Injustice in the “new South”

September 9, 2008

Rebekah Ward tells the story of a victim of the Georgia injustice system.

GEORGIA IS a pretty dangerous place to live. There's a surprisingly high chance that you'll end up in prison, whether or not you committed any crime.

Around six out of every 1,000 residents is behind bars, according to a Pew Center report released this year--which makes Georgia second only to Texas in incarcerating its population. With 55,205 prison inmates as of January of this year, Georgia's growth in prisons and high incarceration rates don't reflect a parallel increase in crime. The Pew study showed that more people are behind bars mainly because of tough sentencing measures, such as "three strikes" laws that result in longer prison stays.

"We have some of the harshest laws in the country that don't give folks the opportunity for parole in some cases altogether, and in others, not until they've served a long period of time in prison," said John Cole Vodicka, director of the Prison & Jail Project in Americus, Ga. "Our mentality is just 'lock 'em up.'"

And justice isn't blind to race in Georgia. Overall, one of every 30 men between the ages of 20 and 34 is behind bars--for Black men of that age range, it's one in nine.

The U.S. leads the world in incarcerating its population

The case of Troy Davis, an innocent man who Georgia is trying to execute this fall, is a glaring example. In his case, the courts have decided that innocence doesn't matter as long as a defendant received proper trial procedure.

THIS IS the backdrop to the arrest and incarceration of another innocent Black man, Marion McGauley.

McGauley left for work one morning in February 2005 after an argument with his partner, and during the drive, he was surprised by the overwhelming police presence behind him. He pulled his vehicle over to let the police to pass, only to discover that he was the person they were pursuing.

McGauley was summarily maced by the officers, handcuffed and booked for several offenses, including aggravated assault of his partner (a charge that requires a weapon or intent to murder) and obstruction of justice (writhing while being maced by the police).

In filling out paperwork for posting bond, McGauley mistakenly wrote Douglas, Ga., the name of the county, instead of Douglasville, Ga., the county seat. When the typo was discovered, this served as a pretext for issuing a warrant for his arrest.

What you can do

Letters of solidarity or support can be e-mailed to [email protected]. The McGauleys are seeking legal advice for a civil lawsuit against Douglas County.

McGauley's partner sent several letters to the presiding judge, David Emerson, and the district attorney, explaining that no assault had occurred and requesting that the charges against McGauley be dropped. Despite this evidence that no crime had occurred--outside of a typo on some paperwork--the charges stayed in place.

After his lawyer told him he could be sentenced to 20 years in prison if convicted, McGauley reluctantly agreed to plead guilty. "I'm tired, Your Honor, and I just kind of want to get it over with," he said, according to court transcripts. "I was just really trying to do the best thing, and that's why I really felt I wanted to plead not guilty."

McGauley was told that he would get a 2-year sentence for pleading guilty. Instead, he was given a sentence of five to 10 years in prison.

McGauley is diabetic, and while in the county jail, he developed several serious illnesses due to improper treatment of his condition. He got only medical indifference, which has left him almost blind even after four surgeries on his eyes. He has repeatedly fainted due to low blood sugar, once while in the courtroom.

He also contracted a serious staph infection from the horrible conditions at the county jail. While in lockup, McGauley was attacked by another inmate with a mop handle, and as a result of the blow to his ear, the untreated injury has left him with hearing loss.

"This battle's been so intense," Marion's wife, Debra, who he married while in prison, says. "The intense part is to keep paying lawyers who do not address the case as an injustice. The hardest part is going in to visit, weekend after weekend, and seeing him become a hollow man."

The name of David Emerson might be familiar to those who follow civil rights struggles. This is the judge who handled the case of Genarlow Wilson, the 17-year-old who was convicted of aggravated child molestation and sentenced to 10 years in prison for having consensual oral sex with a woman two years younger than him. It took over two years of legal battles and activist pressure to free him.

Emerson is infamous for his racism and goes to extraordinary lengths to see his agenda carried out. He even issued a warrant for the arrest of a DA from another county after a minor courtroom scuffle with a sheriff's deputy. No surprise--the DA in question is Black. Emerson only backed off after he learned that former Georgia Gov. Roy Barnes had signed up to defend the man.

Debra says that the poor people in Douglas County, both Black and white, get caught up in the system and can never get free. She hopes that someday, there will be a way to make judges, lawyers and, most especially, parole boards accountable to the people. "I've been a law-abiding citizen all my life," she said, "but if we can't trust the system to do what's right, something has to change."

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