Though the cultural and historic significance of a black Commander-in-Chief has many African-Americans waxing poetic about the so-called realization of Dr. King’s dream, the nightmare that is the United States judicial system continues to ensnare black men around the country as pervasively as in the days of Jim Crow.
Rodney Stanberry, 42, has lived within the walls of that nightmare for 16 years, serving a 20-year sentence for attempted murder in an Alabama prison for the shooting of his best friend’s wife – a crime that he insists he did not commit.
During a home invasion in 1992, Valerie Finley was shot in the head by assailants allegedly attempting to steal the gun collection of her husband, Mike Finley. Though she drifted in and out of a deep coma for three weeks, Mrs. Finley fortunately survived. But when she finally awakened, she identified Stanberry – the one familiar face in a series of photographs presented to her — as one of the men who broke into her home.
There was no forensic evidence placing him at the Finley home at the time of the crime. Witnesses in the close-knit neighborhood said that he was not in the area that day. Even more convincingly, co-workers and a sign-in sheet confirmed that he was at his place of employment when the incident occurred.
Astonishingly, Terrell Moore of Mobile, Alabama confessed to the crime to private investigator Ryan Russell. According to Moore, Angel Melendez was visiting from New York for Mardi Gras when he saw the gun collection in the Finley home. Together the two men plotted to steal them, setting the wheels in motion that would ultimately send an innocent man to prison.
During his incarceration, Stanberry has been denied two appeals. And in an interview I conducted with District Attorney’s Office Chief Investigator Mike Morgan, he made it clear that – even in spite of overwhelming evidence — he sees no legal reason for him to be granted another trial:
“All the evidence was heard by the judge during the trial. A decision was made not to allow the jury to hear Terrell Moore’s testimony. A jury found Mr. Stanberry guilty after a trial; that’s why we have a jury system. I will agree with your statement that eye-witness testimony is the most unreliable testimony, but not in this case. Valerie Finley identified Stanberry; she knew him.
For there to be a new trial, “new and compelling” testimony would have to be presented. Even if the jury was not allowed to hear Moore’s testimony that was a decision made by the judge.”
I believe Rodney has had a number of parole hearings; there has been no new and compelling evidence. Everything you’re talking about was brought before a judge at the time of the case.”
During Stanberry’s trial, Assistant District Attorney Martha Tierney intimidated Moore into pleading the fifth amendment just as he was about testify for the defense. This led to his 50-page confession being thrown out of court. When asked about the obvious scare tactics used by the prosecution, Morgan’s response was dismissive at best:
“Well, it’s everyone’s right not to incriminate themselves.”
See more about the Rodney Stanberry case below:
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In an exclusive interview with Your Black World, Attorney and community activist Eric Welch Guster of Guster Law Firm in Birmingham, Alabama contends that the state has a legal and ethical obligation to make sure that not only is the right person convicted, but that wrongful convictions are overturned:
“With the amount of evidence, it appears to be sufficient enough to at least warrant an inquiry by the District Attorney’s office. Being that they have had a person confess to the crime, they should investigate the confession for validity to see if the wrong man was charged and convicted. The DA’s office has an ethical duty to insure that the correct person is brought to justice and not just A person is brought.
“District Attorneys do not want to say that a mistake was made. But hopefully the new DA will investigate if a mistake was made in this case.
Attorney Guster also questions the validity of Valerie Finley’s identification of Stanberry so soon after waking from a coma:
“[This] seems to be a flawed identification,” said Guster. “The prosecutor should question whether her ID was valid because of her state of mind when the ID was made, her mental capacity when making the ID and whether she fully understood what she was doing. Being in a coma is a traumatic mental health and physical event. A person’s mind and body have both been essentially shut down for some time.
“She may have been picking anyone familiar to her but who may not have been the true perpetrator of the crime. According to what I have read, she was asked if she saw someone familiar. Of course she would pick Mr. Stanberry; he was a family friend. In my professional opinion, this is a flawed and skewed identification.
Though the case seems to have stalled in the district attorney’s office, Guster insists that by no means equals defeat:
“Every case is ultimately the State of Alabama’s. The State has the function and the duty to prosecute these cases. Even with the case being in a county courthouse in Alabama, the charges are listed as State of Alabama vs. Rodney Stanberry. Therefore, the State of Alabama has the ultimate duty to make sure justice is served and the correct person is brought to justice.”
Rodney’s cousin, Dr. Artemesia Stanberry, has been diligently and relentlessly fighting for his release and exoneration. Finally, after over a decade of being stonewalled by the district attorney’s office – and being frustrated by the lack of media attention — support for Rodney Stanberry is finally gaining traction and voice is being given to his story. Black leaders and activists have joined to call for action in this case, and they will not be silenced.
Nationally recognized economist and author, Dr. Julianne Malveaux, asserts that in the United States of America, justice should never be too much to ask:
According to many experts, eyewitness testimony is unreliable,” said Malveaux, the former president of the prestigious Bennett College. “The unreliability of this type of testimony is underscored, in this case, by the fact that an eyewitness later confessed to the crime that Rodney K. Stanberry was convicted of committing.
“This man has served sixteen years for a crime he did not commit; his mother died just a few months ago while he was unjustifiably incarcerated. We are not asking that Mr. Stanberry be released, but simply that the so-called evidence against him is reviewed. This is a reasonable request. Justice demands an affirmative answer.”
Former NBA player and activist, Etan Thomas, speaks passionately about Stanberry’s case, saying that it reeks of inequality and corruption — a clear microcosm of the judicial system as a whole:
“Cases like these make a mockery of the entire justice system,” says Thomas. “If they expect people to have faith in the law, then the law should be able to serve everyone equally; unfortunately it doesn’t. The details of this case are both sickening and disheartening because it reminds us that as far as we have come in this society, we have a long way to go.”
Yes, we do.
Speaking at Rosa Parks’ funeral in 2005, Reverend Al Sharpton discussed the racism in America that fuels the injustice that contaminates the Stanberry case:
Jim Crow is old. That’s not who I’m mindful of today. The problem is that Jim Crow has sons. The one we’ve got to battle is James Crow, Jr., Esquire. He’s a little more educated. He’s a little slicker. He’s a little more polished. But the results are the same.”
Dr. Boyce Watkins agrees with Sharpton’s assessment, that Jim Crow is alive and well, especially in the southern prison system.
“I find it both astonishing and sad that Mobile District Attorney Ashley Rich is refusing to even look at the evidence. From what Rodney’s advocates say, part of the reason that he has been denied parole is because he continues to proclaim his innocence and says he cannot express remorse for a crime he did not commit,” says Dr. Watkins, head of the Your Black World Coalition. “It seems that they are determined to torture a confession out of an innocent man by keeping him in prison until he lies and says that he did it. A person should not be punished for telling the truth.”
In the modern era of James Crow, Jr., Esquire there still hangs strange fruit. Trees, nooses and Klansmen have been replaced with prisons, courts and a caricature of a justice system. The escalator to the mountaintop of Dr. King’s dreams only mimics forward motion – and there will never be authentic and systemic progress if we continue to stand still on the issues of wrongful and mass incarcerations that plague us as a community.
To contact District Attorney Ashley Rich about Rodney’s case, please call: 251-574-6685. To learn more about the case, please visit FreeRodneyStanberry.com