Not malicious, but still unjust

Wiley A. Hall 3rd

December 10, 1991|By Wiley A. Hall 3rd

Dora Williams called.

"Can you believe it?" she asked in a voice of infinite sorrow, "can you believe the judge turned my uncle down?"

"I heard," I said.

"We were all ready to help him when he came out," Williams continued.

"Everybody. The whole family. We had a job all lined up; we had a place for him to stay; we were going to enroll him in a school, and everybody was going to pitch in. It's just so hard to believe."

Williams' uncle, Jerry P. Cooper, was convicted of attempted rape in 1958 and sentenced to life imprisonment. He was 16 years old at the time, illiterate, and mentally limited. His family, saddened and humiliated by the charge, virtually wrote him off as lost.

But last year Williams began to investigate his case and, the more she investigated, the more convinced she became that her Uncle Jerry had not been treated fairly in 1958.

He was charged with the attempted rape of a 72-year-old southwest Baltimore woman. The victim died from causes unrelated to the assault before the case went to trial.

But apparently neither the victim nor any of the witnesses on the scene accused young Cooper of attempted rape. At most, their testimony indicated that Cooper had forced his way into her home and knocked her down. Cooper himself told a court-appointed psychiatrist that he had intended to snatch the woman's purse. He later said he told the same story to police.

But police produced a very different confession. In it, the black teen-ager allegedly boasted, "Every once in a while I feel like I want to get something from some white woman, you know what I mean? I want a little bit because I like it better when I get it from a white woman instead of a colored woman."

The alleged victim was white.

The confession, which would have sounded like a caricature of a black stereotype from a person of normal IQ was especially suspect, according to the court's doctors, when attributed to someone of Cooper's "limited capacities."

In a motion for a retrial Oct. 30, a public defender argued that Cooper's attorney 33 years ago should have challenged the authenticity of the confession and informed Cooper that a trial before a jury might possibly result in a lesser sentence. The public defender also argued that Cooper's life sentence for attempted rape constituted cruel and unusual punishment since the current penalty is 15 years.

In her Nov. 21 ruling, City Circuit Court Judge Ellen M. Heller was sympathetic.

"In appearance, there is nothing about Mr. Cooper that suggests the violent and dangerous actions that gave rise to this conviction," she wrote. "Furthermore, the court is very well aware that Mr. Cooper's family is now prepared to assist and support him when he is released into society. Their concern must be of immeasurable support to him."

But Judge Heller ruled, in essence, that you cannot judge a 1950s case by 1990s standards.

"Therefore," she continued, "further efforts on behalf of Mr. Cooper should be directed to the Parole Board, which does have the authority to make the appropriate decision concerning his release."

There appeared to be nothing mean or malicious in the judge's opinion, unlike the very angry decision by her predecessor in 1958. But is there no room in the law for compassion? For humanity? Is the law so narrow that there is no room for justice?

The same questions apply to the city prosecutors who chose to oppose Cooper's motion for a new trial, even though they are black and supposedly sensitive to the possibility of a miscarriage of justice based on race. Did they carefully examine this case on its merits or were they just pushing paper?

In the end, the human beings who make up the criminal justice system acted with -- well, the phrase that comes to mind is an absence of malice.

They may not have been kind or compassionate or understanding or even just. But they were not malicious.

I guess that is something.

So now, the Maryland Parole Commission represents Cooper's last chance. Unfortunately, it is hard to say what his chances are. We know that the members of the board are no more malicious than the officers of the court.

But an absence of malice does not, in and of itself, indicate a presence of humanity.

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