Wealth, Poverty and Legal System

Wealth and poverty are at opposite ends of the spectrum in America’s legal system — and generally it is the poor who lose.
That is the focus of Bryan A. Stevenson’s topic during at the annual Buck Colbert Franklin Memorial Civil Rights lecture at 7:30 p.m. today at Sharp Chapel, The University of Tulsa, 2940 East 6th St.
Stevenson, an acclaimed public interest lawyer who has helped reduce or overturn more than 65 death sentences, is executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Ala.
Stevenson recently was in Oklahoma testifying as an expert witness in a death penalty case. He also has been in the state at other times, but thinks this is the first time he as spoken in Tulsa.
‘‘I will be talking about race and poverty through those living through the administration of criminal justice,’’ he said. ‘‘I also will discuss challenges and bias that black and poor people encounter when the enter the court system.’’
The situation in Oklahoma is similar to problems encountered in other parts of the country, he said. Part of the talk will pay attention to the history of the system, especially the history in the ‘‘black belt’’ of the deep south.
Unfortunately, the legal system makes it easier for a wealthy person to be guilty than poor and innocent, Stevenson said. This is a story about doing good work a step at a time, and while moving forward, there is a long way to go.
EJI’s impact is trying to represent the poor properly in court, particularly where the death penalty is involved, he said. Success has been achieved in many cases where it was proven that bias was involved in jury selection.
The project was broadened five years ago when efforts began to create a system for possible parole of non violent offenders, especially those sentenced to life terms under the three strike law. During these investigations, it was found that many had been wrongfully convicted and went to prison because they couldn’t get proper legal help.
Another focus is representing kids 13 and 14 years old convicted of crimes that would keep them in prison for life.
Currently EJI is reaching into the community with education programs outside the legal community, he said. The wide range of topics that can help people understand about and what to expect in court.
EJI challenges will continue as long as issues involving race and poor exist in the legal system, Stevenson said. There is a long track record of abuse going back to the end of the 19th Century when reconstruction collapsed. The African American population was subjected to bombings and other acts of terrorism by a frightened white minority. It was bad everywhere, especially in the back communities.
This is where people have lived in poverty for generations. If the problem can be documented, perhaps then it will be possible for a long-term resolution of the issue.

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