‘So Utterly Inhumane’
By BOB HERBERT
You have to believe that somebody really had it in for the Scott sisters, Jamie and Gladys. They have always insisted that they had nothing to do with a robbery that occurred near the small town of Forest, Miss., on Christmas Eve in 1993. It was not the kind of crime to cause a stir. No one was hurt and perhaps $11 was taken.
Jamie was 21 at the time and Gladys just 19. But what has happened to them takes your breath away.
They were convicted by a jury and handed the most draconian sentences imaginable — short of the death penalty. Each was sentenced to two consecutive life terms in state prison, and they have been imprisoned ever since. Jamie is now 38 and seriously ill. Both of her kidneys have failed. Gladys is 36.
This is Mississippi we’re talking about, a place that in many ways has not advanced much beyond the Middle Ages.
The authorities did not even argue that the Scott sisters had committed the robbery. They were accused of luring two men into a trap, in which the men had their wallets taken by acquaintances of the sisters, one of whom had a shotgun.
It was a serious crime. But the case against the sisters was extremely shaky. In any event, even if they were guilty, the punishment is so wildly out of proportion to the offense that it should not be allowed to stand.
Three teenagers pleaded guilty to robbing the men. They ranged in age from 14 to 18. And in their initial statements to investigators, they did not implicate the Scott sisters.
But a plea deal was arranged in which the teens were required to swear that the women were involved, and two of the teens were obliged, as part of the deal, to testify against the sisters in court.
Howard Patrick, who was 14 at the time of the robbery, said that the pressure from the authorities to implicate the sisters began almost immediately. He testified, “They said if I didn’t participate with them, they would send me to Parchman and make me out a female.”
He was referring to Mississippi State Prison, which was once the notoriously violent Parchman prison farm. The lawyer questioning the boy said, “In other words, they would send you to Parchman and you would get raped, right?”
“Yes, sir,” the boy said.
The teens were sentenced to eight years in prison each, and they were released after serving just two years.
This is a case that should be repugnant to anyone with the slightest interest in justice. The right thing to do at this point is to get the sisters out of prison as quickly as possible and ensure that Jamie gets proper medical treatment.
A number of people have taken up the sisters’ cause, including Ben Jealous, the president of the N.A.A.C.P., who is trying to help secure a pardon from Gov. Haley Barbour of Mississippi. “It makes you sick to think that this sort of thing can happen,” he said. “That these women should be kept in prison until they die — well, that’s just so utterly inhumane.”
I have no idea why the authorities were so dead set on implicating the Scott sisters in the crime and sending them away for life, while letting the teens who unquestionably committed the robbery get off with much lighter sentences.
Life sentences for robbery can only be imposed by juries in Mississippi, but it is extremely rare for that sentencing option to even be included in the instructions given to jurors. It’s fair to think, in other words, that there would have to be some extraordinary reason for prosecutors and the court to offer such a draconian possibility to a jury.
Chokwe Lumumba, a lawyer representing the sisters, captured the prevailing legal sentiment when he said: “I don’t think Mississippi law anticipates that you’re going to be giving this instruction in a case where nobody gets hurt and $11 is allegedly stolen. In the majority of robbery cases, even the ones that are somewhat nasty, they don’t read that instruction.”
The reason for giving the jury the option of imposing life sentences in this case escapes me. Even the original prosecutor, Ken Turner, who is now retired and who believes the sisters were guilty, has said that he thinks it would be “appropriate” to offer them relief from their extreme sentences. He told The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Miss., “It was not a particularly egregious case.”
The appeals process for the women has long since been exhausted. It is up to Governor Barbour, who is considering petitions on the sisters’ behalf, to do the humane thing.
A pardon or commutation of sentence — some form of relief that would release Jamie and Gladys Scott from the hideous shackles of a lifetime in prison — is not just desirable, it’s absolutely essential.