Three Life Changing Things (aka things that make you go “hmmm”) – Number three

Er. Not to put too fine a point on it, I met my wife

So now, without further adieu, the third instalment in my three seemingly un-related and life-changing events. I met my wife – yes, that was the event that started it all for me.

Firstly, don’t panic. This is not some namby pamby story of how I met Vanessa, fell in love, got married and lived happily ever after surrounded by roses, eating chocolate and drinking red wine – hmmm, excuse me for a moment, time to pour a glass.

Pause. Gentle gurgling sounds of cabernet sauvignon hitting crystal.

Ahh, now where were we? That’s right, well, meeting V was life changing for me, yes. But something you want to read about in excruciating, cheek-blushing detail? Er, no. Probably not. No, this is about the work Vanessa was doing when we met and how finding out about it, and being inevitably drawn into it, changed my life.

“I honestly didn’t do it, Guv. Stand on me.”

Vanessa was the Project Director for the University of Melbourne’s Innocence Project (UoMIP)

I’m sure you’ve heard of Innocence Projects – and if you haven’t, you need to – so I won’t go into great detail – except to say they investigate claims of wrongful conviction (see www.innocenceproject.org for the original US-based project).

Vanessa had moved to Melbourne a few months before to establish Victoria’s project. Listening to her ‘gushing’ about the project, (that was her word after our first date), talking about what it could achieve, the relationships she’d forged even with those most at risk if a conviction was overturned, was mesmerising and eye-opening. And bloody scary. It could so easily be me, or you, wrongly convicted. It happens. And tust me, once you’ve been wrongfully convicted there’s often sweet bugger-all you can do to fight it.

http://www.theage.com.au/entertainment/movies/courage-in-wrongful-convictions-20120229-1u33f.html

Apparently I look like John Howard, or was that a bearded bikie, or a cowboy?

I started to help out with the project, working on a case management system specific to student-resourced case management. (No need for six minute billing periods you see like a lawyering or accountant’s system.)

I’d also go along to the first Forensics lecture each semester – none of the students would know me, of course – and then get up and leave early.

At the end of the lecture Frank (the lecturer) would ask the students to describe me, and I kid you not I’ve been described as all of the above, in the one class. I’ll only ever take an eye-witness account with a dose of salt from now on. In the US, eye-witness misidentification is the single greatest cause of wrongful convictions nationwide, playing a role in 75% of the 289 convictions overturned through DNA testing to date. Eye-witness testimony has seen men electrocuted or injected to death, and later proven to be wrong.

A trip to Barwon Jail – “Guilty of Murder and Attempted Murder.”

A case. The students didn’t think the case had merit, but the guy concerned was illiterate most of his life and had only learnt to read whilst in prison, so communications were challenging.

They had decided to go visit him at Victoria’s maximum security facility, Barwon, and were likely to drop the case.

“Hang on!” I said to Vanessa with more than a little concern “You, and four students, are going to visit a convicted murderer, to likely tell him you’re dropping his case. And you’ll be in a private room with no guards present?”

Suffice it to say, I joined Vanessa and the students that day at Barwon.

“I swear by Jesus on The Cross… ”

We were sitting in a small room at Barwon and the students were asking their questions and noting down his responses. One of the students, who happened to be the daughter of a senior police officer, started getting more aggressive with her questioning. For a moment I felt I had transported to the set of Homicide or some other ’70s police series.

Listening to him recount the fatal night, who was there, what they were doing, I started to form an opinion of what may have happened.

When he was asked directly if he had committed the murder he responded with “I swear by Jesus on The Cross that I did not kill that person.” He said it with such simple conviction and such raw honesty. All his other responses, even in regards to the attempted murder were a little vague, perhaps the victim of time dulling his memory. But to this one question there was no doubt in his mind. As a result of the visit, the students kept the case open.

“You’re killing the project? But there are 25 open cases!”

Two years after starting it, the University of Melbourne killed the Innocence Project. UoMIP, some say, was a victim of the New Melbourne Model. A university chasing funding and unable to justify a subject where there were only a handful of students per class versus the hundreds that go to the big law lectures – a simple cost decision perhaps.

The students were outraged. They did what they could to keep the project going but to no avail.

What about the applicants I thought? At the time there were 25 open cases and several appeared to have real merit. Vanessa was receiving regular phone calls from inmates desperate to prove their innocence. Vanessa and I spent the next twelve months trying to get the financial support to get the project up and running again until we couldn’t afford to keep going.

Some hope dawns

I’ve met a number of convicted innocents over the past seven years, from bumping into Lindy Chamberlain at Seattle airport and spending 90 minutes talking whilst we waited for our flights, (how ironic that the inquest that will finally confirm that a dingo took her daughter from her is currently in session), to meeting a guy who spent 23 years on death row, to my friend Jack who spent seven years banged up, and was nearly killed whilst inside.

The thing that strikes me though is that none seem bitter. Sure: they absolutely want to clear their names. But they all just seem to want to get on with their lives and to try to stop it happening to someone else.

All well and good. So what was the life changing event that made me determined to give more – more time, more money, more effort, more brain power – and try and help those less fortunate than me?

It was simply sitting in that small room in a maximum security prison, and looking a man squarely in the eyes as he swore by Jesus on the Cross that he was innocent of murder, and realising in my heart that he was innocent, and knowing he’ll probably be spending most of his life in jail for a crime he did not commit.

And also knowing that a better legal system – with more time and more money devoted to helping the inarticulate, the badly educated, the poorly represented, and the mentally challenged to get a fair go – might not be sexy or popular or easy to explain or, indeed, an abiding issue for many people, but for the people who are locked up who are entirely innocent, it is the most vital thing we can do.

