Dear Friend of Justice,
2008 is a reunion year for me. Until recently, I had been thinking about it as my 35th reunion. But I subsequently realized that it will be my 45th. (And I once was quite good at math.)
I generally don’t attend these reunions. But this year I did submit a class report. The text follows:
I last submitted a Class Report ten years ago. I also sent a copy of that report, as an introduction, to Bernard Baran, an inmate of a Massachusetts prison. I had been urged to contact Baran by a friend who was convinced that Baran was innocent. For some reason, she thought I might be able to do something to help him. Why she thought that, I didn’t know—I was not a lawyer or a person of influence. I was a computer programmer. (She later explained that she prodded me because she knew I was persistent. Stubborn may be a better word.)
Little did I then know that Baran and others like him were going to be my principal occupation for the next ten years. Currently, Baran is out of prison (under severe restrictions) because a judge granted him a new trial. The DA, however, has appealed the decision and the Appeals Court had a hearing in February. (For more information, see my blog (bobchatelle.blogspot.com) or the Web site of the Bernard Baran Justice Committee (www.freebaran.org).)
I could never have done the work for Baran and others without the constant help and support of Jim D’Entremont, my partner for the past thirty-eight years.
Through my work for Baran, I became concerned about others rotting in prison for crimes that they did not commit and the fact that there are really no organizations to help the overwhelming majority of them. The Innocence Project, of course, does wonderful work. But DNA is present in only a tiny percentage of cases.
So I founded another organization: The National Center for Reason and Justice (www.ncrj.org).
During these past ten years, I have become increasingly appalled by what I’ve learned about the American criminal justice system. It doesn’t work. And if you have little money and lack connections—if you are one of the “people who don’t count”—it really doesn’t work. The “people who count”—the wealthy and powerful—can hire the legal help they need to free them, even if they are guilty. The poor and powerless too often end up with lawyers who become their worst enemies. Justice—like education, health care, decent housing, freedom—is now a luxury, out of the reach of most Americans.
Once a conviction occurs, it is nearly impossible to get it overturned. We live under a government incapable of admitting error and that chooses instead to compound it. By relentless repetition, they believe that lies can be transformed into truth. But without a working criminal justice system, none of us can claim to be free. Even the people who count. Even the ones who went to Harvard — whose motto, I believe, is still veritas..
On a more personal note, I must confess that I am one of those many unfortunates who just don’t do well under capitalism. My current economic situation is very challenging. I had been deriving most of my income as a programmer from one client. And I made the mistake of outliving him. His widow took over the company on his death and she severely curtailed my contract.
I have spent several months looking for work. But I have an unconventional resume and my age works against me. I have applied everywhere I could think of, including temporary agencies and all five of the Starbucks in my neighborhood. In short, I am unemployable.
But I do receive a modest stipend from the National Center for Reason and Justice. And I have started to collect social security. So I hope to continue to scrape by.
Jim and I will also be losing our home. For the past years, we have been living in a co-op. But the membership has decided to sell the building. Currently, we have no idea where we will end up. But we certainly can’t afford to stay in Boston.
I have now been living free of drugs and alcohol for over a quarter of a century. I have not forgotten the empty, useless life I lived when I was a slave to booze. Working with our society’s victims is often extremely painful. But I prefer the pain to the spiritual pain suffered by all drinking alcoholics. Anything I may have accomplished, I could not have accomplished without my sobriety. I am extremely grateful.
Most citizens now live in fear. And our government works for the privileged few who own it. One person can do so little to change a corrupt and powerful system. I sometimes wonder if the struggle is worth the pain..
But I recently attended the memorial service for a friend, the novelist Ivan Gold. (A fellow recovering alcoholic.) During the eulogies, someone recalled that Ivan had once said, “If you die still trying to do what you believe is right, you’ve won.”
On that assumption, I will continue the struggle.
-Bob Chatelle, ’63