Righting an Ugly Wrong: Compassion or Just Crass Political Calculation?
An outrageous assertion by a potential presidential candidate who praised a group which had notoriously and openly supported racial segregation played a role in finally righting one of the most grotesque wrongs anywhere in America’s justice system with the freeing of two sisters serving controversial double-life sentences for an $11 robbery they did not commit.
Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour recently announced suspending the troubling prison sentences of Gladys and Jamie Scott primarily on the humanitarian grounds that older sister Jamie needs a kidney transplant.
Back in 1994, a Mississippi jury convicted the Scott sisters for a Christmas Eve robbery the preceding year. The Scotts, according to police and prosecutors, had lured two men into an ambush where three teens robbed the victims of what records indicate was $11 in cash.
Despite their having no criminal record and no direct involvement in the actual robbery, according to testimony, the Scott sisters received a double-life sentence each for what the prosecutor said was their roles in organizing the robbery.
Though seldom used, Mississippi law permits life sentences for robbery.
Those double life sentences exceeded prison time given to persons in Mississippi convicted of directly participating in child molestation, major drug dealing and even murder.
In contrast to the cruel sentence slammed on the Scott sisters, their alleged teen accomplices--the youths who actually robbed the victims--served less than three years in prison, thanks to plea bargains offered to them by the prosecutor in return for their testimony against Gladys and Jamie Scott, who were 19 and 21 years old respectively when sent to prison sixteen years ago.
The Scotts always maintained their innocence.
Days before Gov. Barbour’s action in the Scotts' case, he had generated a national furor when, during a news interview, he praised the white supremacist Citizens Council in his Mississippi hometown, contending it had served as a force for good during the Civil Rights era because it had allegedly opposed the Ku Klux Klan.
Those frequently violent Citizens Councils, some bearing the more evocative title of White Citizens Council, sprang up across the Deep South in the 1950s in reaction to substantial social changes sparked by the surge in civil rights activism and by U.S. Supreme Court rulings striking down legal segregation, notably the landmark Brown v Board of Education school desegregation decision.
The current incarnation of the old White Citizens Council, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center that monitors white hate groups nationwide, is the Council of Conservative Citizens, which the Center calls “the largest white nationalist group in America.”
There are eight Council of Conservative Citizens groups currently operating in Mississippi, according to Center data, compared to six in Alabama and three in Louisiana, the two states bordering Mississippi.