Thursday, March 25, 2010

Justice and John Grisham

Here’s another indication of just how massive my ego is: Wednesday night I had an opportunity to forfeit one night of professorial instruction in favor of letting my students hear another writer speak.

It was not an easy call. I had to carefully weigh whether they would benefit more from a ninth three-hour class with me or one hour with a writer who might shed some insights into aspects of the writing profession. The other writer?

John Grisham.

He was invited to speak to The Innocence Institute at Point Park University in Pittsburgh where I teach creative non-fiction. Two of my students, Matt Stroud and Marie DoRego, are pillars of the program that painstakingly researches cases of death row inmates who claim to have been wrongly convicted.

They devoted long hours with grizzled program director Bill Moushey, a legendary local reporter, and thought, gee, maybe other aspiring journalists would benefit from the experience.

Partly out of laziness, I decided, yeah, well, let’s let them hear what a guy who’s sold more than 250 million books has to say. The students would have to write about the evening.

Twelve hours later, I’m convinced I made the right decision. But not for any of the reasons you might suspect.

Sure, Grisham was great. He was funny, handsome and spoke with a drawling eloquence that made everything he said compelling.

In short, he was everything that the three men who told unforgettable stories are not.

They are Greg Bright, John Thompson and Douglas Dilosa.

You may never have heard their names and but for saintly work by people in other Innocence Institutes you never would have. Thompson was five days from a date with a Louisiana electric chair.

The men spent a combined 58 years in Louisiana’s Angola State Penitentiary, one of the most notorious, soul-devouring prisons on earth.

They took turns telling their stories from stools behind metal podiums on a barren stage. Their demographic breakdown roughly equalled that of our nation’s prisons. Bright and Thompson were poor blacks from challenging backgrounds convicted of murdering strangers.

Dilosa on September 27, 1986, was a lot like me. He was a happily married father of two young children he adored. He was convicted of killing his wife for insurance money and then, according to prosecutors, staging a crime scene to make it look like it had been done by two intruders he swore were getting away with murder. Prosecutors said he’d strangled his wife, mangled himself and tied himself up to foil investigators.

Each was sent to Angola, Dilosa for 14 years, Thompson for 17, and Bright for 27.

Eventually, all were exonerated. A system that in every way was stacked against them said oops. Oops, but not sorry. None of the men were compensated for the lost years.

They talked about the indelible stigma that comes from being wrongly convicted in a society that smugly assures itself, hey, the dude had to be guilty of something.

But as Grisham’s 2006 non-fiction book “The Innocent Man” details, our criminal justice system is rife with laziness and outright corruption. It happens with police, lawyers, junk science, snitch testimony and indifferent judges who mars a system that strives for fairness.

Wrong men are convicted while guilty men roam free.

Later, I coaxed my students to talk to the men at the follow-up reception. It’s where I always get the best stories, I said.

And I couldn’t resist. I cornered Bright. He told me even after 27 years in Angola, he never stopped believing the system that put him away would eventually free him. He said he has no bitterness, was thrilled the Saints won the Super Bowl, and that he hadn’t seen “The Shawshank Redemption.”

He said the worst thing about being in prison was hearing the prison chaplain tell him his mother died thinking her son would be executed for a heinous crime she knew he did not commit. He said the best thing about being free is just being free.

Me and two of my young male students were talking when I saw Dilosa talking to one of their female classmates.

They thought it might be rude to interrupt. Nonsense, I said. Your job is to get a good story out of this. It can be done without being rude.

Maybe by them, but not by me. I went over and swamped the whole conversation. I just had too many questions.

He said he thought of committing suicide to spare his sons the indignities of prison visits. He said they found the “expert witness” who showed the jury how any man could tie himself up without assistance at a state fair. The guy was a professional contortionist.

As he was about to leave I had one last question: “How ‘bout them Saints!”

Dilosa fairly quaked with rage.

“I was furious they won the Super Bowl,” he said. “It deludes the people of Louisiana into thinking everything’s all right when innocent men are going through absolute hell every day of their lives.”

When it was over, I drove to my mom’s apartment in the South Hills where I stay with my 3-year-old daughter on nights when I teach class. I hugged mom, told her I loved her, then climbed into the bed where my father slept before he died in 2004 and later my grandfather before he died in 2008.

I cuddled my sweet little darling and said a prayer that someday a loving God will bring justice to all the wrongly convicted men and women who survive in prisons on the slim hopes that one day they might enjoy a single moment like the ones I enjoy throughout each and every day.

And I prayed that He will show a mercy undeserved to men like me for not doing more to help men like them.

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