(Photo by Express Newspapers/Getty Images)

On Monday January 20, a day was set aside to honor the life of Dr. Martin Luther King.  The man’s accomplishments in the realm of civil rights are well-documented.

Many have invoked his name or words that he spoke to either make a point or lend credibility.  It’s a common practice that many people do to suit the conditions.  Dr. King even did that himself when the situation presented itself.

What has some folks in a bind is Dr. King’s name being invoked by a South Dakota official this week.  Attorney General Marty Jackley was given notice of a denied appeal from the U.S. Supreme Court of death row inmate Charles Russell Rhines.  In notifying the public of the appeal he wrote in part:

“The United States Supreme Court’s order today affirms that South Dakota has taken proper precautions in drafting and implementing its death penalty statutes to assure that they meet constitutional requirements. Donnivan Schaeffer’s family has waited 22 years in their search for justice. In the wake of yesterday’s day of remembrance, it is well to recall what Martin Luther King Jr. recognized in his Letter from the Birmingham Jail: ‘Justice too long delayed is justice denied.’”

From the pages of Wikipedia, here is an explanation of the phrase used by Dr. King.

"Justice delayed is justice denied" is a legal maxim meaning that if legal redress is available for a party that has suffered some injury, but is not forthcoming in a timely fashion, it is effectively the same as having no redress at all. This principle is the basis for the right to a speedy trial and similar rights which are meant to expedite the legal system, because it is unfair for the injured party to have to sustain the injury with little hope for resolution. The phrase has become a rallying cry for legal reformers who view courts or governments as acting too slowly in resolving legal issues either because the existing system is too complex or overburdened, or because the issue or party in question lacks political favor.

This Delayed/Denied concept was not originated by Martin Luther King, Jr.  Traces of its origin date back to the Magna Carta in the year 1215 and even older Hebrew teachings a few centuries before that.

Where Jackley was right:  Adjudicating a Death Penalty case is a long and sometimes tedious process.  The State of South Dakota convinced a jury that the sentence of death would apply to Rhines back in 1993.  Justice as the state sees it has been delayed for over two decades and thus denied.

Where Jackley was wrong:  Martin Luther King, Jr. was staunchly non-violent and against the Death Penalty.  Rhines was tried and convicted of his crime, but Dr. King was pushing the envelope of Civil Rights and performed civil disobedience in the face of an injunction that flouted his right to peaceably assemble.  Also by linking MLK and the Death Penalty when there is a bill currently in the South Dakota Legislature to repeal the punishment could turn sentiment against Jackley.  It would by highly unlikely, but possible.

The next step in this process should be lighten up.  We have enough tools and technology at our disposal to do some investigating on our own to gather context on why people say things.  By taking another step to study history, we can trumpet tremendous accomplishments and also learn from mistakes made.