The Conversation

Readers respond to January/February and March stories and more.

No Way Out

In the January/February issue, Barbara Bradley Hagerty wrote about Benjamine Spencer, a convict trying to prove his innocence without DNA evidence.

I spent 12 years at the H. H. Coffield Unit with Spencer, and I’ll never forget the first time I saw him. Another prisoner pointed him out: “That’s Spencer, the barber; he’s innocent.” An outsider wouldn’t understand how extraordinary those words were. Among inmates, a guy claiming innocence is such a bloated cliché, it’s beneath contempt. We all know there are countless innocent men inside, yet it’s still a surprise when someone we’ve known for years gets exonerated. Even after my 21 years of incarceration, Spencer remains the only one I’ve ever known to be exempt from this general skepticism. That in itself speaks volumes about Spencer.

I understand that Ms. Hagerty’s focus in her splendid article was the obstacles facing Spencer and other likely innocents in their quest for postconviction justice, but I wish she had written more about why innocent people get convicted in the first place. [Former Attorney General] Janet Reno summed it up pretty aptly when she said that justice is available only to those who can afford lawyers. Like hundreds of thousands of other Americans, Spencer was stuck with an overworked, court-appointed defense attorney who had little chance or incentive to interview eyewitnesses in depth, check credibility, and find motives for lying. Court-appointed attorneys also lack the time and resources to uncover facts that tunnel-visioned police ignore and win-motivated prosecutors withhold. And many lack the showmanship necessary to inspire juries.
Jury trials are not as objective as the ideal. People have always relied more on emotion than on logic in deciding what to believe.
Frankly, Spencer is merely a statistic, one of thousands of innocent victims trapped in a state-sponsored nightmare for no crime other than being poor.
John Adams
Wynne Unit
Huntsville, Texas

Story Update: “No Way Out”

In February, The Atlantic received word that Benjamine Spencer was again denied parole, as he has been every year since he became eligible. For more on this story, see Radio Atlantic’s three-episode companion series, “No Way Out.”

Boycott the GOP

In March, Jonathan Rauch and Benjamin Wittes argued that the Republican Party is now a threat to the constitutional order.

Boycotting the Republican Party won’t fix anything. Telling people to boycott it will only make matters worse. First, people who have supported Republican candidates thus far will continue to do so, regardless of how the party is doing.
Second, telling the people who actually take the time to do their research on candidates to vote a straight-party ticket is just as dangerous to democracy as it is to blindly follow the Republicans. Democrats don’t have a monopoly on good character, and despite being a liberal, I truly believe that a sane Republican with morals is a safer choice than a shady Democrat. Do I think this scenario is likely? No, but we’ve seen what happens when people vote along partisan lines, and the negative results of this aren’t exclusive to the GOP.
Third, telling people to abandon the entire GOP is why my Facebook friends from Trump country complain that all of mainstream media have a liberal bias; when The Atlantic publishes an article saying “Boycott the GOP,” it’s hard to disagree. Destroying any semblance of impartiality to sway the minds of a most likely negligible amount of the population serves only to feed Trump supporters’ self-righteous indignation.
Trump and the party of Trump are dangerous, but no matter how people distribute votes between Democrats and Republicans, the sentiments underlying Trumpism will not disappear. Trump supporters have chosen their captain, and no matter what he does, they will follow him. If he gets impeached, even better; he’ll be sainted by his followers. Boycotting the GOP will do nothing to quiet this segment of the population.
The problem here isn’t the Republicans; it’s the two-party system. It’s ridiculous that America, the land of choice and opportunity, forces people to choose leaders from two extremely unpopular and dysfunctional parties. Pushing for a GOP boycott is futile, whereas pushing for a three-party system is a Herculean task that is nonetheless possible.
Heather Vitunac
Los Angeles, Calif.

Magazine Cover image

Explore the April 2018 Issue

Check out more from this issue and find your next story to read.

View More
If the argument is that this has anything to do with the so-called “rule of law,” [Rauch and Wittes] are being deliberately amnesiac here. How can a person go in the space of a paragraph from proudly citing his support for the handing over of extra-constitutional powers to secret judges and the continued operation of a base where suspects were routinely tortured to warbling about the “rule of law”? Was President Obama a threat to the rule of law when he remade American immigration law with the stroke of a pen? Was George W. Bush when he authorized torture in secret prisons on the other side of the world, let our intelligence services spy on Americans without a warrant, and, oh, yes, took us to a war that was never declared by Congress? The truth is that the rule of law as it is discussed by Federalist Society types and goody-goody liberals alike is a polite fiction that means whatever the party in control is able to get away with doing under the present circumstances. This reality might well be a horrifying one, but curiously enough it only seems to upset half the population half the time …
I do not actually disagree with Rauch and Wittes. But this has nothing to do with concern-trolling about the rule of law and everything to do with the fact that the Republicans are reckless, childish, incompetent, and totally uninterested in the common good. Which is why I think that their proposed boycott should apply to the Democrats as well, to whom every single one of these adjectives could be applied with equal force and precision …
This vast country of ours is full of charming minor political parties in need of your support …
Imagine the election results in November 2020 rolling in and seeing not just red and blue but purple and magenta and gold and slate gray and ocher and smaragd, a thousand brilliant colors for the thousand waving banners of a thousand quixotic principled political organizations that actually represent somebody’s real-life views.
Making this happen is what should be considered a moral necessity.

If Rauch and Wittes believe what they say they believe, isn’t there a more straightforward argument they should be making? Shouldn’t they be arguing, that is, for the impeachment and removal of the president, and for voting Democratic as a way of enabling that specific result? …
I’m not sure what their reasons are for drawing back from the constitutionally prescribed procedure for dealing with presidents as dangerous as they consider Trump to be, but I do think their argument logically points in the direction of that procedure. We may as well have the argument.

During the campaign, Trump fans ridiculed concerns that he was undemocratic and prone to demonstrate an unhealthy affection for authoritarianism and autocratic leaders … Now as he confirms the worst of those fears, Republicans wave off evidence of Trump’s undemocratic and, yes, anti-American rhetoric.
If you believe in the rule of law, democratic norms and institutions and decent public debate, Republicans must pay a heavy, heavy price for indulging Trump. I am compelled to agree with Wittes and Rauch: “The goal is to make the Republican Party answerable at every level, exacting a political price so stinging as to force the party back into the democratic fold.” (That’s small d democratic.) Whether you think the GOP is salvageable or not, to reelect this crew in the midterms is to complete the capitulation to Trump’s antidemocratic brand of politics. All Americans are compelled to stop this.

Join The Masthead

The Masthead is The Atlantic’s new membership program. As a member, you’ll not only receive exclusive commentary and analysis—you’ll also play an important role in supporting a more sustainable future for The Atlantic.

Think of The Masthead as an ongoing dialogue. You share the questions on your mind, and we figure out the world together. At times, we’ll help you find your way around The Atlantic’s rich body of journalism. We’ll also invite you to chat with editors, highlight important stories you might have missed, and more. Ultimately, we’ll build a more intimate experience of The Atlantic for you, our readers.

To sign up, visit


Due to an editing error, “American Hustler” (March) stated that Paul Manafort ran the Office of Personnel Management. In fact, Manafort was the personnel coordinator in the Office of Executive Management. We regret the error.

To contribute to The Conversation, please email Include your full name, city, and state.