At age 17, high school football player Brian Banks was wrongfully convicted of rape. He spent five years in prison, and was exonerated in May 2012. Last week, Banks signed with the Atlanta Falcons, and the country rejoiced.
Not surprisingly, some men’s rights activists are hailing this as a victory for their cause. They shouldn’t be. They’re right that Banks’ exoneration, and his new career, are good news, but the Banks case is not an example of a victory for men everywhere (when, when will there finally be a victory for men?!). Rather, it’s a rare instance of our justice system eventually doing right by the wrongfully convicted.
Cases like Banks’, in which a person is wrongfully convicted and later exonerated, are the exception, not the rule. While it’s next to impossible to calculate the exact number of innocent people in prison, we know this: there are a lot. Some people are never exonerated. Those that are exonerated are left to fend for themselves after years in prison, and without any resources or support system. If men’s rights activists are as incensed as they claim to be about our broken justice system, where is their anger at cases like the West Memphis Three, which left three innocent men in prison for decades? A search for “Brian Banks” on Reddit’s “men’s rights” subforum turns up a seemingly never-ending list of results. A search for “West Memphis” yields one result.
Men’s rights activists are also stuck on the question of what should happen to Wanetta Gibson, the then-15-year-old girl who accused Banks. I have no idea what was going through Gibson’s mind when she did this, and I’m not saying she was in the right. She did a terrible thing. But who owes us more: a private citizen, or our judiciary system? Clearly, the latter, whose very job it is to make sure that justice prevails in our society. So why aren’t men’s rights advocates demanding accountability from the system that pressured Banks into taking a plea bargain? Banks reports that his lawyer advised him to take the plea deal because jurors would see him as a “big black teenager,” and assume his guilt. You heard that right: Banks’ lawyer told him that a plea bargain was his best option because jurors assume black people are guilty.
Obviously, the questions at hand are much more complex than “what should we do to punish accusers?” We’re dealing with a complex, deeply-entrenched web of systemic racism and classism. Indeed, Gibson lied, and that’s a terrible thing, and I have no idea why she did that. No one is excusing her actions. But a primary function of our justice system is to determine when an accuser is being truthful and when they are not. 15-year-olds are idiots, and our justice system should be smarter than they are. Gibson accused Banks of a crime, and there was no evidence to support her claim. Yet Banks, like 95% of defendants in the US, was advised by his lawyer to take a plea bargain.
Accepting a plea bargain means that the defendant pleads guilty to certain charges -- essentially forfeiting their right to a jury trial -- in exchange for a more lenient sentence. In other words, if they opt to go to trial- their constitutional right- they will likely be punished with a harsher sentence. The Innocence Project estimates that some 95% of US cases are resolved by plea bargain. Who are the defendants taking the plea bargains? They’re usually “poor, uneducated, [and] a minority member.” Faced with the choice between a plea deal or the prospect of decades of prison time, it’s understandable why a defendant would opt for the former. Unfortunately, in many cases, a plea bargain is their best bet.
I’m no big-city math guy, but these numbers are terrible. Plea bargains, at least in their present form, are no solution to anything. They’re a loophole for getting around the right to trial by jury, and they’re a leading cause of wrongful conviction. Yet they are a mainstay of our legal system, and continue to affect minorities, the poor, and, as men’s rights advocates should know, men.
Brian Banks was exonerated while still young, and he’s already on his way to a budding career. That is exactly how it should work out for the wrongfully convicted. We should celebrate the turnout of Banks case, and then we should ask what we can do to make stories like his less of a rarity.
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