Taking One For The Team

When you read about a miscarriage of justice, more accurately framed as the system gone horribly wrong for reasons that defy any rational explanation, do you feel empathy toward the maligned victim or believe that mistakes will invariably happen in an imperfect system, and somebody has to end up being the poor schmuck who takes one for the team?

Chicago police arrested [John Adam] Jones and two friends outside his parents’ home in May 2015, saying their clothes matched the description given by the victims of an armed robbery.

Although no gun or stolen items were recovered from his home and the victims had not identified his face, Jones says officers got approval from a prosecutor’s office to charge him with a felony by not disclosing their lack of evidence.

The charges were eventually dismissed by directed verdict when Jones couldn’t be identified as the perpetrator of the crime. Justice was done? Well, the disaster could have been worse, given that he didn’t spend ten years in prison before anyone figured out he was innocent. Or never figured out he was innocent. But Jones filed suit because his arrest at 18 years of age had some consequences that could strike home with a lot of people, including police officers who, like other folks, occasionally have sex and produce offspring.

The time he spent in jail awaiting the dismissal of his charges cost him his high school diploma and a full-ride scholarship to attend the University of California, Berkeley, according to the lawsuit.

“Though his charges were ultimately dismissed, plaintiff will never regain the time he lost while he was in custody, get to live his final year of high school that he missed, or the large amount of funds that were expended and lost used to regain his liberty,” Jones’ complaint says.

Regardless of Jones’ personal virtues or lapses, he was a high school student pretty much like any other. He went to school, studied, learned. He could have dropped out, or stayed up every night playing video games and drinking moonshine, but he didn’t. Without knowing more about this young man, he was a good enough kid to get a full-ride scholarship to college, even if it was Berkeley.

Year after year, day after day, Jones and his parents wound their way through the banal ordinariness of growing up, thinking of what he would become someday, who he would be, what he could accomplish. You know, just like other kids. Just like your kid. Then, poof, it was gone.

High School in Chicago because he missed six months of school while in the Cook County Jail, and he also lost his scholarship, the lawsuit states.

He was able to post bond in November 2015, at which point he was placed on electronic monitoring. The charges against him were dismissed completely in August 2016.

Despite the dismissal of charges, Jones says he “will spend the rest of his life trying to recover and live a normal life.”

Were the cops who arrested Jones out to destroy his life? Did they know him from before, see an opportunity to teach some bad seed a lesson about how one can beat the rap but not the ride? Unlikely. More likely that they didn’t know the kid from Adam, and believed they were doing their job. No malice. Just that thing that happens in a cop’s head where minor correlations become absolute certainty that they nailed the perp. And once the cop believes, he does what he has to do to make it stick, because nobody wants the bad dude to get away with it.

Is it too easy to note that some police officers have a grossly exaggerated sense of their own mad investigative skillz? Jones’ clothes matched a description of the perp, and they can rationalize away the failure to find a gun or the stolen goods? After all, don’t armed robbers hide their booty to avoid apprehension and seizure of evidence?

Well, sure they do. And innocent people don’t have the evidence on them either.

So those late nights Jones’ parents spent helping him with his third-grade science project,* the meals out they didn’t eat to make sure he had clothes to wear, school supplies, and a normal, happy childhood. The ordinary things that a parent gives a child in the hope that he will grow up to be a fine human being and achieve as much happiness and success as possible.

And it was all for nothing, because a few Chicago cops decided that his life was expendable in their effort to do their job with highly limited information and an excess of arrogance.

And lest we place the blame solely on the cops, there was a prosecutor who, at any time, could have put in the effort to ascertain that this 18-year-old boy in custody was, at minimum, likely guilty of the crime. That the cops thought so, said so, isn’t sufficient for the prosecutor to neglect any duty of due diligence or forgive his role in the destruction of a young person’s life.

And then there was a judge, before whom the question of probable cause, of the sufficiency of the charges, was put and who could have given the question his full attention such that he would not have found it necessary to keep Jones in jail and cause him to lose six months of his senior year of high school. Or await the trial testimony of witnesses before reaching the conclusion that he can’t be convicted because no one could identify him as the perpetrator.

The usual generic description of clothing, ubiquitous in police reports and eyewitness accounts, rarely limits the universe of potential defendants to less than several thousand. Sure the judge knew this, as does every criminal defense lawyer.

Jones didn’t end up lying in a pool of his own blood in the street. Jones didn’t do 20 years awaiting a DNA exoneration that might never come. All he did was lose 18 years of a kid’s life, a family’s rearing a child to be somebody. Mistakes happen. This is what they look like when things work out, because he was acquitted. But no system is perfect, so somebody has to take one for the team.

*As this really doesn’t have much to do with Jones specifically, this is a generic description of the pedestrian life of a young man and his family, and has nothing to do with this particular individual.

7 thoughts on “Taking One For The Team

  1. John Lentini

    Allowing “the system” to say “mistakes happen” and move on only encourages future mistakes. Making “the system” pay some reparations, on the other hand, will encourage more reasoned policing.

    1. SHG Post author

      It might seem as if that would be the case, but not so. The system couldn’t care less. The system doesn’t pay. The cops don’t pay. The prosecutors and judges don’t pay. Reparations play no role in encouraging or discouraging responsibility. There is no incentive system to get it right.

      1. Ross

        And, sadly, there are lots of folks who are perfectly OK with the way things work, thinking that it’s safer for them if a few good guys get caught up in the system just to make sure more bad guys are taken off the street. But when their own kid gets caught doing something really stupid and criminal, say DWI at 18 or a fraternity hazing gone bad, they argue that “it was a simple mistake, and shouldn’t ruin his life, if he’s convicted, he won’t be able to go to law school”, etc, etc..

        1. SHG Post author

          The point can be made a million times over, that if it can happen to “that kid,” it can happen to yours, but it’s never real until it touches your life. And when it does, then the wrongfulness matters, but it’s too late.

  2. HM

    “…do you feel empathy toward the maligned victim or believe that mistakes will invariably happen…”

    I recall this verse as often as not:

    A big bellied sheriff grabbed his gun
    and said. “Why’d you do it?”

    The judge said guilty on a make-believe trial.
    Slapped the sheriff on the back with a smile.

    Said supper’s waiting at home,
    and I gotta get to it.

  3. albeed

    You can call it an imperfect system if you choose to ignore where the actual breakdowns occurred and they were and will continue to happen and be ignored. They are too numerous to specify in so short a space. I do know that this kind of malfeasance would not happen in the private sector without someone answering for it.

    Rather than call it an imperfect system, I call it a POS and everyone knows you simply cannot polish a turd.

    1. SHG Post author

      Do this for a few decades and you see breakdowns everywhere. Each case is different. Each situation exposes its own flaws. Private sector is replete with constant screw-ups, but it doesn’t get to prosecute and destroy lives, so the screw-ups aren’t as devastating, but don’t kid yourself. We’re surrounded by imperfection, mediocrity and failure, so much so that we barely notice it anymore or just take it as a fact of life.

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