When you have a reputation of being curious and open to documenting just about anything, it certainly provides opportunities that would otherwise not be accessible. And I certainly appreciate the opportunities, as most of my unexpected and often unconventional opportunities have been informative and interesting. These moments also serve as a reminder that it is easy for us to remain unaware of the much larger world around us. For some there is comfort in remaining unaware. For others, remaining unaware is a discomforting feeling they equate to perceived ignorance.
The point of this particular story is not to discuss civil activism and responsibility, or to debate how each of us should measure our relative involvement in public policy. Having said that, I hope this story does make each of us at least somewhat more inclined to be cognizant of events that reflect our social conscience. Our legal system should reflect our collective preferences and acceptable levels of tolerance for personal conduct, while at the same time demonstrating our collective interest, and willingness, to undertake whatever efforts are necessary to uncover and establish the truth, however inconvienient that truth may be to our stated objective of true, effective justice.
But let’s get to the story at hand: On this evening I was asked to attend an event at a nearby United Methodist Church. I was given a brief ‘de-briefing’ and was on my way. The story itself sounded very intriguing, but I also enjoy the challenge of trying to capture the ambiance within the halls of a church. Wedding photographers love to discuss how they overcome the difficulty of poor lighting in a church, but the truth is most actually love the challenge. In the world of photography, having a successful wedding photo shoot within a church is considered, by many, a right of passage. And perhaps rightfully so. As discussed in other areas of this site – and in countless websites – lighting is a cornerstone of photography.
The purpose of my attending this event was to capture several images and gather information for a story on the speaker, Sabrina Butler. Sabrina’s story is another reminder of the mostly unknown occurences happening around the country, and that we as a society are not made aware of. Perhaps it can be argued that having too much information at hand is a distraction from our daily activities. But Sabrina’s story may be a counter argument, serving as a reminder that possessing at least a cursory awareness of public policy is necessary if we are to understand how, in some measurable way, our system of law affects each of us.
Sabrina’s story begins in 1990 in the state of Mississippi, where at the age of seventeen she was convicted of child abuse and murder for the death of her nine month old son, Walter. Sabrina’s conviction was a capital offense, and as a consequence Sabrina found herself sentenced to death by lethal injection. She did not testify during her trial. After her conviction Sabrina spent more than five years in prison, with nearly three years of that time on death row.
Following her conviction Sabrina filed an appeal with the Supreme Court of Mississippi. In 1992 the court reversed the conviction, after determining the prosecution had failed to prove Walter’s death as anything more than an accident. However it would not be until 1995 that Sabrina was provided a retrial, and by this time the defense had acquired additional evidence which would ultimately prove her innocence. One piece of crucial evidence would be a former neighbor of Sabrina’s who had witnessed her administering CPR to Walter, and who would testify in Sabrina’s defense. The neighbor did not testify during the original trial. Sabrina’s attempts at CPR, and those administered at the hospital, caused bruising to Walter’s body. Evidence of bruising was be used by the prosecution to convict Sabrina during the 1990 trial. During the retrial the Medical Examiner also changed his opinion, stating that he now believed Walter had died from kidney failure.
Based on evidence presented during the 1995 retrial, Sabrina was acquitted and exonerated, becoming the first and only women in the United States to be exonerated after being sentenced to death row. Today, Sabrina still lives in the town in which she was convicted, has remarried and is raising three children.
Following Sabrina’s presentation, there was a Q&A session in which several questions were asked. The turn out for the evening’s event was good with the pews inside the hall being mostly filled. With the large crowd came a variety of questions. “Why do you still live in that town?” “Has the justice system in Mississppi improved since your false conviction?” “What happened to the prosecution after you were proved innocent?” “Have you been compensated for your time?” Sabrina took the questions in stride, and seemed entirely at ease answering questions and explaining how the events of nearly twenty years ago have changed her life forever.
During the Q&A session I asked myself how I would handle such an injustice, if it were ever to happen to me. I have to be honest and admit I couldn’t answer the question. And I suppose it’s not possible to know what we are capable of without first having experienced events and circumstances that thrust us into a situation of what, to me anyway, seems to be dispair and hopelessness. I’ve always been a fighter and believed in speaking my mind when it comes to presenting the truth. But if I ever found myself in a situation such as Sabrina’s, I think I’d find it difficult to see hope when it appears the entire system is designed to seek punishment first and truth only as an afterthought. I wasn’t there in 1990 and don’t pretend to know the facts, but hindsight has demonstrated that mistakes were obviously made which precipitated a great deal of hardship for Sabrina and her family, not to mention a great deal of unecessary expense for the good people of Mississippi.
If the story ended in 1990 there would be cause for grave concern in our country. But that evening, inside the Methodist Church, Sabrina stood behind the podium as a free woman and told her story. And I think most of us went home feeling at least a little better because of how things ultimately turned out. But reading into the questions that night, I’d say the optimism was tainted by the fact that this event ever occurred in the first place. Maybe, for now at least, that’s where it stands.
In our – society’s – quest for justice we attempt (hopefully) to balance punishment against perceived damage and threat, hoping it somehow deters civil disobedience. And perhaps it does. But when measured against the intent of the founding fathers with regard to establishing effective justice while also protecting individual liberties, I ask myself if sometimes we jump too far, too quickly, before knowing, or caring, about the truth. Allowing our freedoms to be terminated without due course is a slippery slope, and we should be wary of taking that first step.