by Heather Gray — August 2, 2020
While driving to Michigan on a college visit, Jamie introduced me to my first podcast. For 8 hours and 33 minutes we listened to the first season of the podcast entitled Serial. Serial is an investigative journalism podcast. Jamie and I listened to the story of a 17-year old teenager – the same age as Jamie – who was investigated for murder, arrested, put on trial and eventually sent to prison for life. At the end of the season, I looked at Jamie and said that I can’t believe he was sentenced to life in prison, when, there was obviously reasonable doubt that he was guilty.
If you had asked me back then for my opinion of the American justice system, I would have told you – with confidence – that only guilty men and women are incarcerated, and most definitely only guilty persons are put to death. Well, if you ask for my opinion today, I would tell you the America justice system is broken. That innocent men and women are incarcerated, and most definitely innocent prisoners have been put to death.
Let me share some numbers with you. Approximately 20,000 people are in American prisons, falsely convicted. In 2019, there were 143 exonerations: Illinois had the most at 30 exonerations, and Pennsylvania and Texas came in second with 15 exonerations each. But not all persons wrongful convicted live long enough to be exonerated.
Listen to this… Approximately 5,000 Americans die in prison every year, and how many of these are actually innocent – we may never know. Since 1976, 1,522 American prisoners have been executed. The 2019 Innocence Database shows that 167 exonerations of prisoners on death row in the US have occurred since 1973. Just to be clear: that means 167 prisoners on death row were declared actually innocent! A wrongful execution is the greatest miscarriage of justice. This occurs when an innocent person is put to death. In my limited research, there has been posthumous exonerations in the United States, the exact number of which I could not find, but I did find at least one. Meaning a prisoner had been put to death, but after death they were found to be innocent. Let that sink in for a second.
Justice is important to God. It is so important that what is right and what is wrong, and examples of how we are to live justly are written throughout the bible. Justice is a part of who God is. God wants justice to “roll on like a river—and righteousness like a never-failing stream”. Justice even comes with God’s Blessing. If Justice is so important to God, shouldn’t it be important to us? I think it should.
Now, what does the bible tell us about injustice? It tells us the God who loves justice also hates injustice. Yes, you heard me correctly I just said God hates injustice.
In Proverbs Chapter 6 verse 16 it says,
“There are six things the Lord hates, seven that are detestable to Him” and it proceeds to list those detestable things. Two things are: 1. “hands that shed innocent blood”, 2. “a false witness who pours out lies”.
So, since that college trip with Jamie, I have listened to countless hours of podcasts that search for truth and justice for innocent men and women who are sent to prison. One particular podcast I listen to, has helped 2 innocent men be released from prison.
A few weeks ago, I downloaded a new podcast called “Wrongful Conviction”.
One particular show started out something like this, “Today’s episode will blow your mind. On April 15, 1994 two men were shot while they sat in a parked car in the middle of the afternoon. Just 6 hours later, 17-year old Lamonte McIntyre was arrested and charged for 2 counts of first degree murder, with a complete lack of any physical evidence. How can this be you ask, it’s all because Lamonte’s mother had refused the lead detective’s repeated sexual advances.”
As I listened, I was mind blown in the facts:
- the police never requested search warrants to search Lamonte’s house for evidence
- there was no fingerprints, no weapon, no motive, and no connection between Lamonte and the victims.
- Also, five alibi witnesses accounted for Lamonte’s uninterrupted presence away from the crime scene prior to, at the time of, and after the murders.
- And yet, just 6 hours after this crime is committed, Lamonte’s life was forever changed.
It gets worse: Lamonte’s arrest and charges came after the police interviewed 3 eyewitnesses. One eyewitness never testified at trial. So, the taped interviews of these 3 eyewitnesses about this very serious crime amounted to a total of 20 taped minutes! One eyewitness was interviewed for only 4 minutes. One witness signed an affidavit two years after the trial, stating that she was threatened with contempt charges and with losing her children if she did not testify against Lamonte.
