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by William H. Benson

October 6, 2016

     In the fall of 1838, Georgetown University in Washington D.C., was the preeminent Catholic and Jesuit university in America, but it had fallen on hard financial times. Its president then, Thomas Mulledy, decided to sell the slaves who worked the Maryland plantations that Georgetown owned. Several school officials disagreed with Mulledy’s decision, because he could have sold the land. Instead, he sold the workers who worked the land.

     When the slaves—272 men, women, and children—heard the sad news that a sale was imminent and that their new owners would transport them by ship to New Orleans, fear and panic gripped them. Some ran away. Others hoped for the best, but the sale was completed. Families were ripped apart. Mothers never saw their children again. The school received “$115,000, or the equivalent of $3.3 million today,” and with it, Mulledy paid down the school’s debts.

     Two weeks ago, officials at Georgetown University announced that the university would issue an apology “for its historical role in the slave trade.” In addition, officials removed two men’s names from their buildings, including Thomas F. Mulledy’s, and also announced that they would recruit students who were descended from those transported to New Orleans.

     Justice moves slow in this world; in this case it required 178 years.

     Bryan Stevenson, head of the Equal Justice Initiative, announced that his organization will build a memorial dedicated to the 4075 black individuals he has identified who were lynched in the Southern states between 1877 and 1950. It will open next year in Montgomery, Alabama.

     “I don’t think we can afford to continue pretending that these aren’t really troubling chapters in our history,” Stevenson said. “I think we’ve got to deal with it.” Stevenson also said, “The moral arc is long, but it bends toward justice. Instead of lynchings, we now have police shootings.” That is a point worth considering in light of the 991 citizens who police shot in 2015, and the 719 shot so far this year.

     Last week, on September 24, the National Museum of African American History and Culture opened on the National Mall in Washington D. C., in the shadow of the Washington Monument, the former dedicated to the slave, the latter to a slave-owner. President Obama was there, and said, “This national museum helps to tell a richer and fuller story of who we are. This museum can help us to talk to each other, and to listen to each other, and to see each other.”

     A federal appeals court judge named Alex Kozinski recently wrote in the Wall Street Journal that “our legal system has convicted hundreds of thousands of people of crimes based on ‘voodoo science.’”

     To support that statement he points to a report that the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology issued. It “concluded that most forensic-evidence—including fingerprint, bite-mark, firearm, footwear, and hair analysis techniques—have high error rates,” and that much of this evidence is “rank guesswork.” “Bite-mark analysis,” he says, “turns out to be totally unreliable.”

     One wonders how many convicted of crimes based upon “voodoo science” are sitting in prison now. How many were executed? Brian Stevenson said, “We treat people better if they are rich and guilty than if they are poor and innocent, and so we base justice more on wealth than on culpability.”

     Legislatures pass laws, presidents sign them, and they then appear in the law books for courts to interpret. Those laws are civilized societies’ attempt to spread equitable treatment upon all its citizens.

  1. S. citizens saw law-making in action recently. On Friday, September 23, President Obama vetoed the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act, which would permit the families and survivors of 9/11 to sue Saudi Arabia for damages for that country’s “role in the terror attack in 2001.” Obama justified his veto because, he argued, it “would infringe on the president’s ability to conduct foreign policy.”

     The House thought otherwise and on the following Wednesday voted 348-77, enough for the 2/3’s necessary to override the President’s veto, and the Senate voted the same way, 97-1. The Act is now law. In his eight years in the Oval Office, Obama has vetoed 11 bills, but this is the first override. After fifteen years, those who lost family members on 9/11 may now sue for compensation for their loss.

     Two questions arise. Can society build a better model to achieve justice than the one we have now? Should the system of punishment for crimes committed be harsh or lenient? These are difficult questions to answer, and the solutions are not obvious. Thinkers have argued and wrestled with those two questions for millennium. I say that the Pledge of Allegiance says it best. “And justice for all.”    

     The Romans named their goddess for justice, Justitia, who held in one hand a sword, and in the other the scales that weighed the evidence and circumstances to determine guilt or innocence. Often sculptors or artists will blindfold the goddess, but not all do. One wonders if Justitia should see or not see.