Eleven years ago, I attended a homecoming party for the man whose story got me my start in journalism. Cory Maye was convicted and sentenced to death for killing a police officer during a botched 2001 drug raid on his home. The police almost certainly raided his home by mistake. Maye had no prior criminal record, and there was no evidence of him being a drug dealer (though the man who lived next door to him was); the police found one burned marijuana cigarette in his home, which would otherwise have brought a $50 fine.
Years later, Maye’s death sentence would be overturned, and then his conviction. He was finally offered a deal — if he pleaded guilty to manslaughter, he’d get 10 years in prison, which he had already served. He agreed and was freed.
As you might imagine, the homecoming was a happy occasion. There was an enormous spread of food, music, dancing and a lot of contagious joy. But toward the end of the evening, it occurred to me how perverse it all was. Here was a man who was harming no one when, in the middle of the night, a team of police officers kicked down the door to his home, endangering him and his 18-month-old daughter. Maye reacted as many of us might have, by trying to defend himself. He made a mistake — the same mistake police have often made during these raids, typically with no consequences. For that he was arrested, severely beaten and imprisoned, and for the next decade, the state of Mississippi did everything it could to move him toward execution.
Maye, who by all accounts was a terrific father, missed out on his kids’ lives. Prime years of his own life were taken from him. After a decade, the state reluctantly agreed to let him out if he admitted fault and pleaded guilty to a felony — a conviction that will follow him for the rest of his life.
In a righteous world, there would have been a mob outside the courthouse. Maye would have been generously compensated, and reforms would have been put in place to ensure it never happened again. (It has happened again — and far too many times to count.) Instead, we celebrated. We accepted that this was the closest one of these stories gets to a happy ending.
I get that feeling again each time I see celebratory images from a new exoneration. I felt it again with the release this month of Adnan Syed, the subject of the “Serial” podcast’s first season, after 23 years in prison (though Syed has not thus far been exonerated). People released after wrongful convictions, and their families, of course deserve to revel in their joy and relief. We shouldn’t deny them that. But it’s hard not to notice the absurd incongruity between their celebration and the years of freedom these miscarriages of justice have cost them.
We have a criminal justice system that, as a matter of policy, has declared that procedure is more important than guilt or innocence. It’s a system that has decided its own integrity rests on turning a blind eye to wrongful convictions — among the most profound mistakes a government can make — instead of admitting to them. And it’s a system that has continued that policy even after DNA testing pierced the credibility of entire categories of evidence that prosecutors once deemed infallible — from forensic analysis to eyewitness testimony to informant testimony. DNA testing should have been a wake-up call. But we never course-corrected.
John Thompson, acquitted in 2003 after serving years on death row, had it right. Thompson survived seven death warrants and was days from execution when a defense investigator finally uncovered the evidence that exonerated him — evidence the state of Louisiana had hidden for years. Though the New Orleans DA’s office that convicted him had a long and sordid history of misconduct, the only prosecutor ever disciplined in Thompson’s case was the man who helped expose the others’ misconduct.
A jury would award Thompson $14 million, before the Supreme Court took it all away in an opinion that essentially shielded prosecutors and the cities that employ them from any liability whatsoever, even when they engage in blatant misconduct and convict the wrong person.
Thompson wasn’t grateful for his exoneration; he was angry about his conviction. He didn’t thank the system for clearing his name; he damned it for nearly executing him.
“They tried to kill me,” Thompson once told me in an interview. “To apologize would mean they’re admitting the system is broken. That everyone around them is broken. It’s the same motherf---ing system that’s protecting them. What would I do with their apology anyway? Sorry. Huh. Sorry you tried to kill me? Sorry you tried to commit premeditated murder? No. No, thank you. I don’t need your apology.”
We should all be as angry as John Thompson. Instead, when we learn that a conviction like his — or like Maye’s or Syed’s or thousands of others — has been overturned, the system has conditioned us to show . . . gratitude.
It’s a hell of a trick.