The justice system in the state of Louisiana is inherently flawed. I can say that without a doubt. Since 2002, 49 death sentences have been reversed and 5 people have been exonerated. Since the reinstatement of the death penalty in Louisiana, 10 people total have been exonerated—10 people lucky enough to get someone to fight and help them prove their innocence. Most estimates suggest that at least 4% of the people on death row are innocent, so given there are 85 people currently on death row and 28 who have been executed, that leaves at least 4 people who are either innocent and fighting for life or have already been wrongly executed by a state that messes up pretty damn often considering how many exonerations and reversals have happened in the last 13 years.
Not only is the system there often erroneous, studies have also proven it to be extremely biased. 32% of Louisiana’s population is Black, but Blacks make up almost 66% of the death row population. Studies have found that if a minority defendant is accused of killing a white person, death is given almost twice as often as if the victim is black. If the victim is a white woman, the likelihood of death is 12 times greater. Even though more than 70% of murder victims in Louisiana are black, only 33% of the victims in death penalty cases are. Those differences are glaringly obvious to even the amateur statistician.
Of the 12 death sentences that have been handed out in the last 4 years in Louisiana, ¾ have come from 1 county, Caddo Parrish, and 2 prosecutors. One of those prosecutors, Dale Cox, has gone on record saying that more people *should* be killed by the state and that death row inmates spend far too long behind bars before being executed. Still, he spent almost a year waiting to sign forms to release a man when evidence exonerated him from the crime for which he was sentenced to die. Time is only important when it comes to killing inmates not when it’s about actually handing out justice. He also loudly denies the existence of racial disparities in the justice system proudly pushing forward to seek more death sentences despite the fact that in his county a white person has never been sentenced to death for killing a black person. Not one.
As I said to a new friend of mine recently, Louisiana fucks up a lot.
In the past couple of months, I have had the pleasure of getting to know one of those innocent men that reside in Angola at Louisiana State Penitentiary, a man sentenced in, of course, Caddo Parrish and whose case was prosecuted by none other than Dale Cox. I originally read an article about him published in the New Yorker and was compelled to reach out to see how I might help. And now, I would like to share with you some of his story and a little about the man himself.
Rodricus Crawford, Hot Rod to his friends, is a well-spoken, comical, and easy going guy that loves to make people laugh. He adores his daughter and lights up so much when he talks about her that you can hear it in his voice. You don’t hear him complain much about anything which is astounding given everything he has been through, but he puts his faith in God and has a huge family that continues to love and support him through the fight of his life, for his life.
About a week after Rodricus’ son Roderius turned a year old, Rodricus woke up to find the baby unresponsive. He called for his mom to help him out while his brother called 911. It took 20 minutes for an ambulance to finally show up to help the child despite the fact that the family frantically told 911 dispatchers that CPR was having no effect. In fact, the ambulance drivers dispatched to the house, when asked what was taking so long, responded without concern that one of the 100 people living in the house probably slept on the kid. When they finally did arrive at the house, the baby was taken to the back of the ambulance, the doors were closed, and the EMTs refused to provide Rodricus or even anyone else in the family with any respect or any answers.
From the start, race played a factor in this case.
When the police arrived, Rodricus was treated like a suspect from the start. He was almost immediately put into the back of a police car without any answers about how his child was doing. Instead of being taken to the hospital to check on their child, both Rodricus and his son’s mother were driven to the police department instead and questioned about bruises on the child’s lip and head. As both explained, the injuries occurred the day before when the baby being clumsy like babies are fell in the bathroom. He busted his lip but after a little ice and the some affection from his dad, the kiddo shook it off and, as his mom told the police, was happy and playing like always.
The police, though, had made up their mind anyway. It didn’t help that the forensic pathologist in this case decided after an autopsy of the child’s body that he had died by asphyxiation due to an acute episode of smothering. He also found bruises on the child’s bottom.
Rodricus was brought in for questioning again that day and again grilled about his treatment of the child. Again, he told the police that he had fallen in the bathroom. He also stressed that he would never spank or hit his child. When the police told him the cause of death was smothering, Rodricus was in total disbelief and shock. He had just woken up the day before to find his child unresponsive and not breathing. In the span of little over 24 hours, he not only lost his child but he was being accused of killing that child himself.
