Sunday, January 29, 2012

The Ballad Of Joseph Ozment

We Americans are a vengeful people.  We like to see people punished for their wrongdoing, and we like that punishment to be excessive, completely out of proportion to the crime.  So when the crime is heinous enough, we'd really prefer that punishment be biblical in proportion, and when we can't or won't just kill the offender, the preferred term of punishment is forever.  Because we can't figure out how to do eternal, and we don't really trust God to stick to his guns on these matters - you know, every now and then he goes all squishy with the "love" and the "mercy" and those other distinctly non-christian ideals that sound so...well, Liberal.

Now there's some complexity to all this punishment stuff.  We have tribal considerations, wherein if the American to be punished is part of the portion of America we identify as "us", then there might be some room for discussion.  Bear in mind that we're holding a whole bunch of people in a prison outside of US borders indefinitely and without charge, in utter and blatant violation of much of our founding documents and core values, but this is nothing to worry about - they are, to a man, Muslims.  So no harm, no foul.  But we also have class considerations.  At a certain level of wealth and influence, we prefer mild punishment, or even no punishment at all.  From war crimes to massive economic fraud to profiteering and outright theft of Government cash and property, we clearly understand that prosecution would take the form of a partisan witch-hunt, which, it turns out, is un-American.  Bet you didn't see that one coming.

So when you take a matter as fraught as punishment, and you try to balance it with the ultimate whuppin' stick of justice, the executive pardon, you end up with controversy.  And perhaps that's a good thing - executive clemency is one of the few areas where we grant our political leadership the power of Kings.  We give them full arbitrary, unfettered and unquestionable power to pardon convicted felons, to expunge their records, to set them free.  It's hard to imagine a power more subject to abuse and corruption.  But even before we are venal and greedy, we are Americans, and we have in our very hearts a deep skepticism about bringing an end to someone's punishment.  Sure, we'll let them out of prison at the end of their term (forget about parole, though - that's a weak-kneed concept from a time when we were less "conservative" in ideology, a time when an American could feel free to act out of some other motivation than hate or greed), but still we clamor to deny them jobs, housing, education, even the vote.  They can never be allowed to live a "normal life", the kind we live as our birthright, because if they were allowed for one second to forget that they are a criminal and not a real contributing citizen like we are then the whole edifice will certainly come crashing down around us.

All of which brings us to that great benevolent southern dictator Boss Hogg Haley Barbour, who, in typical southern Republican style did something good and important and even courageous and still managed to cover it in the stench of corrupt politics and class prerogative.  Barbour granted over 200 pardons, and despite the fact that most had already served their sentences and were no longer incarcerated, it has become politically and ideologically difficult to issue clemency any longer, and by so doing we have the opportunity to once again have a real conversation about the use and value of clemency, and the corrosive nature of endless punishment.  Of course, in many of these cases those receiving the pardons were white, from wealthy or politically connected families, and in a number of cases worked as "trustys" in the Governor's mansion and Barbour knew them quite well.  

It is one of these trustys that we are focused on today.  After Joseph Ozment received his pardon, he got in a car with his grandmother and left.  And despite the fact that he is in every way, in the words of the Governor "a free man", with no official criminal history and no law enforcement wants or warrants, he is the subject of a large, multi-state manhunt.  Why?  A judge has ordered that Ozment appear before him in court, and he has chosen not to.   An open question is whether a judge can order anyone arbitrarily to appear before him when there is not an associated case or prosecution.  

Ozment killed a grocery store clerk in an armed robbery in 1994.  Predictably, the victim's family is outraged at his pardon and release.  This is every bit as predictable as it is problematic.  When the American criminal justice system began letting the aggrieved and victimized be part of the process, the scales tilted a little bit more from the side of Justice to the side of Vengence.  Of course the victims and their families harbor ill-will against the accused - but can justice truly be blind when she carries the scars of the crime and the resultant hatred for those accused, whether guilty or not?

So today Joseph Ozment - a man wanted for no crime, guilty of no crime and finally free to live his life thanks to an act of Government mercy - is on the run.  Hunkered down, weighing his options, trying to decide whether it's better to surrender and become the football in a political and ideological game with its attendant racial, class and theological ramifications, or to cling to the knowledge that he's not doing anything wrong, he was granted his freedom and he will now live free until someone finds a way to stop him.

We need a lot of things in this country today, a lot of little decisions that might lead us back to something recognizable as America.  Among all those things we need a lot less incarceration and lot more clemency.  So however it came to pass, I celebrate Joseph Ozment's freedom today, and implore him: RUN, JOE, RUN!!