In 1979 a woman and her male companion drove into a liquor store parking lot to use the phone and buy cigarettes. They might have been listening to Sister Sledge or Floyd on the radio, depending on their taste. Maybe they had put in an 8-track of the BeeGees, hanging on to disco with all their might. When the couple came out of the store, two black men forced them back into their car and ordered them to drive. The two men pushed the male companion out of the car and raped the woman at gunpoint. They debated killing her, but instead took her driver’s license and rabbit fur coat and let her go. She was found unconscious on the side of the road.
Lucky for us, those men were positively identified by the young, traumatized victim. She picked them out of a photo array. Her male companion could not. Both of the men were convicted at trial. Cornelius Dupree was sentenced to 75 years in prison for the robbery. He was never tried on the rape. It is, indeed, a gruesome crime. Our streets are, no doubt, safer when people who commit these violent acts are contained and controlled. Certainly not even the most strident among us would argue that when there is a clean arrest and trial, the perpetrator of such an atrocity should roam free on the street.
There is just one thing.
The person who committed this crime was not Cornelius Dupree. Mr. Dupree wasn’t ‘not guilty’. He was actually innocent.
He was twenty years old when he was convicted of a crime he didn’t commit. He served thirty years in prison.
This isn’t a John Grisham novel. This is real life. Someone’s real body and soul was locked up in a cage for thirty years for something he didn’t do. That he knew he didn’t do. In order to be released Mr. Dupree had to register as a sex offender and attend classes for sex offenders. In order to be released he had to recognize what he’d done (nothing) and repent for what he’d done (nothing).
Now I could rail at the injustice of it, but that’s more of the same from me, isn’t it? I could ask when will we hear the outrage, where is the revolution, but I know it’s not coming. So, instead, let’s try a little exercise so that we might better understand what thirty years in prison means.
I would like for you, dear reader, to go get a piece of paper and a pen. Put it next to your computer. Now, go back to when you were twenty years old. I’m not asking you to imagine yourself as a twenty-year old Cornelius Dupree, free and easy until you’re arrested and your life is stolen from you. I’m not going to ask you to do that because Rick Horowitz is right, you can’t. No. I’m asking you to imagine yourself at twenty. You see yourself? OK, what are you wearing? I’ll go first: I am wearing a black tank top, some type of ridiculous skirt, black fishnets and combat boots. I’ve probably got a cigarette in one hand and a philosophy text in another. In my mind’s eye I am in front of the Humanities Building at Union College with my friends David, Zaibi, Amy, Sally and maybe Larry is there too. Where are you? Write it down.
Now, let’s fast forward five years since sometimes the years themselves blur together when you’re busy living, right? So, twenty-five. Do you see yourself? What are you doing? Who are your friends? Write it down. I’m in law school, second year. We had a smoking lounge so I still hadn’t given that up. Larry is there too, and so is Sally. David is in New York, Amy is in New Hampshire, and Zaibi married an Imam.
Let’s go five more years to thirty, you know the drill by now – stop, close your eyes and picture your thirty-year old self. (I know, you young ones can’t do this, so go back to birth and start from there). Write it down. I went on my first date with my husband. I bought an Audi. David came to my wedding. Sally and Amy are gone. Larry comes and goes.
At thirty five I was trying desperately to get pregnant and finally did. I had twin boys after months on bedrest. I gave up my position as partner in my little law firm in order to stay home. I moved. Larry lives near me. I’ve lost touch with the others.
That’s fifteen years. Half of what Mr. Dupree served.
What do you think his list looks like? Compare your list to his. Is ‘unjust’ a sufficient word? Cornelius Dupree is as guilty of committing that crime in 1979 as you and I are.
Is his list okay with you? I mean, do you think that because, generally, the system ‘works’ it’s okay that some people like Cornelius Dupree will have a list that just lists “prison” for thirty years? Are there individuals who need to be sacrificial lambs so the rest of us can stay safe. That is, unless we are the ones heading to slaughter. Let me ask this – are you willing to sacrifice yourself for that belief? Would you be okay with spending your life in prison for a crime you didn’t commit in order to make sure that other people who are actually guilty get convicted? Would you give up your son or brother for this ‘convict at all costs’ cause? If you would, then your position is airtight and I will not argue with you (because you are clearly off your fucking rocker). But if you wouldn’t consent to being victimized by the state, then how on earth is it okay for Cornelius Dupree?
Mr. Dupree gave a brief interview on CNN. In it he says “this could have happened to anyone. I’m just unfortunate that it happened to me.” I do hope, my friends, that we all remain fortunate and continue to walk between the raindrops.