Interviewing Jason Baldwin of the West Memphis 3 this summer taught me about an ugly justice system that was even uglier and more shameful than I had previously imagined. At age 16, Jason was convicted of three grisly murders that he didn’t commit based on hearsay and circumstantial evidence which included the music he and his friends enjoyed. He was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole and his “accomplice” (best friend), Damien Echols, was sentenced to death. I naively thought that this case was an extreme example from the backwards Southern states.
Earlier this year, I also saw Juan Melendez speak about his exoneration from Death Row. His case was also a hideous example of poor, fringe members of society being thrown under the justice bus so that a group of police, their informants, and prosecutors could save face. Juan didn’t speak English at the time of his arrest and had little assistance through the process of being arrested, charged, tried and sentenced. On Death Row, he learned English and studied law to attempt to advocate for himself in place of the protections in the system which had failed him.
After speaking with these two activists, my belief that the death penalty is barbaric, unnecessary, and cruel was solidified. Then I met Victoria Thorpe, author of Cages and anti-death penalty activist. Victoria’s sister, Kerry Lyn Dalton, has been serving a Death Row sentence for the last 17 years on torture-murder charges. The catch? The case she was convicted in had no evidence, no reliable testimony and no body. Most people at this point stop to say that such a situation is impossible. How could someone get sentenced to death for committing a murder when there is no proof that the victim is even dead at all? Cages takes the reader through the Kafka-esque trial and sentencing from Victoria’s helpless position.
The narrative jumps between personal memoir, coverage of the investigation and trial, and scenes from Death Row from Kerry Lyn’s perspective, pulling the reader in to the lives of those involved and personalizing what would otherwise be another news story about a tweaker murdering another tweaker and getting sentenced to death. Cages explores the intertwining issues of addiction, ego, power, and abuse in a captivating way. To avoid being accused of bias, the author used only direct quotes from trial transcripts and investigation reports; in this case, the truth is indeed stranger than fiction. One aspect of this trial that caught my attention was a commonality from the Baldwin and Melendez cases: police informants and prosecutors were allowed outside the law in order to enforce the law and achieve the desired result, a conviction.
Cages tells many stories. It’s the story of a corrupt police department desperately seeking a way to cover its ass. It’s the story of addiction and the spiral of deceit and distrust that it can spawn. It’s the story of two sisters taking very different paths in life and finding their way back together through a tragic mistake. It’s the story of prosecutors in our justice system and their journey to become judges. It’s the story of those in power refusing to acknowledge mistakes even when they cost human lives. It’s a parable for the times that should urge every reader to do what they can to abolish the death penalty and reform the criminal justice system.
Now Victoria Thorpe is taking her fight for her sister’s life on the road on her “Journey for Freedom” walk through California. You can follow her on her blog as she walks hundreds of miles through California to raise awareness about her sister’s case and works to abolish the death penalty in the state where the policy is up for a vote in November. Here in Washington, she’s working with PJALS and Safe and Just Alternatives WA to put a similar measure on the ballots here. As the bumper sticker slogan goes, killing people to show that killing is wrong just…doesn’t make sense. Let’s join almost every other nation around the world in ending this ugly practice.