originally published October 12, 2012
Every once in a while, the justice system incurs what we might call a ‘hiccup’ in logic. Surprisingly, this can occasionally occur in Mississippi, which I have always believed to be a state known for its progressive intellectualism, its groundbreaking racial tolerance, and its dependable inability to understand sarcasm.
For example, you could face up to six months in jail if you teach someone what polygamy is in Mississippi. You can get another six months if you shack up with your girlfriend without getting married. Also, you can get a double-lifetime sentence for an eleven-dollar robbery. And that actually happened.
(Mississippi: Bringing down national averages since 1817!)
One night in 1993, Jamie Scott (21 years old) and her sister Gladys (19) picked up a couple of guys in a convenience store, soliciting a ride to a nearby club in Forest, Mississippi. Along the way, Jamie commented that she didn’t feel too well, and the car pulled over. At that point, three teenagers showed up with guns to rob the guys. They grabbed the cash, then disappeared with the sisters into the night.
The robbery netted the team a cool eleven dollars. Still, no one was hurt, and they didn’t take the guys’ car or anything. But this crew of criminal masterminds all got caught, and perhaps because the Scott sisters were the only ones over 18, they were the ones the prosecutor targeted.
And target they did. The State of Mississippi went after these young women like black flies on a raccoon’s gizzard (I’m not particularly adept at southern-style colloquia). Howard Patrick, who at 14 was the youngest of the nefarious teen crew, later stated in a signed affidavit that he was pressured by the police right away to pin the bulk of the crime on the sisters. He was told that if he didn’t play ball, he’d be sent to the notoriously violent Parchman prison farm to become someone’s involuntary girlfriend. Not a lot of choice here.
(Sure, they may sing some great ol’ hymnals during the day, but at night things get a little more rapey)
The Scott sisters knew the three teens, and they were possibly in on the robbery, though they have since denied it emphatically. But whether or not they were innocent, whether or not they were even the ring-leaders of this $11 heist, I still can’t fathom why the Mississippi justice system felt that they each deserved a double life sentence for their crimes. And yes, it was their first offense.
The teenagers involved served between ten months and two years of their lives behind bars. Somehow what the Scott sisters brought to this crime was far, far worse. The ladies’ mother took up the fight to get their sentences reduced.
First, an appeal of the verdict. The sisters had to scrape together a new lawyer for this, as the legal mastermind who had represented them the first time was disbarred on a completely unrelated case due to lack of diligence and failure to communicate with clients.
They claimed that there had been insufficient evidence to convict them. I’m not sure that was true; one story states that one of the sisters briefly held a shotgun during the robbery, and since they fled with the other perpetrators (who then testified against them), I can see how a guilty verdict might have been returned. But the Scotts believed the evidence should have exonerated them. I don’t have it all in front of me, so who knows? They may have been right.
The Court of Appeals felt that ‘guilty’ was the correct verdict, and in 1996 they upheld the conviction. To my knowledge (and really, I should defer to Matlock on this one), I don’t think the Court of Appeals can reduce a sentence. They can only look to see if the guilty gavel-smash was correct.
The sisters then filed a Petition for Writ of Certiorari, with the Supreme Court, which is (I believe) a request for a full-on judicial review of the case, possibly by a staff of centaurs.
That didn’t fly. Neither did another effort with the Supreme Court in 1998, this one featuring the affidavit that spoke to the Scotts’ innocence by Howard Patrick, the kid who made the plea deal. They sought clemency from Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour. Nope. Barbour, who had pardoned hundreds of criminals (including dozens of murderers), wasn’t about to help out.
I should point out, the Scotts had five children, all of whom grew up without a mother because of an eleven-dollar robbery. The girls were going to stay locked up. There hardly appeared reason for hope.
Then things took a turn for the weird.
Jamie Scott got sick. Really sick. Need-a-new-kidney sick. The NAACP and New York Times columnist Bob Herbert took up the cause with a roar. This was now 2010, and these women had been locked up for sixteen years. Their kids had grown up. Their father had passed away. And now Jamie’s time was running out.
(Just want mention this again… eleven friggin’ dollars)
On December 29, 2010, Governor Barbour bestowed a little bit of mercy on the situation, not offering up a pardon but instead a conditional clemency. Their sentences would be suspended indefinitely, but only if Gladys donates a kidney to her sister.
That there is some down-home, farm-fresh Mississippi justice.
Also, it’s a complete violation of medical ethics. No one is ever supposed to receive payment for donating an organ to another person, let alone having such a procedure contingent on a person’s freedom. The Scotts weren’t about to raise a stink though – they were on their way to freedom.
Because it’s a suspended sentence and not a full pardon, the sisters will each have to pay the State of Florida (where they planned to live with their mother) $52 a month, every month, for the rest of their lives. Also, they’ll have to hope that either Medicaid or Obamacare will foot the bill for the transplant. I’m sure any money the family might have had was spent on legal bills, and the state – which would have been on the hook for the procedure had Jamie still been locked up – had no responsibility anymore.
So were the sisters freed to save the State of Mississippi a few bucks? Did Governor Barbour finally clue in to the injustice of this time-heavy sentence? I’m guessing the former. Well done, Mississippi. Your image in the slop-bucket of southern-US stereotypes is secure.