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Justice is a Difficult Dream
If you can be defeated by anything, then, ultimately, you will be defeated by everything
Thank you and I hope you enjoy today’s post.
I have carried a painting on a small canvas panel through many prison transports and shakedowns, and miraculously it has survived more time and circumstances than I ever imagined it would. I say “miraculously” because within these walls things that are important to a prisoner — photos, letters, diaries, or mementos — don't typically stay with us for very long.
It is a copy of a well-known seventeenth century painting by the Dutch artist Carel Fabritius, titled, “The Goldfinch,” of the same perched on a small box affixed to a wall. There is a quaint chain attached to her foot, presumably to prevent her flight or escape. The copy I have was painted by a friend several years ago with an inscription on the back that reads, “To my Friend because He is my Friend.” And for reasons that I do not entirely understand this painting has given me both solace and courage in moments of doubt and disappointment.
I stared at it for hours when my wife told me that she had reached her breaking point on hoping and praying that a court would give us justice. I stared at it again when my father died last year from COPD, an untimely death that left many things unsaid between us. And, recently, when the federal district court issued a ruling that defies all notions of common decency, sense, or humanity I again found solace in the little goldfinch looking back at me defiantly, as if saying, Life and Love are tricky endeavors that are not for the faint of heart. And in her predicament there was also a prickly question that I didn't yet have the courage to answer.
Instead, I focused on my own questions: little goldfinch, do you ever consider what freedom might be like? Do you wonder if ever again you will have the wind beneath your wings? Do you wallow in self-pity? Do you hope?
Of course, I don't expect actual answers. But, based on the open defiance on her countenance I can intuit what they would be, and I admire her all the more.
Perhaps because not only is it defiance that I see, it's a blatant accusation levied against every person who walks by, notices the injustice of her predicament, and does nothing.
How many of us have walked by someone facing some obvious injustice and done nothing? There are always reasons for not taking action, and at times we may even convince ourselves that they are good reasons. But when I look at the goldfinch chained to her perch I feel the truth of both her accusation and plight, precisely because it is one that I know well: the roads to our dreams are arduous and paved with heartache and failure and, inevitably, doubt and fear will pay us visits along the way, forcing us to take stock of what and who we are as we discover whether we have what it takes to see our pursuits through to their respective ends.
There is a maxim that I learned early on in this journey that has repeatedly been proven true: if you can be defeated by anything, then, ultimately, you will be defeated by everything.
Though, I must admit, there are days when all the self-evident axioms and pithy expressions in the world coupled with optimism, faith and hope, are still not enough to steady myself from the blows of one judicial defeat after another. These judicial decisions are so disorienting that I'm struck by vertigo and it suddenly seems like I'm walking on the deck of a ship being tossed about on the high seas.
As someone who has been fighting his wrongful conviction for nearly two decades, I am accustomed to the powers that be either passively ignoring me or actively trying to screw me. So one would think that by now I would have my sea legs, but there is nothing that prepares you for the amount of hate, indifference, insolence, and, in general, the egregious disregard for the rule of law that today's judicial system has metamorphosed into.
Which means, that when a legal brief is submitted on my behalf, I intuitively understand that its judicial recipients aren't gasping with righteous indignity at the undeniable and uncontested fact that I was never afforded the opportunity to confront my only accuser at trial — and that said accusation was the only direct evidence of guilt. No, I am more than aware that the “rule of law,” if it ever existed, doesn't factor into today's jurisprudence of political expediency as it relates to a document as multivalent as the Constitution. Does “In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right… to be confronted with the witnesses against him…” actually means what it says, or does it mean, the accused shall enjoy the right of confrontation if it's not too burdensome or otherwise inconvenient to the political careers at stake if said prosecution were to fail to convict?
It doesn't take a J.D. to recognize the paralyzing constitutional crisis that this country is facing on everything from free-speech to democracy itself to understand the immense disconnect between what our laws say, on paper, and what people in power say it is. The current, vertigo-inducing reality that we all face is that the merits of any issue aren't being decided by what the laws say, but rather by what politically appointed judges with life tenure and personal agendas find that they can get away with.
Obviously, we can't possibly know which extralegal inputs happen to be shaping what judges (or Justices) think, and, presumably what they will do. But, what they do, as any legal realist will confirm, is what the law is, not what a document says it is. A reality that, unfortunately, walks right over our concepts of freedom.
