Lives (and Votes) Lost

Nothing ties Larry Peterson to the rape and murder of Jacqueline Harrison but the stubborn say-so of the Burlington County prosecutor’s office. Their obstinance makes sense when you consider that Peterson is planning a civil suit and demanding an investigation into those responsible for his wrongful conviction and 17 years in prison.

“They took one lie after another and just built a case on that,” said Peterson. “Being a poor black man, or anyone that’s poor, and can’t defend himself because you don’t have money to obtain a good attorney — you up the creek. So I got jacked up.”

On Aug. 24, 1987 Harrison was found strangled on a dirt road in Burlington County. Harrison’s best friend and ex-boyfriend told prosecutors Peterson had scratches on his arms.

After learning he was a suspect, Peterson went to police to declare his innocence. He was charged with capital murder and sexual assault — in March 1989 he was convicted.

In July 2005 his conviction was vacated based on DNA evidence that proved his innocence. The semen found on Harrison, as well as the blood underneath her fingernails, did not belong to Peterson ­ that person’s identity is still unknown.

Even so, the Burlington County prosecutor Robert D. Bernardi announced he would re-try Peterson. In August 2005, Peterson was finally released ­ after borrowing thousands of dollars for his $200,000 bail.

In May of this year the prosecution finally agreed to drop all charges.

The Burlington County prosecutor’s office has yet to admit Peterson’s innocence. The prosecutor actually opposed testing the DNA that ultimately exonerated him.

The New Jersey Attorney General’s Office did not respond to requests for comment about if they planned to investigate the Burlington County prosecutor’s office and the detectives on Peterson’s case.

The prosecutor’s office still refuses to even apologize to Peterson. In an e-mail to City Belt Ray Milavsky, First Assistant in the Burlington office, wrote:

“You have asked: Do we plan to issue an apology to Larry Peterson. My question to you is why would we? It is apparent from your questions that you are of the impression that the DNA evidence in this case completely exonerates Mr. Peterson. This just simply is not the case when one studies the entire proofs of the trial and the investigation.”

Milavsky said they are looking for the person whose DNA was found on Harrison, but do not necessarily believe this person is the killer.

“The defense would argue that this mystery donor is in fact the killer. Certainly it is a theory that could be advanced to a jury and create the reasonable doubt that would result in a finding of not guilty,” he wrote to City Belt. “It is for this reason that we have dismissed the prosecution, as we have an ethical responsibility not to prosecute cases where there is a reasonable doubt. Reasonable doubt does not mean that Mr. Peterson is innocent.”

Milavsky then went on to offer the “evidence” of witnesses who revealed non-public details of the crime — allegedly learned from Peterson’s confession to them.

Vanessa Potkin, an attorney for the Innocence Project who worked on Peterson’s case, pointed out that the three witnesses only told police about the confession after they were interrogated.

The two men who included key details of the crime, allegedly learned from Peterson’s confession, were interrogated by the same investigators, she added.

One of the witnesses, Robert Elder, has since admitted he lied and incorporated information he heard from investigators about the murder into his statement, according to the New York Times.

“The state hasn’t offered me anything,” said Peterson. “Nothing. Nothing but suck the life out of me and they’re still doing it everyday.”

Tried for capital murder but sentenced to life, he now volunteers with New Jerseyans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty. Lorry Post, a member of the group’s executive committee whose daughter was murdered, greeted Peterson outside the jail when he was released.

But proof of his innocence wasn’t the panacea Peterson hoped it would be ­ or that it should be.

“I had to search and make my way,” he said. “If I hadn’t had anyone I don’t think I would have made it.”

Peterson, 55, now works for $8 per hour as a carpenter’s assistant.

“I can’t get a decent job for the mere fact that I got this on my record,” he said. “I’m out there busting my butt everyday for nothing. What is $8 an hour if you have to take care of yourself?”

He continues: “I go out on speaking engagements but now I have become a very angry person because after I finish speaking to these people, these people — they can drive, they can go home, they can lay comfortably in their homes, but I don’t have a home. I don’t have a car. I don’t even have a driving license. I don’t have a decent job.”

Upon his release from prison, all he was given was information on where to find clothes and a halfway house.

“I live with my mom,” said Peterson. “It’s not a bad place to be but I want my own.”

He continues: “I used to be independent. I was trying to build my life and everything was going well until this happened. Life was just taken from me.”

Voting Takes a Back Seat

One of the many rights taken from Peterson those 17 years was his right to vote. While he could register after he was released (although he was never told), sheer survival took priority.

