Good Kids Bad City
Kyle Swenson
Contributed by Greta Venegas
Chapter 9
Summary

Besides writing about his meetings with a number of people who had key information regarding Kwame’s case, Swenson explores the flaws that permeate the United States criminal justice system. He begins by narrating how he and Kwame visited Arthur Avenue — the street where Kwame, Wiley, and Rickey had all lived on before their arrests — in search of old witnesses, or anyone who could remember the 1975 murder. Kwame was surprised that a lot of people still remembered the case vividly despite three decades having already passed. Swenson met with Karen Smith, then a master’s degree holder working with developmentally challenged children, who continues to maintain her original argument that Ronnie, Rickie, and Wiley were not the men involved in Mr. Frank’s murder. Swenson describes how he later learned that Ed Vernon worshipped at The Emmanuel Christian Church; after a few calls, he was finally able to connect with Ed. However, upon Swenson asking him about his opinion regarding the inconsistencies in his testimony, Ed immediately hung up. Swenson would later publish an article titled What the Boy Saw, laying out the facts he had gathered concerning the case. To his dismay, the article did not capture as much public interest as he and Kwame had anticipated.

There was a time when Swenson thought that wrongful convictions were virtually impossible. He had believed that the U.S. Constitution had any and all loopholes covered — just as Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor had once asserted that “the Constitution offers unparalleled protections against convicting the innocent” (Swenson, 2019, p. 146). Swenson says that it was not until DNA technology was allowed into the legal system, in the 1980s, that the flawed nature of the American criminal justice system was laid bare. Furthermore, he asserts that DNA testing was key in the 873 exonerations that were recorded between 1989 and 2012.

Swenson further argues that the politicization of crime, occasioned by presidential decrees like “War on Crime” and “War on Drugs”, may have brought negative and unexpected results. He goes on to describe how the federal government’s entrance into local law enforcement, with an emphasis on data, brought about the rise of a statistics-driven culture that favored high conviction numbers over slow-but-accurate investigations. Such politicized, tough-on-crime rhetoric was what ejected reformists like Carl Stokes from office, and “emboldened a reactionary police force that stomped through Cleveland with a little regard” — culminating in a feeling of isolation from within the African American community (Swenson, 2019, p. 156).

Analysis

The wrongful convictions and long imprisonments of Ronnie, Rickey, and Wiley are evidence of the flawed nature in the American criminal justice system. Swenson brings out the irony in the conviction of three innocent men and their incarceration for such a long period, despite their persistent cries of innocence — and under a criminal justice system that was hailed by a former Supreme Court judge as one that had enough protections to prevent wrongful convictions. He posits that the huge percentage of exonerations, backed by DNA evidence, and where the legal system had failed to identify wrongful convicts, is further proof that the U.S. criminal justice system is deeply flawed. Swenson is also of the perception that tough-on-crime rhetoric is partly to blame for entrenching the isolation of many poor minority communities, such as the African Americans in Cleveland.

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