(Photo: Glenn Ford, 64, talks to the media as he leaves prison on March 11, 2014.)
I have covered countless wrongful convictions in nearly two decades of work as a legal analyst but I don’t think that any case, any cause, ever touched me the way the Glenn Ford story did. Here was a man, an uneducated black man in the South, who was railroaded into a murder conviction and death sentence. He then was left to languish in solitary confinement for decades in one of the most despicable prisons on Earth, and then upon his belated release denied the compensation he was owed by the state of Louisiana, by some of the very officials who allowed his false conviction and sentence to fester for 30 years in the first place.
Here was a man, a petty thief, whose long-ago trial was a travesty upon justice, whose lung cancer likely was left untreated, or mistreated, while he was in confinement, so much so that he lived only a few months as a free man before succumbing to the disease. In the end, adding insult to injury, Louisiana officials decided just to wait him out, and watch him die, without having to pay him restitution for all those decades locked alone in a cell. Why? Because they say he could not prove that he did not commit a petty crime the state never charged him with 30 years ago. Now that Glenn Ford is gone his family is left to pursue those claims; if there is any justice in the world they will prevail.
But the Ford case reminds us of how little justice exists in Louisiana, then, and now. On Sunday night, my colleagues at 60 Minutes broadcast a wrenching segment on the Ford story. You should take 15 minutes out of your day to watch it. Correspondent Bill Whitaker interviewed Ford just weeks before he died, penniless, of the cancer that ravaged him. Whitaker also talked to the former prosecutor, Marty Stroud, who put Ford on death row and later came to regret it, and talked, too, to Dale Cox, the current prosecutor of Caddo Parish, the man who helped get Ford free then fought to deny him the money he is owed.
Each interview, alone, would have created an important historical record of the fallibility of justice in capital cases. Woven together, however, they do something more; they help explain how these cases happen over and over again. Stroud today mourns the decisions he made 30 years ago, as a young prosecutor, when he ensured that Ford’s jury would be all white and then snickered when Ford’s capital trial team consisted of a probate lawyer and a junior attorney, neither of whom had ever tried a capital case.
Cox, meanwhile, is the embodiment of every prosecutor in the country who places one manner of justice at the expense of another and those many prosecutors who feel otherwise surely cringed watching him on tape. The justice system worked, he told Whitaker with a straight face, because Ford was not executed before he was exonerated. Cox says he doesn’t understand why Stroud is apologizing to anyone for anything since Stroud did what he was supposed to do in prosecuting and convicting Ford all those years ago. And then Cox went further and said this:
The question is, was there anything illegally done, improperly done that led to this. And-- and I can comfortably say, based on the review of the record, no, there was not.
But that is simply not true. Under the Supreme Court’s mandate of Gideon v. Wainwright, Ford was entitled to competent counsel during his trial and on appeal. He did not receive that. Under Supreme Court precedent later reaffirmed in Batson v. Kentucky, Ford also was entitled to a jury selected without racial bias or prejudice. This, too, he did not receive. Under the Supreme Court’s mandate of Brady v. Maryland he was entitled to know what the police and prosecutors knew about the informant whose testimony incriminated him. This he did not receive.
Over and over again the “improper” application of well-settled legal principles tainted the Ford case. And over and over again the appellate courts of Louisiana, and the federal courts with jurisdiction over the case, subsequently excused and justified those errors. Ford never should have been convicted. And then his conviction should swiftly have been overturned. And Cox’s refusal, even now, to admit this, to admit the “illegal” and “improper” application of the law in the Ford case, illustrates a pervasive problem within our criminal justice systems: once a man is convicted too many prosecutors and judges care more about defending that conviction no matter how flawed it may be than they do about ensuring that a fair and accurate result has been reached.
Sure, in the end, when he could no longer ignore the evidence before him, Cox helped exonerate Ford. I suppose that makes him better in some respects than other prosecutors in other jurisdictions who never try to right a wrong like this. But the genius of Whitaker’s interview with the outgoing prosecutor (Cox declared a few months ago that he is not running for reelection and a new election will be held later this month) is that it shows the rationale that animated Cox’s decision. What happened to Ford is not immoral, Cox told Whitaker. Not immoral, that is, according to Cox’s view of morality. Our justice systems are run according to the moral beliefs of elected officials like Cox.
Which brings me, at last, to Ford. I only spoke with him after he was released from prison. I never saw him in the months before he died. But the 60 Minutes cameras did. His emaciated face on our television screens Sunday night, a man at the end of a life wasted by our justice system, was a victory of sorts. At least his story of injustice saw the light of day. At least his exoneration led his prosecutor, Stroud, to publicly confess what a great many lapsed prosecutors surely must feel in their hearts when they contribute to an unjust result. At least now the nation understands better the mindset of a prosecutor like Cox, who wants you to think he goes to bed at night with a clean conscience, “reasonably” sure that he has not condemned an innocent man to death.
There are a lot of clean consciences among prosecutors and judges and police officers and defense attorneys in Louisiana, I bet. And there also are a lot more men like Ford wasting away in a cell, wrongfully convicted, bereft of hope, praying their story will get into the hands of the right lawyer, or judge, or journalist. If you remember Glenn Ford at all in the coming years remember him for finally breaking free from his unjust confinement, from his relentless pain, and from a justice system that dogged him until the day he died.
The views expressed are the author's own and not necessarily those of the Brennan Center for Justice.
(Photo: Frame Grab From Video Provided by WAFB-TV 9/AP)