The Passion of “Marty” Stroud

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Glenn Ford was sentenced to death for a murder he did not commit, and he spent 30 years in barbaric conditions on Louisiana’s Death Row. He was housed in a 5 by 7-foot cell, where summer temperatures regularly reached 104 degrees.

When Ford was exonerated last year he was released from Angola Penitentiary with a $20 gift card. He had chicken (it came with some fries and with tea), and then he was down to $4.

Only weeks later, Ford was told that he had Stage IV cancer. Fellow exoneree John Thompson, who runs the Resurrection After Exoneration community that cared for Ford at the end, says it was: “Like, ‘Oh, you thought you was off death row, but you’re not. You’re still here.'”

Ford died, destitute, within fourteen months.

While Ford was still alive, the trial prosecutor in his case, A.M. “Marty” Stroud, III, learned that the state of Louisiana was fighting to deny Ford any further compensation, and he wrote a remarkable letter to the Shreveport Times, urging the state to pay Ford something to recognize the injustice that had been done.

In that letter Stroud laid out his own role in the destruction of Ford’s life.

Ford had been assigned novice defense lawyers who had never tried a criminal case, and Stroud had exploited that advantage ruthlessly.

He had not followed up on stories that other men were responsible for the killing; he had not disclosed that information to the defenders so that they could follow up.

He used his peremptory challenges to have all African-Americans thrown off the jury, so that Ford’s jury was ultimately all-white.

He presented forensic “science” testimony that was without any scientific (or much rational) basis, and the bewildered defenders could not cope with it.

By his account, at the time of the Ford trial Stroud was “[A]rrogant, judgmental, narcissistic and very full of myself. I was not interested in justice; I was interested in winning.”

He has repeated this indictment of his younger self at length at a symposium presented by the Quattrone Center for the Fair Administration of Justice, and then, most recently, on 60 Minutes.

The public response to Stroud’s penance has been close to viral.

This probably owes something to the same morbid fascination that would draw a crowd to any whipping in the public square—particularly when the penitent is whipping himself.

And the size of the audience also owes something to the sheer rarity of Stroud’s declaration. Trial prosecutors seldom discuss their roles in wrongful convictions after exonerations, and when they do it is usually to express regrets, not to confess. “I did my best, and my best wasn’t good enough,” is the more traditional statement, when there is any prosecutor’s statement at all.

The reaction of Stroud’s audience has been complex.

Some readers and viewers feel only admiration for a harrowed man who was voluntarily doing a painful and honorable thing.

Maybe, like the title character of Conrad’s Lord Jim, who abandoned helpless pilgrims on what he believed was a sinking ship, Stroud had fleetingly violated his own too-stringent moral code, but would spend the balance of his life expiating the fault.

Others felt that Stroud’s very public penance reflected the narcissism that got Stroud into trouble in the first place. For this group, the histrionic violence of Stroud’s remorse is designed to persuade us (and perhaps Stroud himself) that he is not a bad man, but rather a very good man who had once (long, long, ago) done a bad thing, and is acutely aware of it.

But everyone, no matter how they felt about Stroud, drew the same simple, seductive—and mistaken—lesson from the Glenn Ford story: Namely, if we want a safer criminal justice system all we need is better people.

Good luck with that.

Safety experts in industry, aviation and medicine would argue that the challenge we face is not to protect a presumptively safe system from amoral or incompetent people. The challenge is to build resilience into a vulnerable system staffed by ordinary fallible human beings.

Notwithstanding Stroud’s efforts to assume sole responsibility for the Ford wrongful conviction, he did not do it alone.

Stroud may have been “the engineer on the train of injustice” as he told 60 Minutes, but someone put him in that seat, someone laid the tracks, someone stoked the coal, and someone—actually, everyone in the system—failed to put up the red signal that meant “Stop!”

The Ford death sentence required, besides Stroud, dubious forensics, a judiciary tolerant of race-based jury challenges, ineffectual defenders (and the creators of the primitive appointed counsel system that assigned them), and a see-no-evil tradition of appellate review.

Ford’s conviction was an “organizational accident,” in which many individual errors—no one of them enough to cause the tragedy independently—combined with each other and with latent system weaknesses. Everyone has something to account for, and “everyone” includes the Louisiana legislature and the Supreme Court.

Safety experts like Sidney Dekker would argue that the right way to respond to Stroud is to treat him as “the Second Victim.”

That term, Second Victim, does not refer to collaterally damaged family members of the exoneree or his community, but to professionals who have been traumatized by their role in a tragic outcome, such as the nurse who, as the proximate operator in a broken health care system, administered the fatal overdose of medication.

Calling Stroud a “victim” rankles. After all, much of his victimization is self-inflicted, and compared to the horrors visited on Ford, Stroud’s sufferings seem puny.

Still, the Second Victim concept is an important one.

Consider, for example, Jennifer Thompson, a rape victim who discovered that her honest eyewitness mistake sent an innocent man, Ronald Cotton, to prison for more than a decade.

Or, within the Ford case itself, imagine being one of the overwhelmed novice defenders and discovering that the innocent client in your care was wrongly sentenced to death and consigned to a hell hole for 30 years.

One force behind the Second Victim approach is the humane impulse to help the traumatized sharp-end witnesses or operators who, often, have been set up to fail by the system around them: To comfort people like Jennifer Thompson, or the heart-broken nurse.

But there is another aspect of the Second Victim approach that applies even to problematic figures like Stroud.

Of course Stroud zigged when he should have zagged. He has told us that himself.

But the Second Victim approach argues for including Stroud in the effort to understand why he made that choice.

The safety experts believe that the disastrous decisions of frontline operators like Stroud may be wrong—even immoral—but they are still always locally rational: They solve (or promise to solve) an immediate local problem with no locally visible negative impacts. (At least, in Ford’s case, for 30 years.)

If the system wants to be safer, the system needs Stroud to help explain what made his choices seem to be good ideas to him at the time.

In repairing the system, the concern is not with evaluating people; it is with analyzing events.

After Stroud is gone, the conditions driving his choices will remain, and they could persuade the next prosecutor that the same choices are “locally rational.” Finding and modifying those aspects of the environment are the means to safety.

Whether Stroud himself would welcome Second Victim treatment is another question. In many ways Second Victim participation is more demanding than pre-emptively saying the worst that can be said about yourself and leaving it at that.

Even so, while the Second Victim approach may be more demanding than simply fixing blame, or blaming oneself as loudly as possible, the difficult work of performing a new role in the community’s effort to avoid a repeat of the tragedy can be a better route toward healing than shaming and banishment, for both the individual practitioner who strayed and for the overall criminal justice system.

That, at least seems to be the argument of the practitioners and researchers who called for developing a practice of non-blaming, all-stakeholders review of criminal justice disasters in the National Institute of Justice’s Special Report Mending Justice: Sentinel Events.

You can see the same motivation in the launch, by Jennifer Thompson, the rape victim who became the Second Victim in a wrongful conviction, of the restorative justice project, Healing Justice, that focuses on exonerees and their connections with the shattered crime victims and their survivors who were implicated in their wrongful convictions.

One thing we can do to restore justice is to work to understand where the last injustice came from—so that we can prevent the next one.

As Sidney Dekker puts it: “The past cannot be undone. What can be undone, or changed, is the future.”

James Doyle, a Boston defense lawyer and author, was a 2011-2014 Visiting Fellow at the National Institute of Justice. The opinions expressed here as his own. He welcomes comment from readers.

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