Rockford, Ill. – Before the backdrop of 1990s policing strategies, the stereotyping and targeting of young Black Americans, and the impact of mass incarceration upon entire communities, the inevitability of local abuse converged with the arrest, first degree murder conviction, and now a scheduled retrial of Patrick Pursley, recently freed through his decades long persistence to expose a hidden truth, revealed the wide-ranging impact of racialized politics on local prosecutions and the general targeting of Black youth in the American criminal justice system.
|Patrick Pursley and daughter Nija
Explaining that it took nearly two and a half decades to seek answers alleging misconduct, if not an overzealous rush to judgment on the part of investigators and the prosecution, help from organizations such as Northwestern University’s Center on Wrongful Convictions was vital in helping to argue his innocence and to present evidence for a retrial while adding that thinking of his children was the motivating force behind keeping up his fight for freedom.
“The appellate court said we can’t grant you gun testing because the law doesn’t allow for it, the law only allows for DNA testing, so I set out to get the law amended and filed a suit against various governing officials,” Mr. Pursley said. “The same way you allow for DNA testing to establish actual innocence in a post-conviction petition, you should allow for gun testing and other forms of forensic testing,” he explained, while pointing out the names, supporters and organizations that took his ideas on forensic testing, published in the Statesville Speaks prison newsletter, and made into a bill for the state legislature that was signed into law on October 27th, 2007.
Throughout the ups and downs of what would become an arduous 23-year battle to free himself from the nightmare of what Mr. Pursley called a wrongful life-without-parole prison sentence, family members likewise suffered in ways hidden from public view, deeply affecting them from childhood through adolescence and into adulthood.
Describing the difficulties of growing up without knowledge of her biological father and her need to have completion regarding her identity as a young person, Nija Pursley said she always felt different and out of place. “It is surreal and like something out of a movie that you don’t really imagine,” she said. “My mom kept it from me that he was my biological father until I was 11-years-old, so I didn’t really know anything about him until about 12 years ago, and I’m 23 right now,” Ms. Pursley said.
With the advent of what Michelle Alexander identified in her landmark book, “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness in 2010,” and what is popularly labeled by activists as the ‘Prison Industrial Complex,’ Clinton Era policies of the 1990s, coupled with state and federal cuts to the social safety net, hamstrung entire communities and led to the scapegoating, targeting and overzealous policing and prosecution of primarily young Black men in nearly every municipality across the country.
“When law enforcement is abusive or perceived as abusive, then the problems effect society in ways anticipated and unanticipated, and I think can result in a breakdown of law enforcement’s ability to protect the citizens that they are tasked with protecting,” said Professor Karen Daniel, Director of the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University’s Pritzker School of Law in a telephone interview. “If there is a perception that they are abusing their citizens, or that they’re not trustworthy, then they won’t be trusted by the citizens and they won’t be able to solve crimes or prevent crimes and, to me, that is what we see happening in a lot of major metropolitan areas in our country,” she said.
Concerning the role of The Center on Wrongful Convictions, in addressing issues of bias or wrongdoing within the criminal justice system, Professor Daniel said that Northwestern University’s program is only one of many organizations trying to shine a light on such problems and as an institution, she sees it working both to vindicate individuals such as Mr. Pursley and to bring attention to the importance of truth in the courts.
“There are big questions that society is grappling with right now; mass incarceration, racism in the system, and our issue is primarily accuracy in the system,” Professor Daniel noted. “Sometimes, as the result of lawsuits that follow wrongful convictions, further information is brought to light about what led to the wrongful conviction in the first place,” she said.
Regarding legislative initiatives and proposals designed to address disparities and injustices within the Illinois criminal justice system, Dr. Litesa Wallace, State Representative of Illinois’ 67th District and a member of the Illinois Legislative Black Caucus, said that Illinois became one of the first states in the nation to implement policing reforms to address practices such as stop-and-frisk, racial profiling and other practices negatively affecting police-community relations.
“We did get these policing reform bills signed, that were signed by Governor Rauner, after the Legislative Black Caucus led the charge, in 2016, and then recently, we supported legislation to give what’s known as a Certificate of Innocence, so that individuals are able to access the resources necessary (to recover) from a wrongful conviction. We have to be intentional about creating policies that heal communities and to make them whole,” State Representative Wallace said.
Student Minister Yahcolyah Muhammad, of The Nation of Islam Rockford Study Group, said the Honorable Minister Louis Farrakhan said that injustice at the hands of government destroys the fabric of society because those sworn to uphold justice and law are seen as failing to perform their duty. “Anytime someone is wrongly convicted, it can destroy or tear away at one’s belief or confidence in the justice system,” the Student Minister said. “This is why there is protest, this is why there is an upheaval, and this is why there is a lack of confidence in the justice system of America.” he said.