Community members in St. Louis, Missouri are coming together in support of Darrell Bolden, a victim of the everyday injustice of the U.S. legal system.

Bolden was sentenced to multiple life sentences after being found guilty of robbing several retail stores in 2012. His supporters say the trial against him was unfair and lacked evidence; his ordeal shows the racism and inequality that is an everyday part of the U.S. criminal “justice” system.

What happened that day

On May 28, 2012, Bolden began checking into the Dismas halfway house in the northern part of St. Louis. As he went into the halfway house he had a small chat with the receptionist. It was a long, hot day, and he had wanted to catch up with a friendly face at the reception desk. He finished signing in at 9:09 PM

On the other side of town, about 15 minutes before Bolden arrived at the halfway house, there was a robbery at a mattress store. Nobody was injured, no cash was taken and a stocking mask was left at the scene. The robbery at the mattress store was part of four robberies that impacted Bolden; the other locations being a Burger King, a Check ‘n Go and a Missouri Payday Loan. These four robberies were blamed on Bolden by prosecutors and resulted in him receiving a more than a life sentence behind bars.

Little evidence

The jailing of a man — for life — for stealing from a few stores is already obscene. The lack of evidence against Bolden increases the injustice of this case. In 2019, after doing mass work with his family, the Party for Socialism and Liberation reached out to hear his story. After receiving case files and examining them for months, talking through multiple phone calls with the family, and seeing the dire straits that made this case so important, we decided that it was an imperative as socialists to raise awareness and begin actions to see Darell Bolden released from prison.

First, the timelines of the police and prosecution do not add up. The robbery at mattress store occurred at 8:54 PM at 6917 South Lindberg. To travel from the store on Lindberg to the halfway house would take a minimum of 24 minutes by car, yet he was at the halfway house only 15 minutes after the robbery. His car, a 2002 Pontiac Gran Prix would have to have been going over 90 miles per hour in a zone where the highway is two lanes for roughly a mile, passing in front of the St. Louis Arch, the city hall, a major casino and the former St. Louis Rams stadium–all of this without getting into an accident, being caught on security cameras, getting a red light ticket or being recorded in any fashion.

Police reports do not mention footage from a security camera on any of those nights that could verify a matching car moving at those speeds through downtown St. Louis on the night of the robbery. Nor do police reports detail his mother’s car, the one allegedly used in committing the robbery, moving at those speeds going through downtown St. Louis.

Second, the physical evidence from the scene is inconclusive. At the scene of the robbery there was a stocking cap left that contained DNA from three individuals. After running tests the St. Louis Police Department found that the DNA was not an exact match, but that Bolden could not be excluded from the case. A lab analyst at the FBI also expressed concerns about the results. This evidence does not even place Bolden at the scene of the crime.

The witnesses in the case also presented conflicting stories. The robbery victim in the police report described the assailant who robbed him as “six foot, medium build Black male with short hair aged 35 to 45, wearing jeans and a ski mask.” This is a vague description that does not positively identify Bolden. In fact, the witness could not positively identify the assailant when presented with photos of various suspects.

Another witness who — after the fact — claimed that Bolden committed the crimes, wasn’t at a single crime scene and could not get his cell phone number right.

Furthermore, there was even a witness that testified that another man had talked about wanting to commit the same burglaries that have been blamed on Bolden. Daveon Morrison, a fellow prisoner, said under oath, “I was approached by a man by the name of Jerry Brown in the spring of 2012 to commit a series of robberies, including a Check ‘n Go, a Burger King, a Subway and a Mattress Firm. I made an anonymous report to Crime Stoppers about Jerry Brown.” This testimony creates further doubts about Bolden’s alleged guilt.

Finally, even Bolden’s “confession” was likely coerced. Many people who are incarcerated confess to crimes that they haven’t committed, with 25 percent of wrongful conviction cases in the US involving false confessions. Darrell Bolden did confess to committing a crime that night, but never pleaded guilty. In a phone interview, he said he confessed to police because, “They said they would lock up my mother if I didn’t,” after which he recanted his testimony.

The confession even has discrepancies with other parts of the police report. The witness statement says the assailant was wearing jeans, and the coerced confession says he was wearing jogging pants.

The prosecution said that his jailhouse phone calls were a confession as well, and therefore the previous confessions were not coerced. Bolden’s alleged confession in the phone calls was to say, “I know why they locked me up.” This statement could easily be him complaining about racist police practices, or that he thought the police mistook his identity. This vague statement is hardly the admission of guilt the St. Louis prosecutor claimed.

Crime in context

Even if the state had a better case against Bolden, the sentence is still unjust. He is not accused of having killed anybody, committed sexual abuse, caused a war, or any other crime that is considered especially wrong by most people. Bolden has a prior set of convictions from robbing banks, for which he served his time, and this was part of the justification for the long sentence.

Ultimately, this alleged crime was one where property relations are the reason for keeping a man incarcerated away from his family for the rest of his life. His alleged crime for which the state has demanded that he serve greater than his entire lifetime in jail was theft.

For comparison, wage theft is currently the greatest total form of theft in the U.S., totaling $50 billion in stolen wages annually. In the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, millions of people in the US lost their homes because of exploitative practices by big banks like Wells Fargo and JPMorgan. Despite all the suffering they cause, no bosses or bankers receive harsh sentences in prison for wage theft or financial crimes.

Just this year in St. Louis, a local official who stole millions of dollars from a local community college faced only a maximum of seven years in prison.

Unequal justice

The U.S. has an entirely different system of justice for those who own property and those who do not, and it is built upon a system of white supremacy that keeps millions of people of color incarcerated. Darrell Bolden was held on a bond of $150,000, evidence that could very easily have exonerated him was left completely unattended by his public attorney (who was burdened with over 100 cases at the time) and witnesses who could have been at the trial were neglected. If Bolden could have afforded a powerful lawyer, he would not be in prison today. If Bolden was richer, he would not have even have been considered as a suspect.

Bolden’s case is an outrage not for how atypical it is, but because of how typical it is for hundreds of thousands of people. Coercing confessions, making promises for cooperation, and other common police methods are unethical, but happen everyday. Darrell Bolden’s case is not an awful aberration, but a typical example of the racist and fundamentally broken criminal justice system.

As it stands right now a new prosecutor named Wesley Bell has been elected in St. Louis on the promise of judicial reform. Will Wesley Bell let Darrell Bolden go free? On November 23, there will be a community fundraiser and mass incarceration teach-in to raise money for Bolden’s family and continue the struggle against the racist legal system.