By Doug Tjapkes

When you met Maurice Carter he was a forgotten man; he died a celebrity. When you met him he was reviled as a dangerous criminal; he died a symbol of wronged innocence. When you met him he had no real friends; he died surrounded by love. The words of Toronto attorney Phil Campbell in a personal note to me.

I must confess that the relationship between Maurice Carter and Doug Tjapkes (pronounced Chap-kes. Sorry but that’s the way the Dutch do things!) didn’t start out that way. I had no intention of helping Maurice Carter. Period.

It was like marrying on the rebound of a bitter divorce for me, and I very tentatively reached out my hand to Maurice. I had just failed miserably in my efforts to help a wrongly convicted prisoner. After two years, no progress whatsoever. I couldn’t even keep our personal relationship intact. The man despised me.

But it was that inmate who introduced me to Maurice Carter, so I must confess that he was part of God’s plan. I resisted Maurice’s hesitant offers of friendship, I resisted any requests to study his case. I almost refused to visit him. This didn’t seem to bother him, and perhaps because of his patience and kindness I agreed to call on him during my travels as a church organ salesman.

As our relationship deepened, against my better judgment, I took a glance or two at the shameful Carter scam of Berrien County. This poor black dude from Gary, Indiana, didn’t have a prayer when he landed in the middle of the judicial system there. The warrant for his arrest was based on a perjured affidavit, the police line-up was held after his picture was published on the front page of the local newspaper, African Americans were effectively kept off the jury, and the key witness became an employee of the prosecutor’s office prior to the trial and was dismissed following the trial! With no physical evidence, no established motive, no fingerprints and no weapon, the prosecutor was rewarded with a guilty verdict based only on conflicting eyewitness identification! An off-duty white cop had been shot and wounded while Christmas shopping in Benton Harbor, Michigan. Some black man was going to pay!

And pay Maurice did! He was over-sentenced for the charge: life in prison! He was never granted parole. He served nearly 29 years for a crime he did not commit. Maurice often said that on that fateful day in 1976, “the wheels of justice ground to a halt in Berrien County!”

Given my 29-year background in broadcast journalism and my growing respect for this soft-spoken inmate, I decided that four hands were better than two. Other well-meaning people had tried to help Maurice over the past 19 years, but no one stuck with it. As a result, he lost the faith he had acquired from his God-fearing mother, and his faith in mankind was seriously tarnished. Even though I grudgingly agreed to help, I still wasn’t sure that I could risk intimate friendship with this guy!

Enter Doug Tjapkes

The more I worked, the more I became convinced that this was a serious case of injustice. And the more we worked together, the deeper our friendship slowly blossomed. Finally, we considered ourselves “family.” I would visit his elderly mom twice a year, loaded down with food, gifts, flowers and greeting cards for Mother’s Day and Christmas. He would send gifts and letters to me, my wife, my kids and my grandchildren! We had a weekly telephone schedule. I visited him when I could. Handshakes turned to hugs. Hugs turned to tears. Tears brought on a lifetime commitment: ‘til death do us part!

God blessed our hard work! First the Wisconsin Innocence Project joined the fight, followed by the Medill Innocence Project and Northwestern University Law School’s Center on Wrongful Convictions. Then came AIDWYC and private attorney Gary Giguere, Jr. Students, professors and attorneys worked at a feverish pitch to prepare a strong argument for a new trial for Maurice Carter. Well-known freedom fighters endorsed the cause: Rubin Hurricane Carter, Professor David Protess, Rob Warden, Larry Marshall, and Toronto’s infamous motorcycle gang, the Illegals.

The community became involved. A loosely-formed citizens committee made massive contributions of time, energy, and even money over the years. Members of the clergy, black and white, men and women, made history by signing a statement demanding a new trial. The Benton Harbor City Commission unanimously adopted a resolution seeking a new trial, this in the very community where the crime had occurred!

By then I had decided to make the third career change in my life and work on behalf of the wrongly-convicted on a full-time basis. Maurice Carter and I would work side-by-side upon his release from prison. The non-profit corporation INNOCENT was formed.

INNOCENT was the perfect partner for the legal team and the citizens committee! Together we began to generate international attention, using tools such as public demonstrations, T-shirts, billboards and press conferences.

Two Serious Blows

There were two things we hadn’t counted on: the stubbornness of the Berrien County judicial system, and a serious health problem for Maurice.

Maurice collapsed in prison in July, 2003, and was informed that he was in the end stage of liver disease. Medical records showed that prison officials were aware of the Hepatitis C problem as early as 1995, but by not informing him they apparently didn’t feel the need to treat him. He would never recover.

The legal efforts collapsed, also.

Brushing aside requests that the court processes be sped up so that Maurice might be able to obtain treatment and evaluation for a liver transplant, Judge John T. Hammond merely shrugged and said, “We all die sometime.”

Brushing aside six years of legal work by some of the nation’s fine lawyers and scholars, Judge John T. Hammond quickly ruled that Maurice didn’t deserve a new trial.

Brushing aside the fact that Maurice had served more time than 99% of all prisoners in the country for similar convictions, Prosecutor James Cherry refused to grant credit for time served which would have paved the way for proper medical care for Maurice.

Free at last!

Realizing that the court system was a dead-end road, we focused on Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm, who could commute the sentence for medical reasons. In a swift about-face, the Michigan Parole Board agreed to recommend commutation, the Governor granted it, and Maurice was freed on July 24, 2004. I was at his side when he walked out of the Duane L. Waters prison hospital, a very sick man, but a very happy man. I’ve never experienced a moment like it!

My brother Maurice survived only three months, many days of which were spent in hospitals battling the devastating effects of a bad liver. But during those same three months he experienced some dreams come true: meeting his mom as a free man, eating a hamburger and barbecued ribs, traveling in the countryside, worshiping in the church that had adopted him. I’m not sure I can claim credit for this, but he often said the efforts of his “big brother” restored his faith in God and in mankind.

A serious staphylococcus infection hampered our goal of obtaining a liver transplant evaluation, and despite our frantic efforts (24 hours a day, 7 days a week at the end!), time ran out. I was at the side of Maurice nearly every day of his freedom, we hugged nearly every day, he thanked me nearly every day. His last words to me, as he was losing consciousness: “I love you.”

Those are the words I live with as I join the team in efforts to set the record straight. Thanks to a lot of hard work and the help of friends and citizens, we know who the shooter is, and we’ll tirelessly go on.

But as a very wise person recently explained to me: we have already cleared the name of Maurice Carter! I take comfort in knowing that thanks, in part, to my background in journalism and my dogged efforts on behalf of my brother, Maurice’s innocence became obvious in news features and editorials. No one familiar with the case harbored any thoughts that he might be guilty. Thanks to the work of every member of the entire team, Maurice Carter’s name is clear! Quite an accomplishment when you consider the job began with four feeble hands and a massive dose of divine intervention just a decade earlier!

As Phil Campbell, that wonderful barrister with AIDWYC put it: The official record shows Maurice to be convicted of attempted murder. But in the eyes of the public, and of many more who studied the case, he achieved exoneration!

*Maurice loved this description of our relationship, credited to a headline writer for the Grand Rapids Press

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