President Barack Obama recently praised the Philadelphia Eagles football team for signing quarterback Michael Vick after his release from prison on federal convictions related to a dog-fighting operation.
Obama's words about the challenges faced by former prisoners are thoughtful. But when taken in conjunction with his actions and inactions as president, they reveal a thought process that seems wildly off kilter.
On one hand, Obama says he is concerned that former prisoners "never get a fair second chance." On the other hand, Obama has shown that he is not the least bit concerned about the plight of those who have been wrongfully imprisoned because of Bush-era political prosecutions. Thanks to his "look forward, not backwards" approach to the apparent crimes of Bush-administration officials, Obama essentially is telling victims of wrongful prosecutions, "Tough, get over it."
We have a president who, correctly, is concerned about the rights of prisoners who have paid their debt to society. But the same president does not seem to care about the rights of people who never should have been in prison in the first place.
As a resident of Alabama, "Ground Zero" for Bush-era shenanigans, I know this is not just a theoretical exercise. I know of at least four people who unquestionably are wrongfully imprisoned, in America, at this moment. I'm talking about Richard Scrushy, codefendant in the prosecution of former Alabama Governor Don Siegelman, and three defendants (Paul Minor, Wes Teel, and John Whitfield) in the Paul Minor prosecution next door in Mississippi.
If Siegelman himself returns to prison, after his appeals are exhausted, that will make five known political prisoners based on bogus federal prosecutions brought in just two states.
I know of at least two other individuals who almost certainly qualify as political prisoners. I'm talking about former Alabama Representative Sue Schmitz and former Jefferson County Commissioner Gary White. I include the "almost certainly" qualifier for them only because I have not studied the facts and the law in their cases to the extent that I have on the Siegelman and Minor prosecutions.
Aside from the facts in the Schmitz and White cases, there is almost no doubt that their prosecutions were driven by political considerations that are impermissible under the law. That alone means their convictions are unlawful, and they should not be in prison.
An eighth person from my neck of the woods, Huntsville defense contractor Alex Latifi, almost certainly would be a political prisoner right now. But he had the good fortune to have his case assigned to a competent federal judge, Clinton appointee Inge Johnson, and she kicked the bogus charges against him out of court before trial.
Political prosecutions no longer can be associated only with the Bush administration. As I write this, 11 individuals in my state are under indictment in connection with a federal investigation of actions surrounding gambling-related bills in the Alabama Legislature. The charges appear to be driven by outgoing GOP governor Bob Riley and his anti-gambling crusade, and they were brought under the direction of U.S. Attorney Leura Canary, a Riley ally and Bush appointee who inexplicably has remained in office under Obama.
Why would Riley be pushing such a federal probe? It's probably because he has received millions of dollars worth of support, laundered through GOP felon Jack Abramoff, from Mississippi Choctaw gaming interests. Riley appears to be protecting his benefactors' market share against possible competition from a neighboring state.
At some point in 2011, we could have 11 more political prisoners here in the Deep South--on Obama's watch. And the president is concerned about Michael Vick?
I voted for Obama largely because I considered him a person of intelligence and integrity. I still believe the president holds those attributes. His real problem, I suspect, is a lack of political spine. He simply does not have the guts to go after the Bush criminals.
Is that because the president fears his life, or the lives of his family members, would be in danger if he were to give the go-ahead for a genuine investigation of Bush officials? I would not be surprised.
Is it because the Bush administration, in its waning days, had the FBI conduct surveillance on Obama and his associates, gaining information that could be used to blackmail the incoming president into taking a "look forward, not backwards" stance? I would not be surprised by that either.
We are left with an otherwise intelligent president who comes off looking shallow when he comments on matters of justice. Consider this comment that Obama reportedly made in his telephone conversation with Philadelphia Eages owner Jeffrey Lurie:
"He said, 'So many people who serve time never get a fair second chance,' " said Lurie, who did not indicate when the call occurred. "He said, 'It's never a level playing field for prisoners when they get out of jail.' And he was happy that we did something on such a national stage that showed our faith in giving someone a second chance after such a major downfall.''
Obama wants to ensure a level playing field for former prisoners? That's an admirable goal. But what about a level playing field for innocent people who become ensnared in bogus federal prosecutions? For that matter, what about a level playing field for people who go into federal court on any matter--either criminal or civil? If my personal experience in the civil arena is any indication--and we will be writing numerous posts on that subject in 2011--such a level playing field does not exist.
Obama has to know that it makes no sense to voice concern about the rights of former prisoners while doing nothing about those who are wrongfully imprisoned.
Sadly, the president has allowed himself to be boxed into that indefensible position.