By Bill Littlefield
“As the old saying goes,” writes author and former prosecutor Valena Beety, “when you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression.”
Manifesting Justice: Wrongly Convicted Women Reclaim Their Rights by Valena Beety. Citadel Press, 338 pages, $28.
Part narrative, part prescription, Manifesting Justice examines the many ways in which the legal system fails, and presents approaches to addressing those failures.
Beety, who’s been a prosecutor and now works to help the wrongfully convicted, characterizes the system as designed for successful prosecution rather than to achieve a just result. As Beety puts it, “The premise of our criminal legal system is winners and losers, where finality of a conviction trumps other considerations.” Among the “other considerations” are the defendant’s rights and a reasonable verdict. She accurately enumerates the various advantages the prosecution enjoys in a criminal trial. As a former prosecutor, she’s got the experience to make a strong case that the system is weighted against the defendant. She maintains convincingly that this is especially true when the defendant is minority, lesbian, transgender, or otherwise different from the straight, white creators of the system built to serve and protect straight, white people.
Central to Manifesting Justice is the story of two women in Mississippi who are convicted of brutally assaulting a third woman. The alleged assailants serve over 10 years in prison before the efforts of people involved in proving their innocence are successful. The damage the women are accused of inflicting is described in graphic terms.
Beyond cataloguing in dramatic and convincing terms the rampant abuses of the system, Beety offers an approach that will counter that system’s failures.
“What is a manifest justice claim?” she asks. “It is (the claim) that a charge or conviction is unjust.”
Sounds simple. Tell the judge the result of the trial was based on something other than justice and demonstrate same. But because the system is built to close the book on the defendant once he or she has been found guilty, pursuing a manifest justice claim is often a challenging, expensive, and time-consuming ordeal. In the particular case at the center of her book, Beety points out that the state is so determined to cling to the original guilty verdict that even after their expert witness has been discredited and made to look foolish, and the defendant’s attorneys have demonstrated that blatant prejudice and prosecutorial misconduct were rampant at the trial, those prosecutors insist on another trial after the two women have been released.
The need for reform of the system is evident. As the author points out, “one third of exonerations involve misconduct by prosecutors. Over half of the exonerations involve some form of official misconduct.” Those statistics are based on the cases of those incarcerated individuals fortunate enough to have dedicated attorneys and supportive family members and friends on their side. There is no way to count the number of wrongfully convicted men and women who lack such resources and are left to serve long sentences for crimes they didn’t commit. Then there are those whose insanely severe sentences are never reviewed, and those who have demonstrated that after some number of years in prison, they have grown and changed in ways that make them worthy of release, should anybody care to check.
Meaningful reform of the justice system will not be easy. The people who designed and implement it had their own property and interests in mind. “As the old saying goes,” writes Beety, “when you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression.” But Manifesting Justice presents powerful tools to those willing to engage in the struggle.
Bill Littlefield works with the Emerson Prison Initiative. His most recent novel is Mercy (Black Rose Writing, 2022).