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No Standing; No Relevance

Popularity Should Have No More Standing Than Race In Sentencing

This is Dark Cloud on Wednesday, October 03, 2007.

First, all you people in Isle de France and Nice, of which about 7 download both transcript and streaming mp3 each week, who are you? I’m assuming the only remote attraction you have to Dark Cloud is learning English comparing transcript to tape, but I am curious if that’s the reality. Email me. I want to know. Same to whoever in Singapore and, I think, Bahrain. Who ARE you? Hands. Hands?

Who watched 60 Minutes with Justice Clarence Thomas and came away thinking he was actually sane? As a conversation opener, I was not one, although he came across as far more articulate and much smarter than I recalled from his whiny Anita Hill hearings. I thought he had a debilitating chip on his shoulder the size of his ego and that he is unable to remove his private emotions from the practice of ruling on issues of law. Well, that’s probably not fair, as few can, but he isn’t good at sublimating it or even recognizing it for what it is.

I do think that black men aren’t allowed the wide parameters of acceptable behavior granted white men, and that Thomas has suffered for that, and maybe we’ve been spoiled by the better men who came before him who also were not allowed justifiable temper tantrums like Jackie Robinson, but we also had Thurgood Marshall who hovered far above the pettiness that seems to rule and direct Thomas’ life.

I wish Justice Thomas was my only concern with our Justice System, but we’ve had a couple of local criminal cases that expand my fears. It would be nice – truly, it would – if we could get through press coverage of a court case without being able to mouth the templates that everyone from judge to defendant’s mother follows, but it is becoming increasingly possible to write a rough précis of how cases will unfold before they begin.

In Ft. Collins, a football team punter apparently stabbed the starter above him on the depth chart, and this in the hope that he’d be elevated. Initially, the papers were focusing on the suspect’s mother as a harridan who drove her child to crime in his supposed quest to excel. And, on the sentencing day, the victim’s own mother stood up to explain…..well, what? What possible edification could she bring to the pursuit of justice? Nothing.

I want to say again that justice is hampered and not helped by the often emotional, sometimes out of control, not rarely irrelevant, and quite often self serving presentations by supposed ancillary victims of crimes at court. I understand how that initially arose to the extent it is now utilized. When cases of rape, or racial intimidation, first came to be understood by the vast majority of the public, it was often the dignified, pained testimony of parents and/or spouses who correctly calibrated the public’s perception of why being called a racial slur or living in fear of a predator was so damned awful. It was a crime against the victim, but also against that victim’s community and family. I do get that.

But judges discovered that the media loved these moments at about the same time the public, lawyers, and therapists discovered they could cash in on them. About the only time you see judges on television news is during these sessions, and if the judge can get to read the sentencing right after, he’ll be on television. The media interviews lawyers, the suspect, and victims, even jury members and witnesses, but rarely is a judge deemed so fascinating. They resent it.

But what is happening is that there is a two tiered justice system not dissimilar to high school popularity. The better liked defendant should not get a lesser sentence than a less liked suspect. The attractiveness of the parents of victim and suspect should – under objective law – have no relevance as to whether someone is guilty or not, or what the punishment should be, whether a cookie fight at recess or a knife fight in a parking lot. What if the suspect’s mother recalled Grendel’s? What if the victim’s mother looked like Gwenyth Paltrow and worked for free at an AID’s clinic in Africa? What in the world does that have to do with the crime? Or, say, one was black and one white?

Nothing. But the crime otherwise won’t benefit the template’s participants, a category now expanded to those paid by commercials.

And it’s for this reason only that I come to peace with Clarence Thomas. I’ve seen far too many black men get sentenced for longer stints – mostly regarding drugs – than white men for the same crime. We all have. Justice is supposed to be blind, and her scales dispassionate. We need to bring that attitude back to the courtroom, not – in effect – justify sentencing based upon race by basing sentencing on appealing individuals with no standing to the case at hand.