by Marion Marks
addressing Rachel Aviv’s current article in The New Yorker
I never met face-to-face with Rachel Aviv, yet it became my impression that her perspective of Caddo Parish, Louisiana and the state of the legal system here was an accurate snapshot of limited data and in-depth questioning related to depressingly oppressive issues of some of the worst Caddo Parish has to offer. Speaking with Ms. Aviv several times concerning research on the story broadened my perspective of a story I live daily, dealing with crimes and criminal cases.* Aviv used excellent sources I know and facts related to the ugly side of Louisiana‘s justice, criminal prosecutions and politics that predate Huey Long, Edwin Edward and Bobby Jindal. Her story captures the spectrum of our state’s reputation for justice(cuisine aside).
Aviv‘s New Yorker stories contain gems of truth and spark additional questions addressing societal problems that are politically difficult to confront in Caddo Parish. Our conservative majority hammer law & order politics and Old Testament lessons. In the south, particularly in our buckle of the Bible Belt, we live the Old Testament accurately observed by Adam Hamilton as he described,
“… women ,,. often seen as second class in much of the Bible. Concubinage and polygamy and the use of slave girls as surrogates in childbirth were all acceptable family values in the Old Testament. Slavery was found to be morally acceptable in the Old Testament and slave-owning Christians in the early church were not asked by the apostles to set their slaves free. Priests were commanded to burn their daughters alive if they became prostitutes, and rebellious children were to be stoned to death. Women who were raped were required to marry their rapist. And when Israel went off to war she believed God called her to destroy every man, woman, and child among the nations she conquered—what today we call genocide.”
This is an exaggeration we recognize, but it’s not far from the way too many act and live their lives.
Caddo Parish is saddled with a history colored with “if the Bible says it’s so, it’s good enough for me!” Beyond the current district attorney Aviv describes, Dale Cox, societal enforcement and literal interpretation brand us with a more sinister form of political and economic discrimination and punishment. As one sage interpreter of our culture has reported, “we eat our own” especially when we fail to recognize the crying need to change and we continue to drive our questioning young minds away.
The real test in Caddo we see when we analyze our current political course, and we cannot economically or morally justify the prosecution pattern Aviv describes. This fall we will elect a new district attorney, and we must completely replace the system of deceased DA, and former judge Charles Rex Scott.
Candidates for the district attorney’s office are already jockeying, making promises and cutting deals with every manner of elected official, power broker and special interest group. Between now and election day we will see far more fireworks. But, generally the more things change, the more they seem to stay the same. Voters may be discontented with the status quo, but stepping up to support real change requires moving the needle of a large segment of voters. “Vested interests” shy away from change until they see the pay back potential.
A sign that there is reason to believe change is in the air was the Caddo Parish School Board recent bond election. The bond was defeated in what seemed to be an almost rigged election. Only two propositions were on the ballot, and the other bond measure passed! Yet a coalition against the measure motivated enough voters to see or believe that too much money was being wasted by the current school board. Additionally the board may have educated voters through their own failures to address almost every issue concerning turning the system around, even with the highest per capita taxes in the region. A board resignation and revolt along racial lines has cause further strife in educational circles beyond just the school educational and structural policy failures. These changes do give some measure of hope for change.
Aviv’s article clearly demonstrated that the Caddo prosecutorial system, as embodies in the district attorney’s office logic and practices is broken,. The current leadership has failed to provide solutions that can be justified under closer scrutiny.
When we ask what is the future of the prosecutorial system for those who are charged with crimes – Quo Vadis? (Where are you going?) Those in the defendant’s chair, being prosecuted, may not have to answer, “Romam vado iterum crucifigi!”(I’m going to Rome to be crucified!) But. clearly too many defendants are directed toward death row, or the equivalent thereof. And those whose lives revolve around ancillary crimes, marijuana users as described by Aviv, may find these charges only add to their punishment. Demands of the voting public have permitted few alternatives to mass incarceration we currently have. Until we learn to break the cycle of locking up so many non-violent offenders and driving them into the lifestyle of the habitual offenders, citizens will pay for the system as it exists.
One of Aviv’s earlier articles (subtitled: Is it right to imprison people for heinous crimes they have not yet committed?) relates to the annals of crime and uses words that may give solace to those on the path to Rome and death row. Perhaps they could pretend to be part of “the Society for Creative Anachronism, … on (a) group retreat cordoned off (in) an area of the campsite and called (the) Enchanted Ground. In that space, the twenty-first century does not exist,” … “If you squint your eyes, you can block it out and live the dream. You’ll be transported back in time.” In that time there is a better form of justice, where some of the accused find diversion programs that turn their lives around. It is a time and place some criminals find rehabilitation, and even the most violent are fairly treated.
Today our focus may be grim and unpleasant. Yet, only when we face our darker side and seek successful alternatives will we no longer repeat the pattern of failure with the same shameful results.
*Marion Marks has an independent forensic business [MMCC Forensic, LLC] in Caddo Parish, Louisiana but has worked none of the cases referenced in Ms. Aviv’s article.