Two Constitutions, Two Legal Systems, and a Man Who Imagined the World as It Should Be

October 9, 2017 | Revolution Newspaper |


A 55-year-old Black man named John Thompson died in New Orleans on October 3. Thompson spent 18 years of his life in the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola—an infamous torture chamber. Fourteen of those years were on death row, and he was scheduled for execution seven times, all for crimes he was falsely convicted of in a trial where the prosecutors withheld evidence of his innocence.

A lawyer friend of John Thompson said Thompson often asked why the people who put him behind bars weren’t punished. Thompson would go over the legal statutes for kidnapping and attempted murder and show how what was done to him—what was very consciously done to him—fit these crimes. The lawyer said Thompson “understood when I said that it doesn’t work that way, but I was describing the way the world is. He was describing the way it should be.”

The U.S. Constitution: The World as It Is... Now

John Thompson’s experience concentrates what so many people—especially Black, Brown, Native American, and other oppressed people—confront in the meat grinder of the U.S. “justice system.” Ripped from your family... charged with crimes you knew nothing about... prosecutors lying and destroying evidence... phony “witnesses” coerced by police and the DA into lying on the stand... a court system that does nothing to guarantee supposed constitutional rights... public defenders routinely prevented from being able to mount any kind of real defense.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1963 that prosecutors must provide defense lawyers with evidence that may be favorable to their case. Louisiana authorities systematically suppressed and destroyed evidence in order to send Thompson to death row.

Thompson’s conviction was overturned in 2002. In 2003 he was acquitted in a retrial. A jury awarded him $14 million—$1 million for each year on death row. The state of Louisiana appealed that ruling.

In 2011, the Supreme Court agreed that prosecutors had violated the 1963 Court mandate. But it also ruled that the “district attorney’s office may not be held liable.” Thompson never received a penny. The point, for Thompson, was never the money—it was some form of justice. Even when the system’s courts acknowledge that their prosecutors and police break their own laws—they refuse to even pretend to provide justice to people they’ve persecuted. The whole murderous chain of repression that has lashed John Thompson and millions of others is reinforced and legitimized by the legal system, concentrated in the U.S. Constitution and upheld all the way up to the Supreme Court.

This is not simply because of racist police, prosecutors, judges, and jailers—although there is plenty of that. More fundamentally, it is because the U.S. Constitution provides a framework that appears to treat everyone equally and claims to provide “justice for all,” but actually both covers over and reinforces the deep inequalities and divisions foundational to the capitalist economic, social, and political system. In actual fact, what kind of legal representation you get hinges on what social class you are in—how much money you have to hire lawyers, to be blunt.

In particular, for about 230 years the U.S. Constitution has served to legitimize the oppressed—and, for many decades, enslaved—status of Black people. This was certainly true under slavery, whose existence—while never explicitly mentioned in the Constitution—saturated the entire document. (See Bob Avakian’s latest talk, “The Problem, the Solution, and the Challenges Before Us,” on this.) Even after the Constitution was amended, following the Civil War, to recognize the legal and civil rights of Black people, for many years the Supreme Court ruled that laws stigmatizing Black people were actually legitimate. And even after the most egregious of such laws were found to be unconstitutional, the way in which the Constitution purports to recognize individual rights only, and not social inequalities (inequalities and oppressive relations between different groups), still serves to legitimize the kinds of things that happened to John Thompson and that continue to happen to all too many people like John Thompson.

Emily Maw, director of the Innocence Project New Orleans, said of her friend John Thompson, “He was angry, and yet he had astounding strength from the moment he got out and a need to channel his anger to doing good in the world. And that is what he did until he died.... [H]e did what he always did with the dreadful injustices life threw at him over and over again: He decided to use it to fight for accountability and more justice for people who came after him.”

How the World Could Be

We do not need to torture our aspirations for justice and emancipation to fit a document that was never intended to foster either. A better world IS possible. The Constitution for the New Socialist Republic in North America, authored by Bob Avakian and adopted by the Revolutionary Communist Party, USA, provides the legal framework and guiding principles and processes for a radically new form of state power that would be established after an actual revolution. The power, resources, and institutions of the new state will serve radically different purposes than what exists under this society based on exploitation and oppression.

This will have real meaning and impact in every dimension of society, including the legal sphere and the rights of the individual. Even though state power will now be in the hands of the masses of people, Bob Avakian has recognized that there will still be struggle between different classes and there will still be contradictions between the individual and the state, and he has taken this understanding and its implications to a far deeper level than communism previously understood. But this will be approached and dealt with in a qualitatively different, night-and-day different way. One big thing this would mean: there will be no more John Thompsons—arrested unjustly, railroaded to prison, with indifferent or overworked public defenders up against the full resources of the state, tortured for over a decade.

From the Constitution for the New Socialist Republic in North America, Article 1, Section 2, D, 2:

As a key part of providing the fullest protection for the rights and liberties of the people, and more specifically the defense of their rights in situations where they are accused of crimes—as well as in other proceedings where citizens or residents of this Republic are confronting the government as a legal adversary and have the right to legal representation—there shall be a Department of Legal Defense and Assistance, which shall be funded by the government, as part of the overall budget prepared by the Executive Council, but which shall in every other way be independent of, and operated independently of, the government. Branches of this Department of Legal Defense and Assistance, funded out of the overall government budget, shall also be established in the various regions, including any autonomous regions (or other autonomous areas) which may be established, and other areas of governmental responsibility and administration. The funds and resources allotted for this Department of Legal Defense and Assistance, including its various branches, must be at least equal to those provided, at the corresponding levels of government, for the prosecution of crimes. This Department of Legal Defense and Assistance, and its various branches, shall, with the resources provided by the government, establish the necessary personnel, structures and procedures in order to carry out the functions assigned to it by—and within the overall framework of what is set forth in—this Constitution.

Which world do you want to live in? Which world are you going to fight for?




Volunteers Needed... for and Revolution

Send us your comments.

If you like this article, subscribe, donate to and sustain Revolution newspaper.