Wednesday, May 11, 2005

April 30, 2005

Dear Sis

It's early Saturday morning, I've just knocked out my breakfast (a fried-egg-and-jelly sandwich and a scoop of grits), and I'm settling down to a long day of legal work. Speaking of the law, yesterday I finished reading the Virginia Supreme Court's recent 139-page direct appeal decision upholding the conviction and death sentence of John Allen Muhammad, a/k/a "the D.C. sniper" who resides over in cell #1. You may recall that his juvenile co-defendant, Lee Boyd Malvo, who was the actual triggerman in this particular murder, was also convicted, but sentenced to life imprisonment. There was a total of 16 shootings and 10 homicides committed by these two clowns, but this trial was for one particular homicide). There's an old legal maxim that "bad cases make bad law," which, in the context of appellate work means that in especially egregious and/or heinous cases involving unsympathetic defendants there is an impulse, often irresistible, to bend the rules and change the law and/or facts in order to obtain the desired result. The problem with this, other than the intellectual dishonesty, is that once the Court scours out a new channel it cannot thereafter unring the bell and the resulting ripples spread outward, overwhelming everyone else (how's that for mixing my metaphors?)

Anyway, this Muhammad appellate decision is a reflection of this maxim. Virginia law explicitly states that (other than killing-for-hire cases) in order to receive a death sentence, you must be the actual killer (a "principal in the first degree"). I wouldn't even be on death row, for example, if my crime had occurred in Virginia. At any rate, Muhammad wasn't the shooter in this case. But, because this was such a high profile case (and certainly it was exceptionally cold, calculated & atrocious) it was predictable that the Virginia Supreme Court was going to indulge in whatever legal contortions and semantic gymnastics it deemed necessary in order to sustain this death sentence. Which is exactly what they did. If effect, the Court held that the law doesn't really mean what it seems to say and that you can be the actual killer without being the actual killer. The extent to which the Court bent over backwards to stretch the law's definitions to fit around the particular facts of this case would be laughable if the case wasn't so tragic and serious. Even on this very conservative Court, three of the seven Supreme Court Justices dissented. Now that the Court has "opened the door" in this single case, by stretching the law's definition of what constitutes an "actual killer" to encompass those that did not actually kill, the Commonwealth will, as certainly as water seeks its own level, now seek the death penalty in many more cases against defendants, who up until now, clearly were not eligible for a capital conviction and sentence.

I don't know if you've followed the recent rash of child abductions & murders down in Florida (little girls kidnapped, raped and murdered by convicted sex offenders living in their neighborhoods)? It's an old story, or I should say, it's a sadly common story. If there's one thing I've learned from my 35+ years in prison and reform schools, is that sexual predators do not stop or change. These guys are wired differently, and I mean that literally. A burglar, robber or a common thief, can wake up one day and decide to change, to turn his life around. A sexual predator, and especially a pedophile, cannot do this. Nowadays most people are coming to recognize this but I cannot understand why it's taken so long and why the Courts and legislators have been so reluctant to tackle this subject. You know, I was sentenced to life in prison at age 17 for a robbery in which nobody was hurt. I wasn't in prison very long before I learned what all convicts intuitively know: child molesters get every break inthe book and are routinely sentenced to probation or very short sentences. Like most people I detest child molesters and in my early years in prison I became very bitter over what I perceived as the widespread pattern of leniency accorded to all child molesters. While I was doing that life sentence, doing 5, 6, 8, 10 years, I'd watch particular child molesters come in, get out, come back, get out, come back, get out, over and over and over. Child molesters routinely got kid glove treatment from prosecutors, judges, prison officials, and the Parole Commission. It was so bad, and so widespread and consistent, that I came to suspect that perhaps there was a secret cabal of fellow pedophiles within the criminal justice system who made sure their fellow travelers got every break possible. It sounds crazy, but I could not otherwise explain what I was personally witnessing year after year after year. I'll tell you the message that I (and all other convicts) did get, loud and clear: that the citizens of Florida (speaking through their legislators and judges) cared a lot more about their money and property than about their kids. If you mess around and rob, steal or burglarize in Florida you will get a life sentence (or 99 years, another favorite sentence in Florida), but if you rape their kids, well, that's ok. This is a running joke within the prison system. Florida's prisons are chock full of guys doing Life for robbery or burglary, just as I was doing Life back in 1972. I served 15 years and during that same time I saw many, many pedophiles go through the system 3, 4 or 5 times. I cannot tell you how bitter that made me, sis. It also confirmed to me the apathy of the citizenry over their children. That sounds like a cold and cynical statement, but any objective observer knows that it's true. Florida has a long and rich institutional history of treating its children like trash, and there is a built-in institutional apathy that is immune to change. Every few year's there's another scandal at the Division of Child Services, and another blue-ribbon panel issues another report, but nothing ever changes. Then the public expresses amazement and shock when one of these abused kids grows up and begins cutting people's heads off...

I'm signing off, Sis. Keep your chin up & a smile on your face.
Love & Peace,

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