And it gets even worse: At trial, Lamonte was represented by a public defender who, at the time of trial, was on supervised probation for failure to diligently handle 3 prior cases, and who would later be disbarred. The prosecuting attorney at Lamonte’s trial withheld exculpatory information, threatened a witness, and had a prior romantic relationship with the judge.
At the end of this “trial”, 17-year old Lamonte was convicted to 2 consecutive life prison terms. He was classified as maximum custody and sent to a prison with the nick name “Gladiator School”. Let that sink in for a minute…. I want you to think back to when you were 17 years old….When I was 17 I was in high school, I was working 2 part time jobs, and all about looking to the future. Lamonte was all of these things, too. Until he was plucked out of that life and sent to prison for the rest of his life.
Lamonte describes prison as: dark, negative, tension-filled, and hopeless. It’s a world all of its own. After many days of hopelessness and darkness in prison, he gave his life to God. Sitting in prison, he is not bitter, but is positive and strong. Every day in prison, Lamonte finds a way to get by. Trying to find the best he can out of each day. He devotes his time to reading and studying and writing. Keeping his mind free as possible. Mentally, he is far from prison. Focusing on those who love him, like his mother who never gave up on him. When asked, Lamonte admits to having his moments of anger. He describes anger as “like taking poison and hoping someone else will die. I am the only one being affected by being angry”. He started to learn that being angry wasn’t benefiting him. Being angry only shortens his life span. Lamonte chooses to wake up in prison every day to be positive, and not angry. He believes in his faith, and devotes his time in prison to taking care of himself mind, body, and soul.
The bible does not promise freedom from struggle or from injustice in this world, but in the world to come, there will be perfect justice.
God promises us that, until that time of perfect justice, he will set us free spiritually and emotionally. Wherever the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom—even inside a jail cell.
Another episode of Wrongful Conviction shared the story of Darryl Burton. Darryl Burton was wrongfully imprisoned for 24 years. While in prison, Darryl struggled on a daily basis—he describes this time as living in Hell on Earth. Angry and with no hope, he was full of hate.
Growing up, Darryl lived with his grandmother who was a religious woman. She required him to attend church. When Darryl was older, he told his Grandmom that he wasn’t going to church anymore and that he didn’t believe in God. His Grandmom’s words to him were “One of these days you’re going to need Jesus, and I hope you remember to call on Him.”
Darryl never forgot her words, and years later while in prison, he remembered what his Grandmom had told him. In prison, Darryl was stuck and locked in hate for many years. He could not get beyond that hate. One day a fellow prisoner encouraged him to read the Bible. It was a King James version, it was a bible with Jesus’ words in red. Darryl says he loved to read only those words in red. Slowly, he read passages about loving, and praying for our enemies, and he began his transformation.
In 2008, Darryl was exonerated after serving over 24 years in prison as an innocent man. He emerged with little hope, and with little assistance to pick up the pieces of his shattered life. Today, he is a pastor at the largest United Methodist Church in the United States. He is the cofounder of Miracle of Innocence, a 501(c)(3) organization that seeks justice and comprehensive care for the innocent. Darryl’s other co-founder is Lamonte McIntyre, who I talked about earlier.
Lamonte McIntyre was exonerated on October 13, 2017 at the age of 41, after serving 23 years in prison as an innocent man. After his release, Lamonte was awarded a full scholarship to attend college. Lamonte is now part-owner of a barber school and has opened a second location.
So, I want to ask you all, what are we, as a church, to do about injustice? God wants us to work for justice – especially for the oppressed. God says we should stand up for what’s right, even when no one else does.
I want to challenge you to do God’s work for justice:
I ask you to get educated – listen to podcasts, watch movies, read books, and watch television shows about innocent incarceration. Donate your time and/or resources to fight to exonerate the innocent, and/or to help support those after they have been exonerated. Lastly, and most importantly, I ask you all to pray for those who are incarcerated, especially those who are wrongfully incarcerated.
Let’s pray together now: Dear Father God, thank you for giving me the words for this sermon today. God, we pray for those who are incarcerated, and for their families. Open our eyes to the injustices in this world and help us to pray for justice every day. Help us to see all prisoners as You see them, children of God created in Your image. Amen.
~ Heather Gray