Which isn’t to say that we should throw in the towel and become submissive to the tyranny of judicial whims. Because if there is a guarantee about life, other than death and taxes, it’s the assurance that we will all be faced with seemingly impossible situations. And, in my case, I fully understand that the issue before the state and federal judiciaries isn't guilt, innocence, constitutionality, right, wrong, or any other variation of the same. The issue before them is really a rather simple one: to either uphold the law, or continue to placate certain vested interests with the illusion of infallibility in criminal prosecutions.
My case will soon be presented to the U.S. Court of Appeals (Tenth Circuit) after having had the Federal District Court creatively refuse to address the unconstitutionality of my conviction. Through personal messages on Twitter and other platforms, other attorneys and advocates who follow my fight for exoneration have opined that a Trump- appointed district judge (Kea W. Riggs) with life tenure is not looking to make waves for herself by doing something as incongruent to the current conservative agenda as upholding the law. “Unless,” as one follower who wishes to remain unnamed put it, “you make enough noise that it suddenly becomes politically imprudent for them to ignore you.”
And, of course, telling someone whose current predicament is within a prison cell within a wrongful conviction to “make enough noise” can feel like someone telling me to use the iPhone, that I don't have, to order an Uber, that won't be allowed into the prison, to take me home.
And, the obvious question when finding ourselves in difficult (or impossible) situations is, why me? When, perhaps, the better question when finding that “difficult” or “impossible” has landed in our lives is, why not me? Maybe some of us are just luckier than others when it comes to evading tragedy, or maybe it's karma, or bad juju, or whatever you want to call it. But whatever it is that brings the difficult or seemingly impossible onto our doorsteps and into our lives isn't nearly as relevant as what we decide to do with it.
Maybe dreams, by their very nature, are meant to be difficult. Maybe my fate is that of Fabritius’s goldfinch because the circumstances of my soul’s journey through existence has plotted out that these are necessary circumstances to be lived and cherished because they will lead me to a desired outcome that I am yet to appreciate or understand. And perhaps the victory that I seek is more a state of mind than a state of circumstances.
Steve Jobs once said that “we can never connect the dots looking forward, only looking back,” and I tend to agree.
Or perhaps, as others have told me, I am deluding myself with overt optimism to avoid having to confront the truth, that it is highly probable that I will die in this concrete box, innocent and wrongfully convicted. And, I admit, that when I read the recent federal decision, that was the very possibility that haunted my days and nights for weeks, until, an unexpected friend reappeared to remind me of who I am.
She said, “you are the strongest and most determined person I have ever known. If this decision defeats you, that's only because that's what you choose. Because in my darkest of moments, when I didn't think there would be light at the end of the tunnel, it was you who showed me where the light was. You assured me that all I had to do to see the light was to find the courage to open my eyes and look. And guess what, you were right, and now it's my turn to tell you the same.”
I have to admit, that her words shook me at my core. Because just moments before, I had convinced myself that I didn't possess even a single tear of grief or sorrow for my predicament. And yet somehow her words served to remind me of something I had conveniently forgotten: defeat and victory are states of mind and about as ephemeral as a breeze blowing through our lives. And suddenly my eyes spilled over with tears, one for every syllable she spoke, and just like that I was no longer angry with attorneys, or judges, or the Universe or God for having permitted this absurd travesty to take place in the first instance.
The tears that flowed washed all of that self-righteous bullshit away, leaving me with the same predicament and choice that I have always had: to either accept defeat, or defy it.
Then it occurred to me that the goldfinch doesn't need to be a locksmith, or strong enough to break a chain. All she needs are the three things that inherently belong to each and everyone of us: patience, faith, and courage.
She must be patient in waiting for the opportunity of her liberation to present itself; have faith that said opportunity will come; and be courageous enough to resist the mental guillotines of self-pity, doubt, and defeat. And do so, knowing that even if she or any one of us hold true to all of these precepts, we are not guaranteed the desired outcome — all we can be assured is that victory comes to every weary soul who stands her ground on the field of battle as adversity crashes against her. Because that is essentially what victory means: holding your ground like the immortal you are.
As for the question on her defiant countenance that at first I didn't have the courage to confront. It had to do with the declaration that accompanies her predicament: life isn't about having what you want, it's about excepting what is and having the courage to create what isn't. So live it as though it were on purpose, as if your circumstances were exactly what you wanted for your life, because whatever they are, they are the needed ingredients for creating your masterpiece.
If you are chained to a perch and all you can do is sidestep five inches to the left or the right, then embrace that and know that your masterpiece only requires five inches. Which brings us to the question: are you willing to embrace your five inches and build your masterpiece, or are you going to forever chain yourself to the self-pity, doubt, and fear until your life is no more?
As for me, I'll let my actions speak for themselves. What about you?