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The ‘they’re out to get me’ jailhouse letter

Updated: Jun 20

Ned Seaton

Daily Sentinel

June 9, 2024

There’s a story I’ve heard dozens — maybe hundreds — of times in my 34-year career as a professional journalist.

Goes like this: “The cops are corrupt. The witnesses were in cahoots. The prosecutor had it in for me. The judge was biased against me. The jury was rigged.

“Here, look at the evidence. The evidence is … that they arrested, convicted and sentenced me. That should tell you all you need to know. Because I didn’t do it, and so that proves it was a giant conspiracy against me!”

There are a lot of variants. Some involve the FBI, or, say, the governor, or the mayor, or the unit commander, or the person in charge of the homeless shelter. Many are immediately wild, involving satellites,or parabolic listening devices.

Often there’s a ham-handed appeal along the lines of: “If you were a REAL journalist, you’d uncover the truth! What, are you afraid of the truth? Do you just print what the government tells you?”

That one is, of course, galling. But I learned, after years of struggle, how to set aside ad-hominen attacks, even passive-aggressive ones like that. The issue is not me, or my profession. The issue is: What are the facts?

You have to start there. There’s one fact, in the event of a criminal conviction, that’s awfully hard to get past. That fact is that a jury of 12 independent human beings unanimously decided that, beyond a shadow of doubt, the prosecutors proved that the person on trial committed the crime. This despite the fact that the accused had his own defense lawyer, who gets paid to persuade just one of those jurors that there is a shadow of doubt. Also, to assume a conspiracy to subvert justice, you’d have to not only assume the jurors were in on it, and the judge was willing to risk his job, and the prosecutor, and the cops — you’d also have to believe that all their clerks and secretaries and partners and bosses and soon-to-be-ex-wives and drinking buddies could also keep their mouths shut about it.

Is it possible that the entire system was somehow warped, and convicted an innocent person? Yes. We’ve all read those stories, watched those documentaries. The promise of unveiling that is tempting to journalists, who like nothing better than to expose wrongdoing. And so we often ask some questions, and then, depending, ask some more, and keep asking questions.

But never in my career — not once, not in Kansas or California or even Florida — has that actually led anywhere. Nearly all the time, these appeals from the convicted appear scrawled in pencil on notebook paper, mailed from the jail. Usually they are full of drug-fueled lunacy, or else just straight-up psychosis. After, at most, a day or two of inquiry and a review of records by reporters, they end up in the trash can. I’ve learned to leave them there and be comfortable about it, because that’s where they belong.

The criminal justice system is not perfect, since it’s run by humans. But it’s pretty damn good.

Ned Seaton is the publisher of the Manhattan (Kansas) Mercury, a sister publication of The Daily Sentinel.

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