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.

The Scott Sisters, Jamie and GladysThe Scott Sisters, Jamie and Gladys

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.

News reports in the wake of Barbour’s gauzy recollection about his hometown’s history detailed how the Citizens Council members in that small town had actually fired black employees for supporting a NAACP voter drive in the mid-1950s.

Apparently for Gov. Barbour, the Council’s economic strangulation of blacks seeking legal rights was far better than the KKK’s physical terrorism.

Barbour’s action suspending their sentences requires Gladys Scott to donate one of her kidneys to her older her sister – something the younger Scott sister had already offered to do on her own back in January 2010 when doctors diagnosed kidney failure in Jamie.

Barbour spokespersons hastened to explain that Gladys would not risk a return to prison if she proved unable medically to donate a kidney and also stressed that Mississippi’s state government would not pay for cost of the transplant.

The governor’s office said Medicaid, the state program that provides medical care for the poor, could possibly pay for a transplant.

Doctors say Jamie’s kidney failure is at least partly a result of poor conditions and poor medical treatment the woman received since entering the Mississippi prison system 16 years ago.

Barbour’s initial statement announcing his action made it clear that beyond any humanitarian issues, the long-time Mississippi politician and Republican presidential aspirant had concerns about the continuing cost of care for Jamie Scott who, like her sister, is being held in a Mississippi state prison for females that has been frequently criticized for poor living conditions, including its unsanitary medical facility.

The Scott sisters’ case has garnered international attention during the past year – primarily thanks to grass-roots activism via the internet, and to years of efforts by their mother, Evelyn Rasco, and Chicago area scholar-activist Nancy Lockhart to right the wrong done to them by a racist state legal system.
Rasco raised the five children of her daughters following their imprisonment.

Some deny that Barbour released the Scott sisters to defuse the controversy over his inaccurate and insensitive comments regarding the pro-segregationist Council. They cite his administration’s investigation into a petition filed in September seeking a pardon for the women, who have been separated from their children since their incarceration.

A lawyer who has represented the Scott sisters, Jackson, Miss City Councilman Chokwe Lumumba, said while Barbour certainly acted “for some political reasons” he felt the Governor acted due to mounting public pressure that would embarrass the state.

“The September 15th demonstration [at the state’s capitol] began the wheels of change,” Lumumba said during a press conference about the Scotts pending release. “After that demonstration (Barbour) ordered an investigation by the Parole Board and that investigation was just completed in early December.”

Whether Barbour, a conservative Republican, acted for true compassion or crass politics, the juxtaposition of his comment about the Citizens Councils and his Scott action is curious in its timing.
Barbour’s gubernatorial predecessor, a Democrat, had rejected an earlier pardon request for the Scotts made in 2000. Lawyer Lumumba filed the 2000 and 2010 pardon requests.

In July 2008 Barbour pardoned five convicted murderers – four of whom had murdered either their wives or girlfriends. Those five murderers shared the common status of having been assigned to a prison work detail at Barbour’s Governor’s Mansion.

This Scott sisters’ case exposes yet again a scandal in the U.S. justice system that hides in plain sight.
That scandal is the reticence of appellate courts to correct clear violations of defendants’ rights caused by misconduct of police, such as the coercion of fraudulent testimony from prosecution witnesses and the overzealous pursuit by prosecutors of punishment that exceeds the severity of the crime.

Courts, when failing to protect defendants from such law enforcement abuses, frequently hide behind the letter of the law to suppress the spirit of the law, which should be to ensure justice.

The Scott sisters, their family and their supporters say the women’s prosecution actually stemmed from a local sheriff who was retaliating over the refusal of the girls’ father to participate in a scheme of payoffs.

Even if the prosecutor in the Scotts’ case was totally unaware of the Sheriff’s alleged corrupt entanglements (which, while possible seems highly unlikely), the prosecutor could have taken a less aggressive stance in a case fraught with incongruities, including conflicting accounts of events from the alleged victims and the actual assailants. (That prosecutor now favors release of the sisters.)

Mississippi appellate courts found no errors in inactions by the defense attorney and actions by the prosecutor.

Mississippi appellate courts saw no connection between the lackluster performance of the Scott’s defense attorney – who failed to interview witnesses on their behalf – and the fact that poor performances in other trials had lead the Mississippi Supreme Court to suspend that lawyer in February 1996 – two years after the Scotts’ trial.

Mississippi authorities later stripped the same lawyer of his license to practice law in the state.

The Mississippi Court of Appeals brushed aside defense claims of error by the prosecutor in a 1996 ruling upholding the Scott’s conviction. That Court stated that although the prosecutor had engaged in eight instances of improperly asking leading questions of witnesses, there was “ample evidence even without the leading questions.”

Even more disturbing, the Mississippi Supreme Court refused to review appeals by the Scott sisters.
In one justice crushing action Mississippi’s highest court curtly rejected three affidavits submitted on appeal by lawyer Lumumba in the late 1990s detailing police misconduct…evidence that support the Scott sisters’ consistent claims of innocence.

One affidavit came from one of three other teen assailants who said the Sheriff had threatened the trio with severe punishment if they did not finger the Scott sisters.

The Sheriff, the affidavit stated, threatened life sentences in that state’s infamous Parchman prison for the trio – then aged 14-18-years-old. The Sheriff told the 14-year-old that adult inmates at Parchman would turn the boys into “women.”

A second affidavit came from a man who found a wallet belonging to the prime robbery victim containing $60 cash and that victim’s credit cards during a search ordered by the Sheriff. That witness, an inmate then under the control of the Sheriff, said the Sheriff threatened him with a long sentence in Parchman if he revealed his discovery of the wallet.

The third affidavit came from a prison inmate who said another of those teen assailants had told her the Scotts had played no role in the robbery.

Despite Mississippi law permitting life sentences for robbery, the sentences slapped on the Scott sisters appear horrifically excessive when compared to other cases in that state.

Consider the case of a Mississippi woman named Bessie Stewart, who was convicted of participating in the assault/robbery of a policeman in 1993 – the same year as the alleged robbery involving the Scott sisters. Stewart received a one year suspended sentence, while her two co-defendants received sentences of three years and 5-8-years respectively.

The Scotts’ double-life sentence for that $11 robbery eclipsed a 25-year-term received by Versie Terron Scott (no relation) for the forcible knife-point rape of a woman sleeping in her bedroom the year before the Scotts’ arrest.

Mississippi State Supreme Court records from the time frame bracketing that body’s refusal to review the Scotts’ appeal list a man receiving a 6-year sentence for “touching of a child for lustful purposes,” a 30-year term for a man convicted of selling cocaine and a life sentence for a murderer.

Lawyer Lumumba, during that September demonstration in Jackson, said the Scott sisters “are not guilty of what they were charged with and even if guilty, no civilized country should have them in prison for 16-years on a double life sentence.”

While Lumumba pointed fingers of blame at police, the prosecutor and the trial judge, he also criticized the jury of seven whites and five blacks who convicted the sisters despite testimony from assailants and victims alike absolving the Scotts.

“We have some stupid people in our community. No one was even hurt in this case,” Lumumba said while noting the culture of intimidation permeating many Mississippi counties that law enforcers often manipulate.

Release of Gladys and Jamie Scott from prison is expected in a few weeks after Mississippi authorities set up a supervision arrangement with Florida corrections personnel because the sisters plan to live with family in the Sunshine State.