What Sandusky's Sentence Says About The Rest Of Us

One editorialist at least had the courage to put it bluntly: Jerry Sandusky deserves 400 years in prison. The writer was outraged that the 68-year-old man received a sentence of only 30-60 years in prison after his conviction on 45 counts of child molestation. Sandusky is, so the writer contends, a monster.

  I wonder whether another monster isn’t the person calling for a prison sentence impossible to serve. Find me the man or woman who can serve a 400-year sentence, and I will rethink my general skepticism about miracles.

We love prison in this the land of the free. The United States accounts for five percent of the world’s population, but 25 percent of the world’s prison population. Put another way, we incarcerate more people per capita than any other nation on Earth.

And prison sentences in the United States are draconian when compared to those in other post-industrial nations. Anders Behring Breivik of Norway went on a rampage on Norway in the summer of 2011, killing nearly 70 people, most of them teenagers. Norwegians were not reported to be up in arms when Mr. Breivik was sentenced to prison for a term of 21 years after being found guilty of the crimes. Such a sentence for so horrible an offense would not be conceivable in the United States.

Why are we in the embrace of this love affair with prison?

I recall standing in the well of a federal court one day years ago. My client was found guilty of murder-for-hire. The Government had not elected to seek the death penalty, although it was a capital felony. But it did want him in prison for the rest of his life. The judge obliged.

She did more than oblige, in fact. As she imposed sentence it became clear that she wanted to stack multiple life terms, one on top of the other, imposing them consecutive to one another. As she piled the second life term on top of the first, or was it the third on top of the second, I turned to the client.

“You know what this means, don’t you?”

He looked at me with a puzzled look, afraid to speak as the judge was talking.

“This means the first couple of times you die, the Government has to revive you or the sentence is illegal.”

We both chuckled at the absurdity of it all as the judge went about her work. She paused to shoot a severe look our way, but what, really, could she do? 

(The client was stabbed to death in prison not long ago. The Government did not revive him. The unserved portion of his sentence hangs in the ether somewhere, confounding those who think the sentence imposed was fair, just and reasonable.)

We are perhaps too quick to ostracize the errant. Do we really believe that a man or woman is simply the some of their worst moments? Do any of us really believe that we are without sin? I’ve yet to meet the man or woman accused of a crime who did not possess a distinctive human spark.

Aristotle counseled moderation in all things, even in anger. It is appropriate to be angry to the right degree, at the right things, at the right time. The Christians recognize anger as one of the seven deadly sins. We self-righteous harpies calling for savage criminal sentences are sometimes hardly distinguishable from the folks we lock up. 

Jerry Sandusky is a child molester. The protection of society requires his isolation. He will spend the rest of his life enduring the punishment his conduct warrants. I get that. But somehow complaining that the man will either drop dead in prison or, perhaps, walk out the prison’s doors at 98 years or age strikes me as downright perverse, even sick.

We’re the land of the free but we’re in love with prisons. Instead of embracing our contradictions, we flee in fear from facing them. Some City on a Hill we’ve created here in paradise.

Reprinted courtesy of the Connecticut Law Tribune.



Hearsay and a Father's Tale

“That’s just hearsay.”

You hear that remark all the time. It conveys a sense of unreliability. The statement, so dismissed, just doesn’t count. You can’t bet on it.

Yet hearsay is everywhere, and we cannot live without it.

The definition of hearsay sounds convoluted, but it is really quite simple: Hearsay is an out-of-court statement offered to prove the truth of the matter asserted. What does that mean? Simply put, admitting into evidence in a court proceeding a statement uttered at some other time for some other purpose.

It’s all right to be confused. If the law were simple, we lawyers would be out of work.

Consider the following: A man comes into a courtroom and asserts: “Mr. Smith told me there is green cheese on Mars.” You just can’t use this statement to prove that there is, in fact, cheese on Mars. The statement was made out of court. It cannot be used to prove the truth of the matter asserted, that is, that there is cheese on Mars. (It might, however, tell us a lot about Mr. Smith’s state of mind, but that’s a separate matter.)

