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Sentenced to Death for Marijuana Possession: Wrongful Conviction of Black Man in Louisiana

2015-07-04

A twenty-three year old black man, Rodericus Crawford, was sentenced to death after his one-year old son died in bed with him, of pneumonia.  His conviction hinged on a bad autopsy that was done by the forensic pathologist for Shreveport, in Caddo Parish, Louisiana.  A story giving full details was published in last week’s New Yorker (combined issue, July 6 and 13, 2015.)

The infant had a prior minor injury that occurred one day before his death: a fall in the bathroom that resulted in a minor cut on his lip and a bruise above his eye.  The autopsy showed bruising around the lips that must have occurred during postmortem attempts at resuscitation, bruises on the buttocks,  and pneumonia, as well as cerebral edema.  The pathologist diagnosed “chronic child abuse” and claimed that the infant had been smothered.  The presence of cerebral edema, however, contradicted this cause of death because smothering or suffocation does not cause cerebral edema: the victim dies before edema can get started.  The edema must have been due to the pneumonia.  The parents had reported that the infant had had “a little cold” and had been treated with a nasal aspirator for congestion; rapid progression and death from pneumonia and sepsis can occur within a few hours without the caretakers awareness of severe acute illness, especially during night-time hours.

The man responsible for the trial, conviction, and death penalty, however, was named Dale Cox, the first assistant district attorney of Caddo Parish.  He has a positive obsession with killing black people for perceived crimes and had been responsible for more than a third of the death sentences in Louisiana.  His parish, Caddo Parish, is home to unreconstructed racists from the Confederacy and was the last capital of this renegade regime during the Civil War.  This parish also had the second most lynchings of any county in the South.

After the trial, three pathologists were enlisted to write autopsy reports that contradicted the one used to convict this man: all agreed that the infant had died of pneumonia and sepsis.  A blood test confirmed that sepsis was present.  Daniel Spitz, a forensic pathologist who had already co-authored a pathology textbook that is popular in medical schools, stated that his autopsy results made it impossible to try the father for supposedly murdering the infant.  He stated that the original pathologist had diagnosed homicide “on what seemed like a whim.”

The prosecutor, who received the contradictory autopsy report from Spitz a week before the trial, conceded that it deterred him, but on conferring with the original pathologist, who told him that there was also bruising on the infant’s bottom, he decided to proceed.The pathologist, Traylor, claimed that the pneumonia couldn’t have been severe because the parents didn’t report any fever or rapid heartbeat.

Daniel Cox, the prosecutor, who was sixty-seven at the time of trial, had gone through a divorce and personal bankruptcy in 2005, and some of his colleagues felt that he had become unstable, volatile, and that his usually calm demeanour had deteriorated recently.  The defense attorney, Daryl Gold, who thought that Cox was unusually “nice”, even speculated that Cox had a “brain tumor or something.”  Another defense lawyer, Henry Walker, the former president of the state’s criminal defense bar, wrote to Listserv that Cox had “developed a state of mental unbalance…”

This rabid, unbalanced prosecutor was hell-bent on sentencing Roderius Crawford to death even though he had no proof of his allegation that the infant was smothered.  He used the fact that Crawford had been arrested for marijuana possession as a club at trial to make him and the infant’s mother seem like drug fiends who had brutally murdered their child in a fit of marijuana-induced stupor or sexual frenzy.  He openly played on the jury’s prejudices and ignorance regarding drug use as well as the circumstances of their poverty.  He hammered on the fact that the father and defendant had never held a full-time job (never mind the unemployment rate and lack of opportunities in his neighborhood in Shreveport.)

Rodericus Crawford was  not called to testify by his defense lawyer, although he could have made a sympathetic figure and could have truthfully denied that he had ever abused the infant.

It seems that when Crawford was arrested for possession he was released because the police believed that he had promised to inform on his neighbors, a house five doors down from his that was thought to be a “drug den.”  After his release, he refused to turn “state’s evidence” or “fink” on his friends, so the police were dissatisfied and may have placed his case in line for re-arrest; if so, he would have been held until trial because he had no money for bail.  Crawford’s mother perceived that his prosecution for his son’s death was revenge for his failure to rat on his friends after the original arrest.

There was a pervasive culture of racism where Crawford lived; when he called 911, the dispatchers assumed that he had smothered his son and stated that there were “a hundred people living in that house” (there were five.)  It took over twenty minutes for the ambulance to arrive, and when it did, the paramedics quickly realized that the infant was dead.  There were signs, like jaw rigidity and milky opacification of the corneas, that indicated he had been dead for more than an hour.  However, they excluded the father from the ambulance and never told anyone that the child was  dead.  A crowd quickly formed around the ambulance, and they finally drove away after calling the police and requesting protection from the people (family members and neighbors from whom they had withheld the fact that the child was already dead) surrounding them.  They turned off their lights and sirens as soon as they turned the corner.

The police wouldn’t let Crawford or the mother follow the ambulance to the hospital.  Instead, they immediately detained him and ignored his behavior, which indicated he was severely affected by the incident and already assumed his son to be dead.  His innocence was most clearly expressed by his behavior at that time: he was sobbing uncontrollably despite the mother’s reassurances.

How can you sentence someone to death on such slim evidence, and ignore the dissent of three pathologists who are willing to go on record as stating that the first autopsy was mistaken?  Even if you assume that the infant was smothered, the father clearly did not intend for his son to die, thus could not be convicted of first-degree murder; and manslaughter is usually not a capital crime.  Clearly, Cox is driven by his pathological animosity to black people and is in the driver’s seat when it comes to kidnapping innocent citizens and sending them to be murdered by the apparatus of the state.  We can only hope that this case comes to the Supreme Court and is reversed before the murder can be committed.

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