Last month, Valentino Dixon was exonerated and released from Wende Correctional Facility, thankfully. He had spent the last 27 years wrongfully convicted of second-degree murder. The linchpin to his freedom was the testimony of another man, Lamarr Scott, pleading guilty to the murder in court, to replace Valentino in prison. Students in Georgetown’s Prison Reform Project class worked on Valentino’s case last spring, and it was due to their hard work and renewed focus from the media that Valentino was exonerated. In the class, students were put into groups, working on cold cases of people who maintained their innocence while incarcerated. They had to dig up old files, restructure arguments for innocence, do independent detective work, and make short documentaries advocating for the freedom of these men. The ultimate goal was to free innocent people from prison, and because of this project, in no small part, Valentino Dixon was freed.
This is good, and I know that good stories are desperately hard to come by, and so I don’t want to be too critical. Valentino Dixon gets to reunite with his family, and that is beautiful. It deserves pause. I cannot begin to imagine. I’m 19. His daughter was 4 months old when he first went to prison. I need you to stop reading for a second.
The whole story, including Georgetown’s involvement, deserves a much more critical examination than it has previously been treated to. Because not only is the loss of 27 years of an innocent man’s life an absurd miscarriage of justice, but it also highlights the underlying inhumanity of our criminal justice system.
That innocent people are incarcerated in this country is an accident, but also an inevitable outcome considering the demands made of our criminal justice system. Over 90 percent of criminal cases end in a plea deal, meaning the defendant admits guilt without even going to court. But this does not mean that 90 percent of people who are arrested are guilty. Rather, the use of plea deals is evidence of how the system does not have the resources to function as promised: court dates are expensive, judges are too busy to sit every case, and there are not enough courthouses to watch over every case. Not to mention the policing practices that hand these people to the courts, which certainly deserve their own scrutiny. It becomes evident that our criminal justice system is no longer concerned with justice; instead, finality is the ultimate goal.
The criminal justice system has become an autonomous set of procedures aimed at resolving cases as quickly as possible. If it was structured properly, the system would be focused on satisfying the specific needs of people affected by crime, and providing space for the people who committed them to apologize and come to responsibly own their actions. The criminal justice system should allow both victim and offender to return to a state of normalcy once they have exited it. Instead, the system is alienated from the people related to the crime, with a focus on punishment and conclusion. Because of this, people like Valentino Dixon can get caught in the fray. Valentino Dixon was always innocent. He was innocent when he was arrested and he was innocent when he was incarcerated for 27 years. His story flies in the face of the legitimacy of the judicial system, which falsely claims it has the ability to determine innocence. His incarceration was a foreseeable conflation of lax detective work, rushed court dates, and a prison system unbothered by an innocent man’s pleas. The purpose of the Georgetown class was to help exonerate him because he was innocent.
But our main contribution as a campus to the criminal justice system has to be more than picking up the mess it makes. Exonerating innocent people is valiant and necessary, but it consents to the broken rules of the system; without challenging the root cause, this is an individualistic solution to a structural issue.
The efforts of students from Georgetown to help free Dixon call into question the court system’s ability to determine innocence, but they do not question the legitimacy of the actual laws that define innocence. The constitution was written behind closed doors by white landowners, and continues to be amended by people who fail to appropriately represent their constituents because of gerrymandering and disproportionate representation of corporate wills. The Georgetown exoneration project questions the effectiveness of the criminal justice system, with potential to cast light on the malicious conflation of racist policing practices and mismanaged courts. But it assumes that the system can get it right, if the issue of application was tweaked. To me, that is frustratingly limited, when people are found guilty by laws that are unjust and illegitimate.
At the very least, the work of the class fails to question whether incarceration as a response to crime is appropriate, because of the way it affirms the legitimacy of the laws by agreeing to their definition of innocence. It fails to question the setup of our social contract, the enforcement mechanism of which is to remove people from the community and take away their access to the rights of the community. How is putting people in boxes for years conducive to them reentering the social contract? Just because Valentino Dixon is free does not make him a free or whole unmolested citizen again; the spectre of incarceration follows formerly incarcerated people even as they are allegedly ‘rehabilitated’ and returned to society. This further calls into question the necessity of prisons if they do not act as the complete penance for a crime. Not to mention that the formal response to crime is exacerbated by consequences beyond incarceration, such as lower employment rates. All of this highfalutin discussion doesn’t even scratch the surface of the basic inhumanity of prison. Ultimately, it’s cruel and unusual, and the Georgetown class project inadvertently normalizes it.
Despite all this criticism, I truly am proud of my peers who worked tirelessly to advocate for Dixon’s freedom. And I’m also aware that their participation in this project isn’t a monolithic statement on their understanding of the criminal justice system or the prison-industrial complex. However, to allow this event to pass through Georgetown without pausing for a moment and considering what the myriad implications of this accomplishment are would be a great loss.
The project is important and meaningful in the way it magnifies the human cost of incarceration, and holds your eye to the fire. It’s hard to feel an intimate connection to something as unwieldy and austere as the criminal justice system. But people are sitting in prison right now, innocent and guilty, losing time, the only commodity we all really have. This project is an unwavering reminder that real people have been suffering, are suffering, and will continue to suffer at the hands of the criminal justice system.
I just want to remind people that it is possible to support the innocent victims of the criminal justice system while also rejecting the system’s moral legalism. It is possible to attempt reform that doesn’t affirm the system. We need to consider whether the work we are accomplishing on campus is buttressing structures that we one day hope to tear down. What this project accomplished is good, it changed a good man’s life for the better. But moving forward as a campus, we can be more intentional when we attempt reform, even if that means small changes in rhetoric. Sometimes asking small questions of big, successful projects can be meaningful too.