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.

Relat­ed Content:

Julia Dahl is a jour­nal­ist spe­cial­iz­ing in crime and crim­i­nal jus­tice. She has worked as a reporter for CBSNews​.com and the New York Post, and her fea­ture arti­cles have appeared in Men­tal Floss, Salon, the Colum­bia Jour­nal­ism Review, and many oth­ers. She was born in Fres­no, Cal­i­for­nia to a Luther­an father and Jew­ish moth­er and now lives in Brooklyn.