Bob Shell: What’s Wrong With The American “Justice” System

Artwork by Thomcat23 for Tony Ward Studio, Copyright 2018.
Artwork by Thomcat23 for Tony Ward Studio, Copyright 2018.


 Bob Shell: Letters From Prison #26


Letters by Bob Shell, Copyright 2018




Everyone who reads this can hope fervently that they never get caught up in the American “justice” system. It’s badly broken, and has been for quite some time.

I’ll illustrate from my personal experiences, starting in 1969. At that time I was living in Richmond, Virginia, sharing an apartment in the “fan district” with some friends. One morning the Richmond Vice Squad showed up in our apartment. That’s right, IN our apartment. I was in the kitchen eating a bowl of cereal when this man just walked in and put a gun in my face. No one identified himself as police, so I had no idea what was going on. They’re supposed to knock on the door and identify themselves, but not this bunch. They got in by climbing onto a balcony and coming in through the balcony door, which was unlocked because it was a third floor balcony and not easily reached. One must have climbed up and let the others in the front door. Oh, they did have a search warrant which they eventually produced — a warrant for a different address! They proceeded to search the apartment, and us, and found one marijuana “joint” in one man’s pocket, a man who was just visiting and didn’t live there. But that didn’t matter to them, they arrested us all for possession of marijuana, a felony in those days with possible 30 year sentences. Our lawyers pointed out the wrong address on the warrant and that only one person actually had any marijuana. None of that mattered, we were all convicted and given three year sentences.

Thankfully, the judge suspended the sentences and put us on three years of probation. That was a complete joke. The first time I went to see the probation officer, he saw what I was convicted of, went around his desk and locked his office door and pulled out a joint, lit it, and we shared it. Needless to say, I never had any trouble with him. But, with my father’s help, I petitioned the Governor and was pardoned, so the conviction wasn’t on my record and all of my rights were restored. I lost three months of my life, the time spent in jail prior to my trial, plus $ 300 to the lawyer, which was a hell of a lot of money in 1969.

Fast forward to 2003. On June 3, I returned to my photo studio from eating a quick dinner at Sonic in the next block, and found my girlfriend/model/studio assistant Marion Franklin passed out and unresponsive. I did what any concerned person is told to do and called 911 and performed CPR until the EMTs arrived. I won’t go into detail here about it all, but was told several hours later by a detective that Marion had died at the hospital. My life collapsed. Those interested can read the details on my website, On June 7, just after returning from Marion’s memorial service and wake in North Carolina, I was arrested.

The next four years were a nightmmare. The medical examiner told the police that Marion was dead, and had been dead for some time, in the last photos I took of her that day. I ended up charged with second degree murder plus three sex charges based on the theory that Marion was dead the last time I had sex with her and I just didn’t know it! I was also charged with having my mother’s medications. My mother had died and I had lots of her things and hadn’t gone through it all and gotten rid of the meds. The charges were flatly absurd, but I soon found out that nonsense accusations can be the hardest to defend yourself against. I’ve had proof since 2009 that the medical examiner’s testimony that Marion was dead is hogwash, but once you’re convicted the conviction becomes an entity unto itself, and the system will do anything not to let go of it.

Between my arrest and my trial, which began August 20, 2007, more than four years passed. For the first year I was on house arrest, permitted to leave my property only to go see my lawyer or a doctor. After that I was restricted to the City of Radford for a year, and Virginia the rest of the time. When Marion’s best friend got married and wanted me to come to her wedding, the judge would not allow me to go because it was in North Carolina. When I wanted to attend the Photo Marketing Association trade show in Las Vegas in March of 2004, the Commonwealth’s Attorney (Virginia’s equivalent of a District Attorney) told my attorney and me he had no objection, then after I’d bought a nonrefundable air ticket, made hotel reservations, and replied to several RSVP party and dinner invitations, he showed up in court and denied he ever said that! I was out the cost of the airfare and had to back out of invitations, some from Japanese who look upon that as loss of face. It caused me many problems.

My friends and associates in the photo industry never took the charges against me seriously, and I continued to write for several magazines and wrote four books during this time. But, since I couldn’t leave Virginia, there were many good assignments I couldn’t do. That was very frustrating and hard on my cash flow.

The trial, when it finally came, was a farce. The medical examiner once again testified that Marion was dead in those last photos. The state’s digital imaging “expert” took the stand and spouted sheer nonsense. I could not have independent tests done on the autopsy samples even though I had hired a topnotch lab to do so and the judge had ordered the samples sent to them, because the medical examiner had destroyed the samples without telling anyone or considering that the case was ongoing. There’s much more, but most is on my website, particularly on the NEWS UPDATES page.

So I am still in prison. I’ve been locked up 11 years as of September 1, 2018, for something that never happened. I did not kill Marion, I would never have harmed her in any way. I was in love with her, and she with me. When we produced a stack of emails from Marion to me as evidence, the prosecutor alleged that they were fake.

