John Artis, wrongly convicted: What is a day of your life worth?

By John Artis (image source)

Oct. 2 of this year will be the second annual Wrongful Conviction Day, which honours the wrongly convicted and raises awareness about what leads to wrongful convictions.

If you feel that you haven’t been touched by wrongful conviction, you’re mistaken. Wrongful conviction is relevant to everyone in our society who feels they’re entitled to fairness from the law. What happened to Rubin and I could happen to anyone.

When judges or juries are deciding whether someone goes to prison, they are truly holding that person’s life in their hands. That’s why it’s so critical that justice is both fair and accountable.

One-third of my life taken

I was Rubin Hurricane Carter’s co-accused in 1967 for a triple murder charge. I served 15 years in jail in New Jersey for crimes that neither of us committed.

I was only 19 when we were put away. I had 5,478 days of my life taken from me. Put another way: 780 weeks, 180 months, or nearly one third of my life. My knowledge of our innocence sustained me through those years.

How much is one day of your life worth? How about one year? Or 15 years? Think about it. Take a moment. Try to put yourself in the shoes of the wrongly convicted, and on Oct. 2, ask those around you to do the same.

Racism: alive in our institutions

Wrongful convictions are not random acts of misfortune. They are a symptom of a justice system that doesn’t provide a level playing field for everyone.

Racism, for instance, was a defining factor in my experience with the criminal justice system.

Following my exoneration, U.S. District Court Judge Haddon Lee Sarokin said the prosecution was “predicated upon an appeal to racism rather than reason, and concealment rather than disclosure.” According to Sarokin, the case should never even have gone to trial. He called it the most egregious violation of constitutional rights that he’d seen in all his time on the bench.

Racial prejudices come into play at every level of law enforcement throughout North America: from how suspects of crimes are described by eyewitnesses, to who police officers will approach, to how someone with a complexion like mine will be perceived by a jury “of their peers.” Racialized poverty also impacts the likelihood of whether an accused can afford good legal representation to effectively counter a serious criminal charge.

I want to see better accountability for violators of the law who work within the law. It should be applicable to them just like it is applicable to all of us who are citizens in society.

Trying to keep up from behind a wall

It’s not only the experience of being incarcerated that’s incredibly difficult; it’s trying to make a life for yourself if and when you get out. After you’ve been away from the world for a long time, trying to fit back in is very frightening. You’ve been removed from society, and you’re trying to keep up from behind a wall.

You read and hear about current events and ask questions, but no matter what, you’re still far, far behind. It’s like getting on a GO Train, riding it for 15 years, and then stepping off at the same place you were before. But everything has changed: technology, language, people, behaviours and attitudes.

Some prisoners get out and then commit crimes so they can return to a familiar environment.

Trying to provide for yourself is also very challenging. No one wants to hire a felon.
Even if you have been exonerated of a conviction, the world and potential employers may still see you as guilty. Criminal convictions, even wrongful ones, stay with people for the rest of their lives. ­­­­­­

And if you’re seeking compensation or reparations from the state following exoneration, your only option is to begin yet another legal process through the same system that put you away in the first place.

Gratitude for my present

We are raised to believe that the law is unbiased, fair and honest. That is ostensibly the reason that lady justice has a blindfold. But there are thousands of people who have languished in prison for years. Wrongfully. And there’s no relief or recognition for them.

It’s not fair when a police officer approaches some people differently than others. It’s not fair when people are intimidated, or evidence is falsified or hidden. It’s not fair when two people face the same charges under similar circumstances but one walks and the other goes to prison because the first could put more resources behind their defense.

I learned a long time ago that all of this can make you extremely angry if you allow it to permeate your heart and your feelings. I also learned that anger and hatred will consume the vessel that contains it.

I cope with the wrongs that were done to me by practicing gratitude for my present. Yesterday is history and a memory. If I were to lament having lost a third of my life, I could never make any progress whatsoever in going forward and enjoying whatever life I have left. The state of New Jersey would still be controlling my life if I were to do that.

So right now, this moment in the present: this is the future. This is my time, and yours, to do what we can to prevent future wrongful convictions.

This Wrongful Conviction Day

This Wrongful Conviction Day, I’m hoping that we’ll get even more media coverage and participation from the general public than we did last year. I’d like to see the Law Society reception be standing room only and full of press.

Anyone can help by educating themselves, by having discussions with people in their lives about the causes of wrongful conviction, and by growing their own concern and interest. We need to challenge apathy and encourage action.

For legal professionals who have dedicated their careers to justice, I urge you to hold yourself and your colleagues to the highest standard of accountability. Be confrontational if necessary. When someone’s life is in the balance, everything that possibly can be done must be done.

And if you happen to find yourself on the prosecution’s side of the table: don’t stack the deck. It’s already stacked.

John Artis was charged alongside Rubin Hurricane Carter in 1966 with the murder of three white men in Patterson, New Jersey. The 19-year-old, who had never been in trouble with the law, was given a life sentence with a minimum of 25 years. After witnesses recanted their testimony, a new trial was ordered in 1976, where both Mr. Artis and Mr. Carter were reconvicted and the life sentence re-instated.

In 1981, after spending 15 years in prison, Mr. Artis was released. Charges were dismissed in 1985 after the pair was successfully granted a Writ of Habeas Corpus which was upheld by the United States Supreme Court. While in prison, he became Vice President of the Lifer’s Group at Rahway Prison and helped to form a juvenile awareness program. Once released, he started an organization called “Creating Youth Awareness” to help troubled youth stay out of prison. For 30 years, he worked in juvenile detention centers, group homes, psychiatric centres and residential schools.

John, upon hearing that his good friend Rubin Hurricane Carter had been diagnosed with prostate cancer, took an early retirement and moved to Toronto to help Mr. Carter until his death three years later.