Justice Aborted Is Justice Denied

I stood in a public place yesterday and watched two tearful parents say goodbye to an American hero. The young man was leaving for a year. Odds are, he will return safe and sound. But the world is a dangerous place. There are no guarantees. They were sending him into harm’s way.

His odds of survival are good. Although he is only 23-years-old, he is already a veteran of four years of service in the United States Navy. He served in Somalia and the Persian Gulf, and was highly decorated during those tours. He is quiet, but loving and eager to lend a hand. When his sister fell ill with cancer, he offered to come home to donate bone marrow. His studies in history at the University of Connecticut earned him a place on the Dean’s list.

This is the sort of kid you want to have as a neighbor. He is a role model of quiet, unassuming diligence.

Neither parent could bear the final farewell. Their son preferred it that way. Saying goodbye is hard for him. He might cry if he saw the tears well up in his parents’ eyes. Better to appear to be brave when embarking upon this trip, he thought.

So his mother hugged him and muttered the soft things mothers do when their hearts are breaking and they realize that all the love in the world might not be enough. His father tried to be stoic, but even from a distance, I could see his heart breaking. A quick hug, and then something like a salute and a quick promise about the things they will do when the boy returns.

I turned away. My children are all older than this boy. Farewells are hard for me. If you let go, will they ever return? Bravery is a mask we cowards wear when all is terror.

And then it was done. This hero stood before a judge. The judge read his pre-sentence report and told those assembled in court it was one of the best she’d ever seen. I’ve read hundreds of these dreary assessments of a person whose entire life is now recast in terms of the moment they broke the law. It was a glowing report.

Her hands were tied, the judge explained. The legislature insisted that a person convicted of this crime spend at least one year in prison. She could not find mitigating circumstances. She could not consider his military service, his dedication to family, the bright future this sentence is certain to derail. The law is deaf sometimes to the sound of justice.

What crime did this young man commit? You must be wondering by now. What small part of his life now becomes the whole of his existence for the next year and well beyond as he copes with probation and the collateral consequences of this plea?

He looked at dirty pictures; pictures of children. He possessed child pornography.

We sent him to an expert on disorders of desire. Explain if you can this errant episode in the hero’s life? The doctor reports it was mere curiosity: No libidinal clock strikes twelve at the thought of a child. For a very brief period the young man looked at pictures. Now he is in prison, a felon, required to register as a sex offender, and a member of the ostracized community of those we abhor in a schizophrenic variety of purity.

There had to be a better way in this case. I suspect the judge thought there was. But lawmakers gave her no discretion to find a way to avoid injustice. None. High-minded Solons sat in the safety of a legislative chamber and threw peanuts to the screaming monkeys in the gallery. "Are you worried about sex? The children! Oh, yes the children! Here’s a mandatory minimum sentence. Are you happy now?" And the gallery fell silent for a day. But come the next shocking and horrific crime against a child the galleries will fill again. Moral panic will yield a deadly act hunger, a desire to do something, anything, to feel safe and secure.

I asked the judge to send a transcript of the sentencing proceedings to lawmakers with a note asking them if they had any idea what they are doing. Odds are she won’t. I am hoping lawmakers will read this. It is not justice to require prison for all defendants convicted of a crime. Give judges discretion to do justice. It is a simple reform, really. Just replace mandatory minimums with a rebuttable presumption. Give defendants a chance to demonstrate to judges why prison is wrong. Treat people like individuals. Don’t do what pornographers do – respond to some deep need and cast the world in terms of sickening stereotypes.

A hero sits in prison today. He made a mistake. So did the law.

Reprinted courtesy of the Connecticut Law Tribune.

Comments: (8)

  • Judge's Hands are Tied II
    So here's the $64 Question: What if a jury nullifies and the judge then sets aside the nullification? There are no easy answers, unfortunately. Personally, I'm pro defendant. Innocent until proven guilty, beyond a reasonable doubt. The State has all the weapons and is not above cutting corners to get a single conviction.
    Posted on April 10, 2012 at 2:54 pm by william doriss
  • Judge's Hands are Tied
    This is the epitome of the quagmire of the criminal injustice system. The judge's hands are 'tied'. A very convenient excuse not to do the right thing. That's B.S. No judges' hands are tied; they are all-powrful. We have a system of 'checks and balances'. No? Where i live, a judge can 'set aside' any jury verdict if he deems appropriate and the jury has erred. I also believe in 'jury nullification', where the jury invalidates the law under which a defendant is charged.
    Posted on April 10, 2012 at 2:50 pm by william doriss
  • A convict sits in prison
    Aren't all convicts defined by their mistakes? Also, all manner of otherwise upstanding citizens are also pedophiles. I don't see the bearing. The law wants to punish those who look at child pornography. Both as a punishment for having such curiousities, and as a deterrent to the production of such images. If he is guilty of the crime, I don't see that there is any injustice here.
    Posted on April 10, 2012 at 12:40 pm by Emily
  • Justice Denied
    Very compelling story. May God bless this family and all the others who are caught up in this never-ending nightmare.
    Posted on April 7, 2012 at 5:31 am by Mary Sue Molnar
  • excessive punishment for possession of child pornography
    Kudos to Norm Pattis for another wonderfaul article demonstrating how our sex-offender laws have goen awry.
    Our constitutionality is being chipped away because of the spread of myths and hysteria by the media and lawmakers.
    It is time for common sense to prevail and those who are being targeted to stand up against such insanity.
    Posted on April 6, 2012 at 11:22 am by Edie Billings
  • A hero sits in prison
    I can relate to the plight of this young man and others like him because my brother was sentenced to 19 years (9 years of confinement and 10 years probation) for the very same thing. Unfortunately, he was caught in a federal sting so fell under the federal injustice system. Mandatory minimums and no chance of parole in the BOP, must be overturned.
    Posted on April 6, 2012 at 5:17 am by James L. Hawes
  • Only The Beginning
    For this young man, the madness yet even begun.
    Posted on April 5, 2012 at 7:53 pm by John Callanan
  • The Law
    Mandatory minimums, prison sentences for nonviolent and victimless crimes, and excessive prison sentences are all wrong. So is overcharging and misinstructing the jury. Almost everything about the criminal injustice system is wrong. The law is an a$$. Yes, Virginia, it's all about the money. CT is a rogue state, a state in denial. P.S., I'm a (minimally) 'disabled' vet myself, which don't count for much these days. Am reading mark Lane's Plausible Denial. The truth will out.
    Posted on April 5, 2012 at 10:14 am by william doriss

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