Newly revised version of paper.


This is a story about a case long forgotten. It was a case that needed to be forgotten, to safeguard the meaning of American justice. The case of “Death for a Dollar Ninety-Five” began one July night in Marion, Alabama, in 1957, and soon captured the attention of the world. It involved an African American man, a white woman, and the robbery of a small amount of change late in the evening. The conviction was swift and the penalty was death. International criticism soon rained down on the Alabama Governor and the American Secretary of State, leading to clemency and a life sentence. For $1.95. And the case was forgotten. This story helps us to see the way narratives of American justice and injustice are managed. The United States identifies itself with the rule of law, and so miscarriages of justice are often perceived as breaches in that identity, violations of the nation’s own core principles. Resolutions of miscarriages of injustice, this paper argues, are often about repairing a breach in American identity, making America whole again. What happens to the person at the center of the story is, at best, secondary. For the story to turn out right, the nation is restored, and the person is forgotten.

This essay appears in When Law Fails: Making Sense of Miscarriages of Justice, Austin Sarat and Charles Ogletree, Jr., eds. (NYU Press, 2009).


Civil Rights and Discrimination | Constitutional Law | Criminal Law | Criminal Procedure | Human Rights Law | Law and Society | Legal History | Litigation

Date of this Version

May 2010