Those emails, some with explicit sexual references, were genuine, as was a note Marion wrote to me saying how much she appreciated and loved me. The prosecutor couldn’t claim that was fake because it was in her distinctive handwriting. The prosecution insisted, in spite of all evidence, including testimony from our friends who knew about our relationship, that Marion and I never had a romantic relationship, that our relationship was pure business. That was just insane, since I was living part time with her and was paying the rent and utilities on our apartment, as well as sharing the same hotel room and bed in our travels. I’d even begun making arrangements for us to go to Europe together later that year to show her some of my favorite places. The prosecutor just couldn’t wrap his head around a much younger woman having a relationship with a man my age. Does he not know about Mick Jagger, Ron Wood, and others (actually he probably doesn’t!).

The only evidence we’d had sex that day was my own testimony. I’d volunteered that information when asked, seeing no reason to conceal it. The swabs the medical examiner took during the autopsy showed seminal fluid, but strangely, found none of my DNA, only Marion’s own, for which I have no explanation. The medical examiner said he saw no evidence of penetration. Did I imagine having sex with Marion that afternoon? I don’t think so.

The last photos and videos I made with Marion were very personal, and never intended to be seen by anyone but us. I had to endure seeing these very private images being projected to giant size on the courtroom wall, even though they had absolutely nothing to do with the case. To use a legal phrase, they were “prejudicial but not probative,” which means they prejudiced the jury against me but didn’t prove a damned thing. Since Marion was nude in most of the images, the jury of small town small minds would have convicted me of anything.

In Virginia prosecutors are elected, not appointed, and all aspire to become judges. Thus most of our judges are former prosecutors, so you know whose side they are on. And at election time the prosecutors running for reelection crow about their conviction rates. They lose sight of the fact that their job has two sides; to convict the guilty, but to not convict the innocent. They Marshall all their resources toward conviction. The citizen finds himself/herself up against all of the resources of the state. Under these circumstances only the wealthy who can afford the very best lawyers, investigators, expert witnesses, etc., can prevail. When I was first charged I called the best lawyer I knew of in the area. He told me that unless I could raise several million dollars I could not afford him. That’s the reality in America today.

If I’d been wealthy, I wouldn’t be sitting here in this prison cell tapping out this post on my little mini-tablet. Poor people stand little chance in a rigged system like this.

Now I wasn’t living in poverty, but I was not rich and it was hard for me to come up with the bail money. My bond was $ 75,000, which meant I had to come up with $ 7,500 in cash for the bondsman plus signing my car and property over as collateral. But you get it back if you don’t skip out on your bail, right? Wrong! The bondsman keeps the $ 7,500. That’s his fee. So, even if you win at trial, you’re out that money. I did get my car title and property deed back, though. Small comfort. The only reason I had the $ 7,500 was that when my mother died at the end of April, barely a month before Marion, and had left me some money. Otherwise I’d have had to stay in jail until trial. “Innocent until proven guilty,” yeah right!

Those interested in learning about how the legal system really works should read Prison Legal News magazine ( a monthly journal full of accurate stories. You can tell how good they are by how badly prisons and jails hate them and try to censor them. Every time a prison or jail tries to censor them, they file suit and win. The same people also publish Criminal Legal News, a magazine that deals more with the details of the law. Both are excellent and worthy of support.

After you’re convicted you automatically get to appeal. Most appeals are rubber stamp denied. Then you move on to Habeas Corpus, which can overturn your conviction. There is an absurdly short one year deadline on filing this. Since you have to hire your own lawyer for this, or, if like me you have no money to hire one, you must do it yourself. The process is complex, and no one can learn the details in less than a year. I got books on how to do it and wrote my own. My first submission was rejected for being too long, so I shortened it to meet the court’s requirements. Then it was turned down for omitting the stuff I had to take out to shorten it!! A no win situation!

So I’ve spent the years since then putting in every possible hour in our law libraries learning as much law as possible to find ways to overturn my ridiculous convictions. No luck yet.

Aren’t there innocence projects, the ACLU, etc., to help people like me? In theory, yes. In practice, no, because they’re all strapped for money and can only take a very few cases out of the hundreds who come to them for help. I’ve wasted uncounted hours, postage, copying costs, etc., trying to get help from these people. Most don’t even answer letters. As one federal judge said, there’s an epidemic of prosecutorial misconduct in this country today, and it his overloaded the system. But any politician who tries to do something to fix the system faces being labeled “soft on crime” by his/her opponent and losing elections.

Studies have shown that our current mass incarceration program has had no effect on crime rates. Countries that don’t have this practice generally have lower crime rates. Isn’t it time for the U.S.A. to stop being the “Incarceration Nation?”


About The Author: Bob Shell is a professional photographer, author and former editor in chief of Shutterbug Magazine. He is currently serving a 35 year sentence for involuntary manslaughter for the death of Marion Franklin, one of his former models. Shell was recently moved from Pocahontas State Correctional Center, Pocahontas, Virginia to River North Correctional Center 329 Dellbrook Lane Independence, VA 24348.  Mr. Shell continues to claim his innocence. He is serving the 11th year of his sentence. To read more letters from prison by Bob Shell, click here


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