This is a story about a case long forgotten. It was a case that needed to be forgotten, to safeguard the meaning of American justice. The case of Death for a Dollar Ninety-Five began one July night in Marion, Alabama, in 1957, and soon captured the attention of the world. It involved an African American man, a white woman, and the robbery of a small amount of change late in the evening. The conviction was swift and the penalty was death. International criticism soon rained down on the Alabama Governor and the American Secretary of State, leading to clemency and a life sentence. For $1.95. And the case was forgotten. This story helps us to see the way narratives of American justice and injustice are managed. The United States identifies itself with the rule of law, and so miscarriages of justice are often perceived as breaches in that identity, violations of the nation's own core principles. Resolutions of miscarriages of injustice, this paper argues, are often about repairing a breach in American identity, making America whole again. What happens to the person at the center of the story is, at best, secondary. For the story to turn out right, the nation is restored, and the person is forgotten.The photo shows Tuskegee, Alabama civil rights attorney Fred Gray, who represented Jimmy Wilson, the defendant at the center of this paper, during his appeals and clemency proceedings. I interviewed Mr. Gray, who still practices law in Tuskegee. His memoir is Bus Ride to Justice.
Tuesday, June 1, 2010
Back on-line: The Case of 'Death for a Dollar Ninety-Five': Miscarriages of Justice and Constructions of American Identity
I had to take my paper The Case of 'Death for a Dollar Ninety-Five': Miscarriages of Justice and Constructions of American Identity, off the web until a year after it appeared in print. The book, When Law Fails: Making Sense of Miscarriages of Justice, Austin Sarat and Charles Ogletree, Jr., eds., has been out for more than a year, and the paper has just been reposted on SSRN. Here’s the abstract: