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Friday, December 31, 2010

This is the time of year when serious bloggers no doubt are busy creating their 2010 retroespectives of their blog postings. I’d thought about doing something like that myself - but as with my comments about George Ryan the other day, a couple of interconnected news stories have dictated otherwise - news stories that beg the question of what kind of a nation we are. If you had to describe the United States in a few words - say in five words or less - a pretty good description of how we think of ourselves would be " a nation of laws." That’s four words - one under the limit. Other nations may describe themselves that way, but we wouldn’t think of them as being comparable to our understanding of laws. In Pakistan for example there’s a law against blasphemy - saying anything that could be considered disrespectful of Islam or the prophet Mohammed - punishable by death. And we all know that adultery can bring a sentence of death by stoning in Iran.

But while we’re busy turning up our noses and laughing up our sleeves at how some nations consider themselves nations of laws - it might be a good idea, as 2010 draws to a close, to take a look at what kind of a "nation of laws" we take so much pride in. I touched on this briefly on November 20, 2010, when I was writing about the nutty differences between the states. I made the point that the penalty for murder could depend on where the murderer was standing when the crime was committed. In one place it could be years in prison - but a few feet away, across a state line - it could be death.

Now we have two end of the year stories that bring that kind of nuttiness into sharp focus. In one story, one Charles Clements, a 69 year old who has been described in just about all of the news coverage as "a great grandfather and former marine," confronted Joshua Funchea, a 23 year old neighbor, whose dog had urinated on the older man’s well manicured lawn in which he took exceptional pride. An argument ensued and Clements shot and killed Funches.

At trial, the killer was found guilty of second degree murder and sentenced to - it’s like a gag with an unexpected punch line - wait for it - Four Years Probation!! The story has been widely covered and you’ve probably read about it. Clements testified that the younger man had cussed him out and punched him in the face and so he shot him in self defense. Whether or not there were witnesses to the confrontation isn’t clear - but in any event, the judge in the case - Daniel Rozak - bought the "explanation" and decided that probation was sufficient punishment. The prosecutors aren’t appealing the decision because they say they respect this judge. Apparently, Judge Roazak though it was perfectly normal for Mr Clements to chase his neighbor and erring dog down the street brandishing a gun! O.K. I exaggerate. The gun was in his pocket. But nonetheless, he went after the younger man with a gun in his possession and when he subsequently, according to his version of events - got pushed and punched - why, he simply "defended" himself. By pulling out the gun and killing his attacker. Perfectly natural reaction. Absolutely justified. The law according to Judge Rozak of Will County, Illinois.

A few states away, Haley Barbour, the merciful Governor of Mississippi, has decided to "indefinitely suspend" the sentence of Gladys and Jamie Scott, two sisters who had been serving a life sentence for an armed robbery in which no one was hurt and the haul was a big $11 - or maybe it was twelve. After all, it was a long time ago. The sisters have been in jail for sixteen years and memories of the specifics of old cases tend to fade. I doubt if the victims themselves would remember exactly how much was taken from them that many years ago. I don’t know what kind of law can put you away for life for armed robbery in Mississippi. According to what I’ve read about the case, the sisters lured the victims into an ambush where a bunch of teens beat and robbed them. The actual robbers got lesser sentences and for all I know may be long gone from the pokey. But the sisters were there until the release of death until Barbour intervened. Not as an act of mercy. Not to right an injustice. But to save money. And with conditions yet.

One of the sisters is on dialysis, costing the state hundreds of thousands of dollars - so Barbour decided to rid the state of that cost by offering to release the two on condition that the healthy sister donate a kidney to the other. The arrangement raises all kinds of issues - ethical, legal and monetary, which we’ll no doubt be reading about in the weeks and months ahead. But that isn’t the issue here. What concerns me is the life sentence the two women received for an eleven or twelve dollar robbery. I will admit to not doing a great deal of research about the Scott sisters, but as far as I have been able to determine, they weren’t career criminals with multiple past convictions, so the robbery and subsequent life sentence wasn’t the culmination of a life of crime. Mississippians didn’t exhale a collective sigh of relief that those dangerous ladies had finally been apprehended and locked away so they could no longer be a menace to their peaceful southern society. So their punishment, though not as extreme, could be compared to the punishment for dissing Mohammed in Pakistan. In both cases, the punishment didn’t fit the crime - but is more egregious here because we are the original "nation of laws." The Constitution and all that stuff.

So what we have here as the year comes to a close is - on one hand a sentence of life imprisonment in the state of Mississippi for taking part in an eleven or twelve dollar robbery - while on the other hand, as Tevye would say - four years of probation in Illinois for killing someone who didn’t stop his dog from urinating on the killer's lawn and who reacted belligerently when he was chased by a gun toting lawn care fanatic. Both happening in our nation of laws. In the same country. Not in two third world countries with laws that provide fodder for late night comedians on American television. Right here, at home.

Both cases will consume a small portion of our attention for a while - there’ll be some outrage expressed by some people over aspects of both of them - but in a while, in a very short while, we’ll give a collective shrug and get on with our lives. The outrage that sent two young women for life for a two bit robbery in one state while a murder in another was "punished" with probation will result in no examination or changes to the disparate laws of various states or even counties within those states - nor to those who administer them. And we’ll continue to be disgusted by, feel superior to and laugh about the laws of some other countries and why and how those who break them are punished. Even though in some ways, we’re as bad as they are. A conclusion with which I am sure the Scott sisters and the surviving members of Joshua Finches’ family would agree.

A strange story on which to end the New Year. Let’s hope for brighter times and subjects in 2011. Even though I’m thinking that my first commentary in the new year might be about Republicans…….