by Donna Musil

Those in the U.S. typically presume wrongful legal convictions are the result of a few “bad apples” — a dirty cop, an overzealous prosecutor, or a corrupt judge.

But what if the whole tree is rotten? What if the whole concept of an adversarial system is doomed from its inception? Prosecutors, for example, are required by law to act as “ministers of justice” (who presumably care about truth and the defendant) and zealous advocates for the crime victims. Truth Justice and the American way. OR FREEDOM

But as Daniel Medwed, Northeastern law professor and author of “Prosecution Complex,” posits, can you really root for both the Yankees and the Red Sox? For the past four years, filmmakers Donna Musil, Meg Cormier and Aidan McCarthy have been documenting the trials and execution of Carlton Gary. A professional thief dubbed the “Stocking Strangler” who, in the late 1970s, was convicted of raping and murdering seven elderly women in Georgia, U.S.A.

Musil is a former labor lawyer and Cormier is a forensic scientist. What began as curiosity about a case that consumed the town in which Musil was born, has turned into a deep dive into exactly how wrongful convictions occur, why and to whom they happen, and what, if anything, can be done about them. TRUTH, JUSTICE AND THE AMERICAN WAY

“It’s important for people to understand that, although you hear about innocent people getting out of prison,” says Duke law Professor Brandon Garrett, author of Convicting the Innocent .

“There are many more people who have strong evidence of their innocence and will never be released. They will die in prison, knowing that they are innocent. And that is the way it is.”

How is this possible in the ‘greatest legal system in the world?’ Well, perhaps it’s not the greatest legal system in the world, and the first, most crucial, step is admitting that.

In fact, examining the inner workings of a forty-plus year capital defense case threw both Musil and Cormier for an intellectual loop. It certainly wasn’t what they were taught in law school or forensic science school.

“Our thought was, oh yeah, the system is broken and blah. But then we started thinking, and it’s like, maybe the system’s not broken. Maybe the system is set up to put people in jail. And it’s working very effectively. As a matter of fact, it’s working as designed,” says Capital Defender, Jeffrey Ertel, who served as one of Gary’s appellate lawyers.

Race plays a major role in a criminal justice system that seems more concerned with the appearance of justice than with the actual search for truth.

Although African-Americans account for 30 percent of the population and 65 percent of murder victims, 80 of the people on death row are there for killing white victims. Carlton was black and the strangling victims were white grandmothers. Anyone who thinks that doesn’t affect the conduct and outcome of the trial is fooling themselves. TRUTH, JUSTICE AND THE AMERICAN WAY

“When a white deputy sheriff comes up, black people didn’t say, ‘here comes the police,’ they say, ‘here comes the law.’ And that’s why you have the culture you have among police today. There’s that value set that, ‘I wear a gun, I wear a badge, I AM the law,’” says Capital Defender Gary Parker, one of Gary’s original trial lawyers.

Columbus Ledger-Enquirer- Carlton Gary, during one of his pre-trial hearings.

As millions of Americans take to the streets to protest police brutality, “Strangled” hopes to illuminate just how deeply entrenched our problems are, and how difficult it’s going to be to dig up its systemic roots.

“Because, with regard to race, everybody — the judges, prosecutors, legislators, everybody is gonna just whistle past the graveyard, just pretend that it’s not there. And it is there. And something has to be done about it because more and more you’re alienating a big part of the population that’s being excluded and being mistreated.”

“And if they think they’re being mistreated in the community, let me tell you, they ought to go into the court system and see how they’re being mistreated,” says Capital Defender Stephen Bright, who is Founder of the Southern Center for Human Rights.

It’s too late for Carlton Gary. He was executed in March of 2018. But perhaps his trials and tribulations can help light the way for a more just and equitable criminal justice system. Or at least expand the conversation. Find out how you can support the production of “Strangled” at www.blindturtle.org.


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