Oh justice, you sweet, schizophrenic [p]sychotic fiend. How mercurial are your ways; how confusing are your methods; how undecipherable are your goals. Yet there you stand – venerable, sexy and ultimately out-of-my-league.
For who else – and where else – would bring three stories so oddly juxtaposed? First, in Delaware, a judge sentenced a man identified as “a wealthy du Pont heir” to probation for fourth-degree rape1 reasoning that he “will not fare well” in a level 5 prison. According to the RawStory article (which leaves out significant relevant portions as seen below):
According to court records [Robert H. Richards IV] is listed at 6 feet, 4 inches tall and weighing between 250 and 276 pounds.
Court records do not cite any physical illnesses or disabilities.
Meanwhile, Digby is just as horrified as you are, but at this story of a severely mentally ill man in NY just convicted of a murder. This was his third trial. The first one was halted because he was
crazy2 unstable. Don’t take my word for it: look at him.
He brutally murdered one woman during a robbery gone bad and maimed another man. So what’s the issue?
Mr. Tarloff’s lawyers, Bryan Konoski and Frederick L. Sosinsky, argued that their client had a long history of delusions about communicating directly with God. He told doctors who examined him that his plan to rob Dr. Shinbach — which spun out of control when Dr. Faughey confronted him first — had been sanctioned by the lord.
But the lead prosecutor, Evan Krutoy, argued that Mr. Tarloff’s mental illness never grew so severe that he could not distinguish right from wrong. Nor, he argued, did Mr. Tarloff show signs he was out of touch with reality on the day of the killing.
So what was his plan and why did he want to rob them?
Mr. Tarloff, 47, told the police he went to Dr. Shinbach’s office on East 79th Street on Feb. 12, 2008, to rob the doctor of $50,000 for a far-fetched scheme to kidnap his mother from a hospital and move with her to Hawaii.
Jurors said they were convinced that even though Mr. Tarloff at times had delusions about communicating with God, he still knew that the robbery and murder were immoral in society’s eyes and understood that he had committed a crime.
“He’s sick, but I feel like he knew what he was doing,” said a juror, Dana Torres, 27, a construction worker. “For me, if he had said Satan told him to do this, it would have been a different story.”
Another juror, Emma Pulitzer, 27, said the narrow rules governing the insanity defense left the jury little choice but to convict Mr. Tarloff, because even during psychotic periods he was obsessed with religion and morality. Still, she said, Mr. Tarloff belonged in a mental hospital, not a prison.
And finally, the infinitely-more-than-just-a-little-sad story of Shanesha Taylor, a homeless woman who was arrested for leaving her kids in the car while she went for a job interview.
The three stories are disparate and the memes surrounding each are indisputably different, but don’t be fooled: they are, at essence, about one thing – the utter uselessness of our prisons and the inability of our justice system to hand out anything that should remotely be considered “justice”.
As I’ve said repeatedly, prisons aren’t a fun place at all. They’re miserable, dank, scary and smell of piss and shit and blood and tears. I’d probably try to kill myself within the first 24 hours and who are you kidding, so would you.
So why do we have them? Ostensibly to punish. To inflict some measure of revenge on those that hurt others. That is a legitimate goal. But how do we do that? Rather, how should we?
Should they be miserable depressing places where all we do is punish and institutionalize and dehumanize? What does it say of our prisons when a 6’4″ man weighing 250-276lbs would not “fare well”?
It is easy, first of all, to dismiss the ‘du Pont’ story as the triumph of a wealthy man over the criminal justice system. The headlines filled with outrage write themselves. The anger is palpable when news of such incidents breaks not only because it furthers the narrative of privilege accorded the wealthy, but is also coupled with the indefensible crime of child molestation.
But if we consider the facts underlying the story – which are conveniently left out of the RawStory version – then a different picture emerges. From the Delaware Online version of the article (which RawStory apparently has bastardized and chopped up):
[Judge] Jurden also ordered Richards to “participate in a sex offenders” treatment program after his lawyer provided her with an evaluation from a clinic in Massachusetts. Her order stipulated that he undergo inpatient treatment followed by outpatient treatment. The judge also ordered him to have no contact with children under 16 and prohibited him from possessing pornography.
Jurden’s order also included other mitigating circumstances considered before sentencing, citing his “strong family support” and “significant treatment needs which must be met.” The order noted, “Treatment needs exceed need for punishment,” which the SENTAC manual lists as a factor for judges to consider.
Attorneys said a treatment sentence is more common for first-time drug offenders, drunk drivers and the mentally ill, but is not unheard of for sex offenders. “It’s not completely out of left field that a judge would say that,” [Joseph S. Grubb, chief New Castle County prosecutor] said.
But he’s not the only one:
Prosecutor Josette Manning, who spent six years in the sex crimes unit, said juvenile offenders in Delaware are often sent to out-of-state treatment facilities rather than a detention center. Some adults can get sex treatment in prison, she said, but when an offender can afford to pay the cost of inpatient treatment themselves, judges sometimes make that part of the sentence instead of prison.
“It’s absolutely appropriate for a judge to consider a defendant’s treatment needs during sentencing” for sex crimes, Manning said.
“Mr. du Pont” was set to go to trial and instead was offered a deal by the prosecutor where the recommended sentence was 0 to 2 1/2 years.
A judge sentenced him to probation citing “significant treatment needs that must be met”. Remember that quote from the Raw Story above about ‘no medical conditions were noted’? That’s because any of that information would be in a pre-sentence report that’s private and because it’s confidential medical information.
If there’s one rule that you can live by in criminal court, it’s that if there’s something remotely objectionable happening in favor of a defendant, a prosecutor will object to it. So when two prosecutors act as if this isn’t that unusual or shocking, you know that maybe what the judge did isn’t so outrageous after all.
That’s not to say that there isn’t a problem with wealth. Mr. Richards got to go home because he needed treatment and he was able to afford to go to a clinic in MA to get that.
The real takeway from this should be not that Mr. Richards got a break, but that he got fair treatment for himself because he was rich and thus, there are hundreds who deserve the same but can’t get it because they are poor.
Just because he is the scion of a wealthy family doesn’t mean that his sentence wasn’t just. We mustn’t punish him for that. We must be punished for creating a system that encourages this disparity. We fail to adequately fund prisons so they can have adequate rehabilitative programs for all needy inmates. We fail to consider anything that is slightly nuanced and deviates from the mass-hysteria of instant and lifelong incarceration for anyone accused of serious crimes.
The hypocrisy is apparent when we consider Ms. Taylor’s predicament. She is clearly being punished by virtue of being poor. The system has failed her and we are quick to recognize that and take up alms to support her.
Yet would any of them consider the same crusade for the poor child molester who desperately needs the same treatment that Mr. Richards got but won’t because he is just as poor as Shanesha Taylor?
Is one morally just while the other is morally unjust? Yet we also take up the cause of those who are mentally ill, like Mr. Tarloff. We recognize that he is deserving of more than jail because he has an illness.
Yet it would not apply to Mr. Richards.
Maybe we don’t have a wealth disparity in the system. Maybe we are just intolerant of child molesters whether they are mentally ill or not.
Maybe we suffer from the affliction of having the courage of our convictions but only if they don’t require us to stand next to those we find morally repugnant.
Maybe these stories expose more than just inadequacies in the system; they expose our inherent biases and the convenient nature of our beliefs.