“I never even tried to register to vote,” said Peterson. “I’ve just been trying to put my life in order. It’s a struggle every day.”

This week many of those like Peterson, who have been released from prison, won’t be voting. New Jersey disenfranchises people on parole or probation who were convicted of an indictable offense, as well as those who are in prison.

In 1799 the state banned anyone “convicted of blasphemy, treason, murder, piracy, arson, rape, sodomy, or any infamous crime against nature,” among other offenses, from voting. The New Jersey Supreme Court ruled in 1948 that “this particular category of crimes and its intent was to maintain the purity of our elections by excluding those would be voters whose status was deemed to be inimical thereto,” according to a 2000 New Jersey Policy Perspective report.

Legislative and courtroom efforts to restore the vote have, so far, been unsuccessful.

The governor’s office did not return calls for comment.

“At least two democratic legislators have introduced enfranchisement bills for people on parole and probation with little success and with little support from either party,” explained Deborah Jacobs, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey. “Most likely, rather than a question of fairness, felony enfranchisement seems to correlate with a fear of ‘being soft on crime,’ as well as the fact that the present system works well for the incumbent legislators who tend to resist any change to election reform that will change the status-quo.”

In New Jersey, out of the 115,000 or so people convicted of a felony who can’t vote, fewer than 30,000 are in prison, according to Rutgers law professor Frank Askin’s 2004 report for New Jersey Policy Perspective.

Felony disenfranchisement does not affect all populations equally. The racism in New Jersey’s criminal justice system ­ from laws to arrest to trial to sentencing ­ is common knowledge. The state has the fourth largest percentage of minority inmates in the country ­ 79 percent ­ even though blacks and Hispanics compose only 29 percent of the state population.

And this inequality is reflected in the voter rolls — or who’s barred from the rolls.

More than 60 percent of the parolees and probationers who are disenfranchised in New Jersey are black or Latino, according to the ACLU-NJ. Nationwide, these disenfranchisement policies prevent 2.5 percent of the total population from voting but bar 13 percent of the total population of black men from voting, according to the ACLU.

The War on Drugs and The Vote

New Jersey also has the highest percentage of inmates in prison for drug offenses ­ 34 percent — meaning that many of those who lose the vote are non-violent offenders. Minorities make up 90 percent of drug offenders in New Jersey prisons, testified Richard J. Williams, Administrative Director of the Courts, before the NJ Senate Judiciary Committee in 2004.

Mandatory sentencing contributes to this inequality and disenfranchisement. For example, distributing five grams of crack carries the same federal minimum sentence ­ five years ­ as distributing 500 grams of powder cocaine, according to the ACLU.

New Jersey’s drug-free school zones, which increase sentences for drug offenses committed within 1000 feet of a school, also target people in urban areas. Ninety-six percent of those who were imprisoned for a drug-free school zone offense are black or Latino, according to a 2005 report by the New Jersey Commission to Review Criminal Sentencing. The legislature created the committee in 2004; its members include prosecutors, legislators and public defenders.

The commission also found that fewer than 2 out of 10 rural drug distribution offenses occur within school zones versus more than 8 out of 10 urban distribution offenses. Out of the 90 school zone cases studied, none involved selling drugs to minors, the commission reported. And just 2 of the cases even occurred on school property.

“The disproportional impact of the State’s school zone law on minority populations is apparent,” testified Williams. “[N]early every street corner in urban centers is within a school zone…”

While drug-free zones blanket 75 percent of Newark, they cover only 6 percent of Mansfield Township, the Justice Policy Institute found.

This all adds up to longer sentences and fewer votes for New Jersey’s black and Latino residents.

But even after someone is eligible to vote, like Peterson, they may run into trouble. Their names may not be on the rolls on election day or they might never be informed of their rights, said Jacobs. However, some progress has been made, she noted.

“We partnered with the Department of Corrections under the previous administration to provide all inmates completing their sentences with voter registration forms and ‘How-To’ packets,” she said. “The State Parole Board requires that parole staff provide parolees completing parole with a voter registration form.”

But more education, oversight and funding is still needed.

“Our own outreach has shown that there is massive misinformation about voting requirements in New Jersey, including among corrections and election officials as well as the affected citizens themselves,” she said.

Enfranchisement isn’t just about offering someone the technical right to vote ­ poll taxes, literacy tests and voter intimidation have clearly shown that. Without access and education, the right to vote remains theoretical for many, and for those incarcerated, on parole or probation, impossible.

ELIZABETH WEILL-GREENBERG writes for City Belt, where this piece originally appeared. She can be reached at Elizabeth@citybelt.org.


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