By the time I am writing this, I hope and expect that Glenn Ford will be breathing free air, beholden to no one, and eating something far better than prison food. For 30 years, Ford, now 64, has been incarcerated in Louisiana, at Angola Prison, the most nightmarish prison in the country. In 1984, Ford was sentenced to death. Now in 2014, the prosecution and district court have finally acknowledged what they had been pretending they didn't know for decades: Ford had nothing to do with the murder for which he was sentenced to death.
The linked story is a pretty white-washed, fact-light, feel-good version of the story. The victim's nephew calls this a "positive reflection on the criminal justice system." The prosecution itself filed a motion to vacate Ford's conviction, so look how kindly and justice-focused those nice prosecutors are! And good on the judge who signed off on it. Yay, justice system! It works!
Now let's put that nonsense aside and be honest about what really happened here. Back in November, 1983, when Isadore Rozeman (a white man) was murdered, Glenn Ford was a black man who had been seen at the scene that day. That Ford was at Rozeman's shop because he did yard work for the man hardly mattered. Nor did it matter that Ford went to the police station on his own to see what questions he might be able to help police with or that he cooperated for months. Really, all that mattered was that he was there on the day of the murder and he was acquainted with the chief suspects. The chief suspect's girlfriend told police Ford was with her boyfriend and his brother. But Ford had the gun, she said.
Ford was given two lawyers who knew next to nothing about criminal defense work. He literally got the next two names on the bar list. (At least these days to get a criminal appointment, a lawyer has to request being on the criminal appointment list. In my state, anyway.) The state made up some crazy "expert" testimony (good thing, too, because the girlfriend apparently utterly fell apart on the stand, admitting her testimony was all a lie). The state's experts included a coroner who insisted the killer was left-handed. He must have used a Ouija board, because he didn't actually conduct the autopsy. There was some bad fingerprint claim and a bad gunshot residue claim. Stuff that a modern day defense attorney can see right through, but that maybe doesn't sound crazy to a couple of civil attorneys in 1984. These civil attorneys never thought to find their own expert because they didn't know they could do that.
There were all kinds of other problems, too. The state didn't quite turn over all the exculpatory information it should have, a sadly common theme in wrongful convictions. The state excused all the black prospective jurors from the jury panel, another common theme. Appellate courts rejected complaints about these problems for decades, often doing so even while acknowledging they were real problems. Yes, Mr. Ford, you've raised some troubling concerns about the reliability of the process by which you were convicted and sentenced to death. Now go back to Angola.
For 30 years, the state proceeded with a crap case relying on a completely unreliable witness and junk expert testimony. The state withheld exculpatory evidence. The state engaged in racial profiling at jury selection. The defense attorneys should have been preparing oil and gas paperwork or investigating slip and falls, not standing between a black man in the south and the executioner. And for 30 years, courts overlooked all of those flaws.
So let's be clear about what happened today. While Glenn Ford being released is a great thing, it is most definitely not a "positive reflection on the criminal justice system." For Glenn Ford, the system did not work. Not at all.
If the system had worked as it should, Glenn Ford would have had a jury not entirely composed of white people (who, let's be honest, in Louisiana in 1984 might not have been the fairest judges of a black man accused of murder). The key witness' testimony would have been thrown out entirely when she admitted lying. The state would have turned over all the exculpatory information in its possession. The court would have appointed experienced criminal attorneys to represent Ford. Those defenders would easily have found experts to refute the absurd "forensic" testimony relied on by the prosecution, quite possibly discrediting it so thoroughly before trial that the fake evidence couldn't even be heard by a jury.
If the system had worked as it should, Glenn Ford would never have been convicted of a murder he didn't commit, let alone being sentenced to death. At the very least, the appellate court that expressed serious concerns about the case against Ford would have reversed his convictions. Goodness knows they had sufficient reasons to. Or at the VERY least, the courts who heard the second round of appeals, all focusing on the woefully inept defense attorneys who didn't know they could hire experts or subpoena witnesses from out-of-state, would have acknowledged that the outcome could have been different if he'd had attorneys who knew what the heck they were doing.
For 30 years, the state blindly prosecuted and courts blindly affirmed this innocent man. Glenn Ford even had one execution date set. Fortunately, that was one occasion when a court did not blindly affirm as Ford was obviously not executed. But I would bet dollars to donuts the state opposed the defense motion to stay that death warrant, despite all the reasons everyone had to suspect the validity of Ford's conviction and sentence. I would bet that the state argued for its right to kill this man, even as it fought to preserve a conviction despite its own racial bias in jury selection, reliance on junk evidence, and refusal to follow its most basic evidentiary obligations.
By this point in the appellate proceedings, Glenn Ford had no recourse left. Any motions his attorneys filed for him could have been rejected summarily as being time-barred. So I guess some people think Glenn Ford should now fall over thanking the nice prosecutors who filed the motion to vacate his conviction and sentence, because they didn't have to. Just think about that for a minute. For decades, the state has known this conviction was based on nonsense but did nothing but defend the conviction. And yet, if the state hadn't finally, mercifully radically altered its position and magnanimously agreed to file a motion on his behalf, Glenn Ford would have probably been executed. This is not what we should consider anywhere within the zone of a properly functioning system.
What happened to Glenn Ford is an absolute travesty that makes the criminal justice system look like a sham. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise.