With America dominating our culture, it’s easy to forget that beneath the superficial similarities, there are many differences between our two nations. BBC documentary series American Justice opens with one very big one: “The American justice system was built to reflect the will of its people. It’s the only country in the world where the citizens decide who delivers law and order. From sheriffs to judges, all are elected by the people.” If you’ve ever had an angry discussion with a relative who thinks all drug users should be executed, you might see a problem with this.
This politicisation of the justice system is perhaps the most shocking element of this powerful and compelling series. The first episode focuses on Jacksonville (aka “the murder capital of Florida”), where it follows two criminal cases – Detective Bobby Bower is investigating a brutal but seemingly open-and-shut double murder, while the other is a little more complex. And as it rapidly becomes clear, “complex” is not something the American justice system does well.
The city has an extremely high murder rate – in 2016, there were 117 homicides in a city with less than a million people. By comparison, London, which has 10 times the population, saw roughly the same number of murders. Jacksonville is also known for having some of the toughest laws in the USA. That’s in large part thanks to people like state attorney Angela Corey, who was elected thanks to lock-'em-up populism and then backed it up by… locking people up. “Our laws say we have to be tough,” she says over the opening credits. Tough, in her case, includes wanting to imprison 12 year olds as adults.
“There are people who don’t want to live within the bounds of our laws,” she says. “They’ve chosen to live a life of crime." It sounds more like something a politician would say, and Corey is most definitely a politician – one who knows that boasting about sending more people to death row than any other court district is a vote-winner. But after a controversial second term where her strict tactics increasingly drew fire nationwide, she’s now up against a former colleague who’s running on a platform of restoring trust in the office.
Justice? What justice?
It’s easy to see why some might not feel confident in Jacksonville’s justice system. In that more complex case, a man is being tried for murder, even though nobody thinks he did it. The prosecution case is that two men broke into a house and threatened someone inside, then another resident heard the struggle, came in and shot both intruders multiple times. One of them died. The prosecutor decided not to charge the person who fired the deadly shots, accepting their claim of self-defence. Instead, the surviving intruder was charged with murder. “Bad things will happen when you do bad things,” says the prosecutor. “There needs to be some accounting for committing a particular crime.” Just not the person who actually pulled the trigger.
This is cold comfort for Trey Wright, the man up on murder. It was his cousin and best friend, Ryan, who died. “He was like a brother to me” Wright says. In the state of Florida, they’ve done away with parole and good behaviour, and the only sentencing options for murder are the death penalty or life, so if he’s found guilty he’ll die in prison. And yet, even his lawyer is surprised when he decides to fight the case. “I’d be scared to death to go to trial,” she says. And with good reason, when you’re up against a judge boasting he’s not afraid to be seen as tough, which takes some doing in a death penalty state.
It's all about appearances
Time and again, the justice system here is revealed to be about show – showing you’re tough, showing you want justice to be done. And while for the grieving families, justice is all they have left as the system seems barely interested in that side of things. The detectives and ground-level prosecutors are all about catching the criminals, but once they go into the system, it’s one big machine designed to funnel people into prison. “If you’ve got somebody that you truly believe is innocent, it’s very scary,” says one lawyer. That’s not exactly a ringing endorsement for a fair and balanced justice system.
And yet what sticks with you from this compelling documentary is the people left behind, struggling to understand what’s torn through their lives. Some want vengeance; others see the system is more about locking people up than finding the people who deserve locking up. These are petty criminals and drug addicts getting in over their heads. These are sad, ghastly crimes with tiny motives. And there’s so much blood, time and time again in the crime scene photos. In one case, the victim's family are left to clean it up themselves, pointing out where their dead father’s blood soaked into the floor. “It’s exactly like he just walked out,” one of them says, “except for all the blood.”
Watch American Justice on Saturday 4 November at 9:30pm on SBS.