Sunday, May 1, 2011

THE STRONG BUT WRONG ARM OF THE LAW


May 1, 2011

The woman had stolen two strawberries and when the judge asked me what her sentence should be I told him: “Give her the chair!”
Her name was Datcher. I forget her first name. It was in Washington DC and, as a newspaper reporter, I had called His Honor during the two-week adjournment. I thought the suggestion of a death sentence would register my astonishment that a case as piffling as this should ever go to trial. I was wrong.
The judge wasn’t amused and said that the lady’s offense was “very serious”. He ended up giving her 18 months’ probation.
For two strawberries.
That same week the head of Columbia Pictures was convicted of embezzlement. David Begelman had stolen tens of thousands from his studio’s stars, Judy Garland among them, and Cliff Robertson had blown the whistle on him for converting his latest $10,000 check.
That big time crook got a year’s community service which he spent making an anti-drug documentary, at end the of which he crossed the street to become president and CEO of the rival MGM Studios.
Anything wrong with that picture? How about this one:
A young man hands the pharmacist a note demanding narcotics and gets 120 years in the slammer – even though he had no weapon and this was his very first offence. Ricky Kiser, 23, was desperate after his doctor abruptly cut off the highly addictive drugs he’d been prescribing
Virginia judge Joseph Spruill said he’d decided to make an example of the guy. Addicts? That’ll larn ‘em!
But by so doing he created clear grounds for an appeal because you can’t make examples. And maybe some who applaud this judge’s ruling overlook one other factor: the public foots the bill for all court proceedings and also the convict’s incarceration. The more trials, the more prison, the more jobs for the boys of the law. And the more we all pay.
Some 2½ million of us are behind bars, that’s about eight Americans in every thousand. In other western countries the number is less than one.
Spruill’s isn’t the most bizarre of the over-the-top sentences. Not just draconian punishments for non-violent crimes but ridiculous multiple life terms for serious offences like rape and murder. I sentence you to seven life terms plus 100 years. Wha-at? How do they carry out this penalty? When the miscreant croaks in prison at age 85 do they resurrect him with a jolt of voltage so he can begin the next of his life sentences and so on?
I know you’re dead, Butch, but the judge said you had to serve another six life terms, so... Bzzzzt!
The penalty scale is crazy. Mandatory mayhem has judges stuffing marijuana smokers into our prisons, causing overcrowding that forces the release of really dangerous bastards far too early. The child molesters .The killers. The sociopaths are out here with us again but rest easy, folks, we do have those vicious pot puffers away in the dungeons. The streets are safe from weedheads.
A Utah judge casts Weldon Angelos, 24, into the clink for 55 years for selling a pound and a half of grass and immediately calls on President George W Bush to commute the “cruel, unjust and irrational” sentence he’s just been forced to apply. Bush ignored him.
The drugs issue is a major one nationwide. I’m no big proponent of “substances” but let’s be real. Why, for instance, would five grams of crack cocaine get you five years’ bird, yet you’d have to be caught with 100 times as much of the powdered snortin’ kind to be given that same stretch?
It’s not just the sentencing; the whole system stinks.
How about condemned murderer Andre Thomas who plucked out his only remaining eyeball, ate it and was pronounced by a unanimous nine-member Texas appeals court crazy and also sane. Yep, both. At the same time. Apparently it’s possible to be crackers yet legally not: and you don’t even have to be a member of the tea party. Plus they never even asked him how it tasted.
But hey, we hear all the time how our legal system is the best in the world when it most certainly is not. We convict ‘em and then we try ‘em.
Take the Latin phrase sub judice, which means a case is under the auspices of the court. The moment a suspect is charged with a crime, the matter may no longer be discussed, especially in the media, until there’s a verdict. The purpose is to avoid prejudicing a defendant’s rights, most commonly by pre-judging him guilty.
Butch murdered those folks sure enough, and he’ll be tried on Friday. Then why even bother to have a trial. Butch is toast. Buttered. And jelly on top.
In countries that also adhere to Common English Law sub judice is enforced and those who contravene it are guilty of contempt of court. In the US it isn’t, which is why we often have a carnival followed by an overturned conviction and a retrial. Expensive repeat proceedings and guess who gets all the well-paid work and who foots the bill?
We all know the difference between right and wrong. No question. But wait – in this country there’s also something in between those two absolutes, some wiggle room and it’s all perfectly legal. It’s called nolo contendere, no contest. What on earth is that? Guilty? You bet I am, but I’m sure not telling you!
There is, I know, some ultrafine legal definition for nolo but basically it’s nonsense. In my book nolo contendere is nolo excusere. You’re culpable, pal, whether you mince words or not. That non-admission admission is good enough for me. Off with his head!

ENDIT

© 2011 Fred Wehner is a journalist formerly with the Daily Mail in London, who then founded and ran the New York News Agency before settling in Monroe 21 years ago.