The Case of 'Death for a Dollar Ninety-Five': Miscarriages of Justice and Constructions of American Identity
WHEN LAW FAILS: MAKING SENSE OF MISCARRIAGES OF JUSTICE, Austin Sarat and Charles Ogletree, Jr., eds., New York University Press, 2009
USC Law Legal Studies Paper No. 06-22
28 Pages Posted: 22 Nov 2006 Last revised: 21 Nov 2017
Date Written: February 1, 2007
This is a story about a case long forgotten. It was a case that, it seems, needed to be forgotten to safeguard the meaning of American justice. The case of Death for a Dollar Ninety-Five began one July night in Marion, Alabama, in 1957, and soon captured the attention of the world. It involved an African American man, a white woman, and the robbery of a small amount of change late in the evening. The conviction was swift and the penalty was death. International criticism soon rained down on the Alabama Governor and the American Secretary of State, leading to clemency and a life sentence. For $1.95. And the case was forgotten. This story helps us to see the way narratives of American justice and injustice are managed. The United States identifies itself with the rule of law, and so miscarriages of justice are often perceived as breaches in that identity, violations of the nation's own core principles. Resolutions of miscarriages of justice, this paper argues, are often about repairing a breach in American identity, making America whole again. What happens to the person at the center of the story is, at best, secondary. For the story to turn out right, the nation is restored, and the person is forgotten.
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