Alex Massie

The American Way of Justice

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If the New York Times or the Washington Post had a proper measure of imagination one or other of them would have asked Radley Balko to write a criminal justice column for their op-ed pages. Their loss has been the Huffington Post's gain. Before he moved to HuffPo Balko was a stalwart figure at Reason. It was there that he first wrote about the appalling case of Cory Maye, a Mississippi man convicted of killing a cop and placed on death row. That was five years ago.

Today Maye was finally released, a free man at last, after agreeing to accept a lesser charge of manslaughter in return for being released having spent the last ten years in prison. Maye could have proceeded with a retrial - in which his claim of legitimate self-defense could have been tested - but preferred to accept the plea so he could return to his family. Many people - journalists, lawyers, readers and activists - have helped keep Cory Maye alive but none, in the media at least, has done more than Radley Balko. It's not often that a journalist gets a man off Death Row. A towering achievement, really.

From Radley's first Reason article on the case:

Under Mississippi law, if Maye knew or should have known that Ron Jones was a police officer before he fired his gun, he is guilty of capital murder. If there is reasonable doubt about his knowledge that Jones was a police officer, he is not guilty (although one could conceivably make a case for criminal negligence if it can be shown he should have exercised more judgment before firing).

The most obvious argument in Maye’s defense involves the simplest interpretation of events. A man with no criminal record is awakened by the sounds of someone breaking into his home. While he is lying in the dark with his daughter, the door to the bedroom flies open and someone jumps inside. Fearing for his life, the man fires in self-defense and kills the intruder.

To convict Maye, the jury had to believe, beyond a reasonable doubt, that a man with no criminal record, a man who had just moved out of his parents’ home to make a life with his daughter and girlfriend, a man who had only a minuscule amount of marijuana in his apartment, looked out the window to see a team of police officers was about to enter; decided to take them on, even though he had done nothing wrong; waited for them to forcibly enter his home; fired three shots, killing just one of them; and then surrendered, leaving four bullets still in his gun. When I ask District Attorney Buddy McDonald, who prosecuted Maye, why a man would go through such a series of puzzling and contradictory acts, he replies only that “sometimes people do irrational things.”

So there's that. The whole piece is worth your time. Maye's case was scarcely assisted by crooked forensic evidence and an incompetent defence counsel. Now, at long last, the story has an ending. Or part of it does. From another of Radley's posts today:

[J]ust after the plea was finalized, Maye read a statement he had written to the family of Ron Jones, Jr.. He hen left the courtroom for a witness room in the back. I went in to talk with him. He was in tears. Cory Maye always smiles. Bob Evans, his attorney, thinks it may have rubbed the jury the wrong way during his trial. Evans says even on the day he was sentenced to death, Cory Maye was smiling. But he wasn’t smiling this morning, just moments after learning he’d soon be free.

I asked him what he was thinking. He started to answer, but couldn’t. Evans then asked, “You’re thinking about Ron, aren’t you? About the Jones family?”

Maye nodded, and dropped his head into his hands.

“I can’t tell you how many times that happens,” Evans told me later. “He grieves for them.”It must be an incredible burden to know you’ve taken another man’s life, that you’ve caused a pain and sense of loss for all the people who knew and loved that person, and that for them, that pain won’t ever go away.

[...] I’ve noted more than a few times here that Officer Ron Jones, Jr., was well-liked in this community, even among blacks, which is something that can’t be said of many white police officers in the area. Independent of how convinced Cory Maye, his family, his attorneys, or anyone else may be of his legal or moral innocence, independent of the fact that he was put in an awful predicament set in place by bad policies and bad judgment, independent of all of that, he will still always know that he killed a man he respected, a man he now knows meant him no real harm the night all this happened That’s a hell of a thing to carry around. And it isn’t something he’ll leave behind with his orange jumpsuit.

There were two victims that night in Mississippi: Officer Jones and Cory Maye. Both were victims of an insane drug war and an even more lunatic paramilitary style of policing that takes lives and endangers many more each year. It's too late, alas, for Officer Jones but, mercifully, not for Cory Maye.

The United States is a wonderful country but its courts and prisons are a disgrace that shames America's pretensions to civilisation, decency and any elementary definition of justice.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.