He was arrested for murder, first degree murder, and Dale Cox, of course, immediately decided to seek the death penalty for what he believed to be a most grievous transgression.
There are a lot of problems with the above information, however, considering that there is no physical or scientific way the child could have died in an episode of acute smothering.
The forensic pathologist in this case, for one, knew that little Roderius had pneumonia at the time of his death, but this was a fact that he completely disregarded as having anything to do with the cause of death in this case. Nevermind, he must have thought, that pneumonia is the leading cause of death by infectious disease worldwide for children under the age of 5. The pathologist found cerebral edema (swelling of the brain) and concluded this was caused by smothering.
Several experts have since taken a look at the forensic reports in this case, experts hired by a law firm that has taken on Rodricus’ case pro bono to try and help him prove his innocence. I want to include some key statements from several reports below.
Dr. Janice J. Ophoven M.D., a forensic pathologist with 30 years of special training and experience in the evaluation, investigation, and interpretation of injuries in childhood:
- · “onset of brain swelling takes time and typically peaks at 48-72 hours after hypoxic injury. Presence of brain swelling indicates that the boy’s brain damage did not result from an acute episode of smothering inflicted at the time of cardiac arrest. Complete occlusion of the airway will result in loss of consciousness in 1 ½ to 2 minutes with irreversible damage and death in 4 to 5 minutes. Brain swelling will not develop within the short time period in such an occurrence.
- · “the boy was suffering from a condition [pneumonia] that led to brain swelling over a period of hours”
- · “My review of the autopsy photographs shows a small bruise on the inner aspect of the right lower lip and linear discoloration of the margin of the left aspect of the upper lip. The discolorations have the appearance of superficial bruises. These bruises are not specific for the inflicted injury”
- · “The significant evidence/basis for the diagnosis of smothering came from the finding superficial bruises to the face and lips. In my opinion, the explanation for these bruises was from the fall the preceding day with these injuries verified by the baby’s mother the day before his death. Simple falls are exceedingly common in children in this age.”
- · “Because this injury was considered to be a critical finding in the determination of cause of death, microscopic sampling of the injured tissue to determine the presences of inflammation in the tissue would be a critical aspect of the autopsy”
- · “None of these areas of bruising showed a pattern indicative of abuse and did not contribute to the baby’s death.”
- · About the one tissue injury which was microscopically examined: “this could not have occurred at the time of his death”
- · What was described [in the forensic pathologist’s reports] as early bronchopneumonia in fact shows multifocal areas of acute, purulent pneumonia with an area of abscess formation…that most certainly could serve as a source of bacterial sepsis or spread of bacteria into the bloodstream.
Daniel J. Spitz, M.D., forensic pathologist and toxicologist, Chief Medical Examiner for both Macomb County and St. Clair County in Michigan
- · “It is my determination that Roderius died secondary to septic complications associated with bilateral pneumonia and pulmonary abscess”
- · “Bacterial pneumonia is a very serious condition which often develops in the background of a viral illness. The symptoms associated with such an illness are often quite subtle and non-specific, however, the infection can be rapidly progressive to the point of causing a child to become gravely ill or die over a period of hours”
- · “The pneumonia that affected [the child] was a very serious condition which resulted in sepsis as indicated by a positive blood culture”
- · In relation to the bruising: “the injuries are of relative minor severity and not what would be associated with causing death”
- · “The small bruises involving the lips are also non-specific injuries and thus to conclude that these injuries represent asphyxia is without scientific basis”
- · “The idea that this child just happened to be suffering from bilateral pneumonia and pulmonary abscess with a positive blood culture at the same time that someone purposely caused his death by suffocation is simply implausible. Furthermore, the facts of this case simply do not support such a conclusion”
It should also be noted that Mr. Spitz was retained during Rodricus’ original trial but did not provide attorneys with information about cerebral edema in his original report. Both attorneys provided affidavits claiming they did not know cerebral edema was not associated with acute smothering and would have brought this information to light at trial if they had known. Dr. Spitz later stated in a second affidavit that, “it is my opinion that cerebral edema is not consistent with death due to homicidal suffocation. Cerebral edema may develop over the course of hours and/or days in response to hypoxia where the patient survives the hypoxic event, but does not develop when an individual dies during or immediately following the hypoxic or anoxic event.”