What if Mr. Smith came into a courtroom to tell us about cheese on Mars? In that case, the statement might well be admitted into evidence, but we would accord it little weight. Hearsay statements are not admissible as evidence in a courtroom; statements admitted as evidence can either be believed or disbelieved by a jury or judge. It is a matter of admissibility as evidence versus the weight we accord to the evidence admitted.

But there are exceptions to the general rule against admitting hearsay statements into evidence. Lots of exceptions. One of them pertains to public records, such as birth or death certificates. We say that such documents are reliable because they are kept by officials who have a duty to make accurate and reliable records. Indeed, we cannot live without hearsay. All history is really a search for reliable evidence. After all, who among us can testify that the American Revolution actually occurred? Who really doubts that it did?

But just because something is reliable doesn’t always mean that it is right.

I am sitting here looking at a death certificate for my father, who died in 2007. It reports he died in Norfolk, Virginia, a fact I accept as true because his wife told me she was with him when he died. But what of the date of birth? According to the death certificate, he was born in Greece on October 27, 1929, making him 77 at the time of his death.

I could accept that at face value, but doing so would be to call my father a liar.

A couple of years before he died, he told me his life story. I had not seen him for more than 40 years. He told me he and his father snuck into the United States during the 1930s, crossing the border into Detroit from Windsor, Ontario. Both started their voyage in Sfakia, Crete.

If what my father told me is true, he was a 20th century Oliver Twist. For years, he lived by his wits, rarely attending school, but learning to speak English without a trace of a Greek accent. By the mid-1950s, he had found his calling: He lived as an armed robber. According to him, he had a “crew.” The men lived in an apartment building in downtown Detroit. “You needed a warrant to get beyond the third floor,” he said. If lawmen got too close, his crew would retreat to “safe houses.”

Three or four times a year, they would do a “job.” That meant they would rob a payroll truck of its cash. It was a good life, he said.

In 1954, a job went bad. My father shot a man. The “heat” was on. My father told me the FBI was looking for him, so he decided to flee Detroit. In an age before computers, it was simple to establish a new identity. He ran to Chicago with the young woman he was seeing. They set up housekeeping, and, soon enough, became my parents. In a roundabout way, I suppose I am required to be grateful my father shot the unnamed man; I owe my life to that act of violence.

None of this is on his death certificate, of course. But his date of birth is precisely 10 years off. He told me he lied about his age always. When he was dating my mother, who was in her late teens, he did not want to admit to being an older man in his thirties. So he shaved a decade off the clock. Just like that. He declared himself to be 10 years younger, and it was so. That conceit found its way into his death certificate.

So what am I to believe, the reliable public record, or the words of my father, a liar?

I hardly know, and most days it does not matter.

But as I get older, I keep hoping what my father told me was true. Genetics may not be destiny, but they are a guide of sorts into the unknown. I’d prefer to believe my father died into his late eighties, than in his late seventies. That might forecast more time for me among the living.

Or it might not. My father’s death certificate is admissible in court, but what weight to accord it? That’s a separate matter. As with most evidence, I suspect I will see in it what suits me.

Reprinted courtesy of the Journal Register Co.


About Norm Pattis

Norm Pattis is a Connecticut based trial lawyer focused on high stakes criminal cases and civil right violations. He is a veteran of more than 100 jury trials, many resulting in acquittals for people charged with serious crimes, multi-million dollar civil rights and discrimination verdicts, and scores of cases favorably settled.

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I believe that the state is a necessary fiction and that failing to combat it is the first step toward tyranny.
– Norm Pattis


Nothing in this blog should be considered legal advice about your case. You need a lawyer who understands the context of your life and situation. What are offered here are merely suggested lines of inquiry you may explore with your lawyer.

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