted of low-level drug crimes, and at how youthful mistakes can burden certain segments of our society and leave others (like mine) unscathed.
All this was in my head when I started writing my latest novel, Conviction. Every few weeks, it seemed, I was reading about (mostly) black men being exonerated after serving decades in prison for crimes we now know they did not commit. Can you even imagine? What more egregious miscarriage of justice than you imprison the wrong person for a murder? And what sort of machinations could create such a circumstance? I decided I needed to try to imagine it.
Julia Dahl writes about crime and criminal justice for CBSNews.com.
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