Margarita Silio, M.D., M.P.H., Associate Professor of Pediatrics, Section of Pediatric Infections Disease, Tulane University Health Sciences Center. Affiliated with Tulane Clinic for Children, Medical Center of Louisiana, and the Ruth Fertel Community Clinic.
- · “Based on the autopsy report there was evidence of bilateral bronchopneumonia with focal microabscess in all lung fields with an area of necrosis in one lung field”
- · “It is my opinion that there is sufficient evidence of infection to support a conclusion that the child died of overwhelming sepsis”
- · In regards to the fall both Rodricus and Roderius’ mother stated occurred on the day before Roderius’ death: “ Given the known history of the reported fall in the bathroom with subsequent ‘busted’ lip, microscopic sections of these injuries must be taken in order to substantiate or refute whether the histological inflammatory changes that can be observed microscopically and develop in a systematic way over time are compatible with the history offered as to how these injuries occurred”
- · “Biopsies of tissue samples taken from these injuries to the inside of the lip would have revealed whether they occurred on the prior day…” The indication here is that if these injuries were the major evidence of smothering as indicated by the original pathologist, dating should have been done on the injured tissue in order to substantiate or refute the claims that the child fell in the bathroom.
- · “There was no fresh blood found on the bedding which supports the conclusion that the injuries were older injuries”
- · “Older infants, toddlers, including a one-year old, and children will struggle against the effort to prevent them from breathing, and in doing so I would expect to see areas of abrasion on the exposed areas of the body such as the shoulders, buttocks, and iliac crest areas. In my experience the forensic pathologist would expect to see more evident trauma in the older infant or toddler such as bruised on the arms, chest, and legs where the child is pinned down”
- · “Only two microscopic sections of the brain were taken. This is an inadequate number of areas sampled and thus potentially valuable evidence was lost”
- · Brain swelling does not occur in smothering as the individual dies very rapidly. Brain swelling is due to brain hypoxia/anoxia and can occur from prolonged hypoxia such as in cases of bronchopneumonia with sepsis.
These findings shared above are only from *some* of the experts who have reviewed this case in an attempt to help free Rodricus. Not a single one of the pathologists and doctors consulted in this case believe there is any indication at all that the child died from an acute trauma like smothering and report that the evidence shows without question that the illness, bronchopneumonia, is the cause of death. It takes hours for a brain to show signs of swelling and any pathologist *should* know this and should not use cerebral edema as proof of death due to acute smothering. The pathologist also did not date tissue samples. Given how much the case rested on these bruises as proof of smothering, these injuries *should* have been tested. At no time was this case treated rationally or scientifically. In fact, from the 911 call forward, Rodricus was pigeon-holed and stereotyped.
An innocent man is giving up the best years of his life to a very racist system, sent to his death by a prosecutor that wants to execute as many people as possible, by a forensic pathologist who is completely incompetent and biased, and by a jury who was mislead entirely by “evidence” that actually should have shown that no crime was even committed.
At the bottom of this, I am going to include links to a petition and the original New Yorker article as well as some links where I gathered the information about Louisiana’s system. But before I leave you with those, I want to ask for your help in spreading that petition and the article. Show your friends. Tweet it to every media outlet you can. An innocent man shouldn’t have to die in a county that prides itself on carrying out legal lynchings… With that, I want to leave you with Hot Rod’s own words:
“There has been a major miscarriage of justice and now is the time to right this wrong. We need your help. Please read the attached information provided by some of the top medical experts in the nation.
We are not asking you to take our word. We aren’t asking you to believe what we are telling you. We want you to read these reports and reach your own conclusions.
Read this information and try to imagine that it was your son, your brother, your father, your firend, your nephew, your loved one sitting in a cell 23 hours each day. All it takes for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing.
What are you going to do?
I thank you in advance for any assistance you may provide. I believe in the goodness of human kind.
I often use Sunday Confessions to talk about subjects I feel passionately about. This case and the well-being and freedom of Rodricus, someone I now consider a friend, is one of those things. The prompt was Share and I felt there was no better time to share this story than now. Thank you for reading.