From Nelson Mandela to The Birmingham Six; from Andy Dufresne to Deirdre Rachid; the plight of the wrongfully incarcerated will always strike a chord with people. Perhaps it’s a subconscious manifestation of our guilt over greater injustices (such as the unfair division of wealth and opportunity) in which we are complicit. Perhaps Western society places a higher value on liberty than it does on life itself. Whatever the reason, cases of wrongful imprisonment arouse sympathy and outrage in us like very little else.
But who, outside the ranks of the world’s law enforcement agencies, spares much of a thought for the people on the other side of the injustice equation? The people who are free but who deserve to be locked up. The wrongfully still-at-large. Does anyone write songs, chant slogans or organise benefit concerts to celebrate these people and their struggles? Time to redress the imbalance I think.
O.J. is the heavyweight champion, the capo di tutti capi of getting away with shit. Ninety million Americans saw him fleeing from the cops live on television following the murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman. His blood-soaked glove and traces of his DNA were later found at the crime scene. The jury heard how he had suspected his estranged wife of having an affair with Mr Goldman and had a long history of domestic violence. And yet when the verdict was read out on October 3rd 1995, Orenthal James Simpson walked away a free man. In fact, if he had his wits about him, he might have thought to ask the victims’ families to pay to remove the bloodstains on the glove.
Some may have killed more prolifically. Many have certainly killed more adeptly. But no one has ever murdered as clumsily and gotten away with it as blatantly as the man they called The Juice.
War criminality is a funny old business. Well, not for the victims obviously. But for the perpetrators, it’s an unenviable task having to figure out how all that brutality they’re inflicting on people is going to play in the court of international opinion. It’s The X-Factor with a body count, basically. Take Bosnian Serb Gen. Ratko Mladic. He ordered and supervised the execution of 7,800 Muslim men and boys outside the town of Srebrenica in 1995. He has been indicted for crimes against humanity and, by the time you read this, may already have been handed over to the UN war crimes tribunal. Which is no more than he deserves, right?
Perhaps, but compare his case to that of Major-Gen. Curtis LeMay of the U.S. Air Force. He ordered the firebombing raid on Tokyo that killed 125,000 civilians on a single night in March 1945. The smell of burning flesh above the city was so revolting that many American bomber pilots threw up in their cockpits. LeMay freely admitted that if the Allies had lost the war he’d have been executed as a war criminal. Instead he was awarded the French Legion of Honour and – incredibly – the First Order of Merit by the postwar Japanese government.
Even ending up on the losing side isn’t the end of the world. Dozens of Nazi scientists switched over to work for the Americans and Russians at the end of World War II, despite being complicit in all sorts of heinous crimes. Former President Suharto of Indonesia is now respectably retired despite having killed over a million (mostly landless) peasants in his own country in 1965/66 and later wreaking similar havoc in East Timor. Even Pol Pot was supported by the West for a decade after the Killing Fields because he proved a useful counterweight against Vietnamese expansion.
The International War Crimes Tribunal then is no Mass Murder She Wrote. It’s more like a sitdown in The Sopranos. LeMay was untouchable because he was a made guy. Similarly, you couldn’t go after Suharto because he too was well connected. Pol Pot (played in this instance by Joe Pesci) escaped getting clipped because the bosses still had their uses for him. If Mladic goes down you shouldn’t shed a tear. But his only real mistake was not working out all the angles.
The A-Team always had options. Even when they found themselves imprisoned in a maximum security stockade for a crime they didn’t commit, there were still other ways they could have played it. B.A. was tight with Johnny Cochran who had himself some unfinished business with one Col. Roderick Decker (dating back to the controversial ‘G’-Team trial of the late Sixties). Had they appealed their convictions through the proper channels they’d probably have won. Hell, if they really wanted to go the goody-two-shoes route they could have enrolled in the stockade’s High School Equivalency Program and racked up recognised qualifications for when they got out. That’s assuming they had ambitions beyond living in a van all their lives.
These were other options the A-Team could have taken, alternative plans that could have come together. But instead they promptly escaped to the Los Angelus underground where they survived as soldiers of fortune. The A-Team have made a mockery of the rule of law and you have got to respect them for that.
Shaun Ryder one said that the soundest advice his father ever gave him was to make sure he died “owing some fucker something”. If that’s true then Ryder Snr would certainly have approved of the manner in which Liam Lawlor recently departed this world. By any definition of justice the former TD owed the people of this country serious jail time. If a Traveller can get seven years for robbing a bail of briquettes and €20 worth of groceries then Lawlor must have been into us for, oh say, about a billion life sentences.
THE TOSSED SALAD MAN
A HBO documentary team encountered the Tossed Salad Man in an American jail in the late 1990s and, as far as anyone knows, he’s still there. But he still qualifies for this piece because, for Tossed Salad Man, the real punishment would have been getting out. Comedian Chris Rock recounts some of the gorier details: “HBO was interviewing a brother in there and they said ‘Sir. When a new inmate comes in and he wants some drugs, how do you initiate him?’ The guy goes ‘Well the first thing I do is make him toss my salad.’ ‘Toss your salad? What’s that?’ ‘Well, having your salad tossed means having your asshole eaten out with jelly or syrup. I prefer syrup.’ ‘Why must you make him go through all of that, sir?’ they said. ‘Why not just oral sex?’ And the guy goes ‘When a man’s sucking your dick he can pretend that’s something else. When he’s eating ass – he knows its ass!’” Makes you wonder why they even bother with the death penalty…
JACK HENRY ABBOTT
If O.J. is the undisputed heavyweight champion of beating the rap then John Henry Abbott is the weedy white guy in row Z getting slapped around by his girlfriend. In a lengthy criminal career it’s not clear if he ever successfully pulled off a single scam. That is, until he conned a bunch of gullible liberals into getting him out of jail. Born in Michigan in 1944, Abbott spent his youth in and out of reform schools. At 18 he was sentenced to five years in the Utah penitentiary for forging cheques. Three years later he stabbed two of his fellow inmates in a prison brawl, killing one of them. In 1971 he robbed a bank during a brief escape but was quickly recaptured. By now he seemed unlikely to ever see the outside of a prison again.
Everything changed in 1978 when he began a correspondence with Norman Mailer, who was then researching The Executioners Song. Mailer was impressed by the eloquence with which Abbott described the brutal realities of prison life and had his letters published in the New York Review of Books. Abbott’s talents were genuine, but his fellow cons were probably correct in attributing most of his success to the credulity of Mailer and the other celebrities (including Susan Sarandan, Jerzy Kosinski and Christopher Walken) who campaigned for his release.
When a parole board agreed to release Abbott into Mailer’s employment in 1981, the thirty-seven year old wunderkind became an overnight sensation. He was feted on the New York literary scene and received a $15,000 advance for his first book. He was the noble savage, the victim of a sick society, a major new voice in American writing. Six weeks after his release he stabbed and killed a 22-year-old waiter who refused to allow him use a bathroom marked ‘Staff Only’.