And for the rest of us, too. Because our whole society rests on the legitimacy of our legal system. When it is proven to be illegitimate – and even when we need to simply test its legitimacy to ensure it is functioning to an acceptable standard – we are doing something fundamental to protect all of us.

Looking into that man’s eyes. That was life changing.

As I wrote this piece I was reminded on the case of Rubin Carter and the amazing protest song that Bob Dylan wrote about his case: “Hurricane”. There’s no YouTube clip with the original performance and pics and video – dang copyright rules! – but I did search for a performance with video and came up with this interesting example from Lord knows where or when on the internet.

The song’s well worth listening to again, and I reproduce the lyrics below to make it even easier. It’s an interesting performance – much less “produced” than the version we’re all used to hearing on the radio. And it is all the more compelling for that reason – quite a different experience. Just click on the picture.

Hey. We can’t all be Bob Dylan. But that’s no excuse to stay silent, right?

Pistols shots ring out in the bar-room night
Enter Patty Valentine from the upper hall
She sees the bartender in a pool of blood
Cries out “My God they killed them all”
Here comes the story of the Hurricane
The man the authorities came to blame
For something that he never done
Put him in a prison cell but one time he could-a been
The champion of the world.

Three bodies lying there does Patty see
And another man named Bello moving around mysteriously
“I didn’t do it” he says and he throws up his hands
“I was only robbing the register I hope you understand
I saw them leaving” he says and he stops
“One of us had better call up the cops”
And so Patty calls the cops
And they arrive on the scene with their red lights flashing
In the hot New Jersey night.

Meanwhile far away in another part of town
Rubin Carter and a couple of friends are driving around
Number one contender for the middleweight crown
Had no idea what kinda shit was about to go down
When a cop pulled him over to the side of the road
Just like the time before and the time before that
In Patterson that’s just the way things go
If you’re black you might as well not SHOW up on the street
‘Less you wanna draw the heat.

Alfred Bello had a partner and he had a rap for the corps
Him and Arthur Dexter Bradley were just out prowling around
He said “I saw two men running out they looked like middleweights
They jumped into a white car with out-of-state plates”
And Miss Patty Valentine just nodded her head
Cop said “Wait a minute boys this one’s not dead”
So they took him to the infirmary
And though this man could hardly see
They told him that he could identify the guilty men.

Four in the morning and they haul Rubin in
Take him to the hospital and they bring him upstairs
The wounded man looks up through his one dying eye
Says “Wha’d you bring him in here for ? He ain’t the guy !”
Yes here comes the story of the Hurricane
The man the authorities came to blame
For something that he never done
Put in a prison cell but one time he could-a been
The champion of the world.

Four months later the ghettos are in flame
Rubin’s in South America fighting for his name
While Arthur Dexter Bradley’s still in the robbery game
And the cops are putting the screws to him looking for somebody to blame
“Remember that murder that happened in a bar ?”
“Remember you said you saw the getaway car?”
“You think you’d like to play ball with the law ?”
“Think it might-a been that fighter you saw running that night ?”
“Don’t forget that you are white”.

Arthur Dexter Bradley said “I’m really not sure”
Cops said “A boy like you could use a break
We got you for the motel job and we’re talking to your friend Bello
Now you don’t wanta have to go back to jail be a nice fellow
You’ll be doing society a favor
That sonofabitch is brave and getting braver
We want to put his ass in stir
We want to pin this triple murder on him
He ain’t no Gentleman Jim”.

Rubin could take a man out with just one punch
But he never did like to talk about it all that much
It’s my work he’d say and I do it for pay
And when it’s over I’d just as soon go on my way
Up to some paradise
Where the trout streams flow and the air is nice
And ride a horse along a trail
But then they took him to the jailhouse
Where they try to turn a man into a mouse.

All of Rubin’s cards were marked in advance
The trial was a pig-circus he never had a chance
The judge made Rubin’s witnesses drunkards from the slums
To the white folks who watched he was a revolutionary bum
And to the black folks he was just a crazy nigger
No one doubted that he pulled the trigger
And though they could not produce the gun
The DA said he was the one who did the deed
And the all-white jury agreed.

Rubin Carter was falsely tried
The crime was murder ‘one’ guess who testified
Bello and Bradley and they both baldly lied
And the newspapers they all went along for the ride
How can the life of such a man
Be in the palm of some fool’s hand ?
To see him obviously framed
Couldn’t help but make me feel ashamed to live in a land
Where justice is a game.

Now all the criminals in their coats and their ties
Are free to drink martinis and watch the sun rise
While Rubin sits like Buddha in a ten-foot cell
An innocent man in a living hell
That’s the story of the Hurricane
But it won’t be over till they clear his name
And give him back the time he’s done
Put him in a prison cell but one time he could-a been
The champion of the world.

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5 Comments

Filed under Philanthropy

5 responses to “Three Life Changing Things (aka things that make you go “hmmm”) – Number three

  1. Jason

    I have learn some good stuff here. Certainly bookmarking for re-visiting. Magnificent, informative website.

  2. Trisha

    That is very disappointing the Innocence Project has closed
    in Melbourne, I was hoping to get involved with such an
    organisation as I have just relocated to the city, may I ask is to
    what your wife is working in now?

    • Hi Trisha
      Vanessa is the Managing Director of The Different Company, a for profit social enterprise (www.thedifferentco.com), and volunteers as Director of Programmes at The Bridge of Hope Foundation. The Bridge if hoping to relaunch the Innocence Project in Victoria among its other social inclusion programmes.
      MarkT

    • Hi Trisha

      I thought you may be interested to learn that the Bridge of Hope has successfully launched The Bridge of Hope Innocence Initiative at RMIT University.

      For more details you can contact Vanessa at vanessa.tipping@boh.org.au

      MarkT

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