A Robin Redbreast in a Cage Puts all Heaven in a Rage. -From Auguries of Innocence, by William Blake
At the moment there’s a debate about the merits of public shaming. One side says it’s a good thing, the other side says it’s dreadful mob justice. I take the third position, public shaming is good in principle, but it’s being directed at the wrong people. We shouldn’t be targeting third rate celebrities or random Twitter users on the basis of some misplaced word, or indiscretion. We should be targeting specific individuals who make decisions that unjustly shred lives.
Willie Nash was arrested for a misdemeanour. He had his mobile phone on him at the time. He texted his wife, then asked a guard for a charger, since he was low on batteries. Unknown to him, it is illegal to have a mobile phone in jail in the state of Mississippi. He was charged with possession of contraband.
The prosecution pushed for a harsh sentence and the judge was willing to oblige, on the basis that he had previously committed crimes in 2001(!!!) He was sentenced to twelve years in prison. You will be shocked to discover Willie Nash is black.
He appealed his sentence. The appellate judges basically said, “look, it’s harsh, but there’s technically no constitutional or other legal problems here, case dismissed”. Some of the judges, to their (very partial) credit, added a special concurrence protesting that things had ever gotten to that point.
My argument is not just that this decision is “outrageous” or “should be protested on the strongest terms” or some liberal bullshit like that. My argument is that we should, to the full extent we can, make the lives of everyone involved in this process hell, until they publicly recant their involvement, and demand the intervention of the legislature, the governor and any higher courts to reverse their prior malfeasance.
I am not a lawyer, so it’s a good thing that, in the main, my argument is not a legal argument. It is an ethical one. Doing something unjustly using the law is no different to doing something unjustly using extra-legal means. So if you make a manifestly unjust decision that causes someone to spend twelve years in jail, it’s really no different to locking them up in your basement for twelve years.
Prosecutorial discretion could have been exercised not to bring the case. The prosecutors did not need to seek such a harsh sentence. During the appeal, the state could have declined to support this indefensible sentence.
Matthew Wyatt Walton acted as attorney for the appellee. The district attorney was Steven Simeon Kilgore. Brian K. Burns was the prosecutor in the original case, and he pushed for this sentence.
Brian Burns claims to be a Christian. Given that he effectively left Willie’s life alone to raise their children, with no financial support, perhaps he should heed these words:
Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the foreigner or the poor. Do not plot evil against each other.’
Brian Burns was later sworn in as a judge (despite very little trial experience). Here he is:
The trial judge:
The trial judge (judge that tried the initial case) Mark Sheldon Duncan arguably bears more responsibility for this outcome than anyone else, although whoever didn’t exercise discretion not to prosecute is a very close second. In the original case, he tried to argue that Willie Nash was “lucky” he hadn’t given the absolute maximum sentence.
Here he is:
The appellate judges:
The appellate judges, especially, but not only, those that didn’t join in the special concurrence bear a great deal of responsibility here. Their argument was that the law tied their hands, they had no choice but to find as they did. While obviously, I’m never going to win a legal argument with a bench full of judges, let me explain why I find that unpersuasive.
Are we to believe that in the whole realm of American and Mississippi criminal & constitutional law, there is no cleverness that could be found on which to rest a more lenient decision? With a terrain so wide, I’m quite sure that you could even find something plausible. And if nothing already exists, then what is this, if not a great moment to invent a novel legal theory? I don’t know the subtleties of constitutional law in this area, but I have a pretty good grasp of ordinary language, and in ordinary language, this sentence is both cruel and unusual, so at least mercy has that on its side.
I suppose it’s just possible that I’m wrong. That you truly cannot find a basis for mercy in this case in all of American law and all the ingenuity of a bench full of judges. If so, then in a case like this, it is your duty to stand down as a judge, and issue a public protest.
Why are we so lenient on people like this?
Cops don’t face a lot of justice for the wrongs they do, but increasingly there have at least been efforts to hold them accountable through social media and suchlike. That’s why I find it absolutely amazing that no one ever seems to hold judges and prosecutors accountable for the brutality they inflict on the poor and people of colour.
And don’t say it’s useless. We’re social creatures. Harsh, sustained public criticism, especially for those who are not used to it, stings. These people are infinitely more deserving than some rube who posted “Going to South Africa, hope I don’t get AIDs lol”.
Drag these shitheads.