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Righting an Ugly Wrong

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 may not even have committed.

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, the Scott sisters received a double-life sentence each for their roles in organizing the robbery.

Though seldom used, Mississippi law permits life sentences for robbery.

In contrast to the cruel sentence slammed on the Scott sisters, their alleged teen accomplices served less than three years in prison, thanks to plea bargains offered to them by the prosecutor in return for their testomony against Gladys and Jamie Scott.

The Scott’s always maintained their innocence.

Days before Gov. Barbour’s action in the Scott’s case, he had generated a national furor when, during a news interview, he praised the white supremacist Citizen’s 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 Citizen’s Councils, some bearing the more evocative title of White Citizen’s 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 landmarkBrown 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 organizations 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 Citizen’s 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 woud 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 17 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 and a Chicago area scholar-activist to right the wrong done to them by a racist state legal system.

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.

Whether true compassion or crass politics, the juxtaposition of Barbour’s comment about the Citizens Councils and his Scott action is curious. His gubernatorial predecessor had rejected an earlier pardon request on behalf of the Scotts made in 2000.

This Scott sisters’ case again exposes yet again a scandal in the U.S. justice system hiding 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 Scott’s 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.

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

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.”

Additionally, Mississippi appellate courts saw no connection between the lackluster performance of the Scott’s defense attorney ? who called no 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.

Even more disturbing, the Mississippi Supreme Court curtly rejected three affidavits submitted on appeal 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. That witness 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 him 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.

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 one of her co-defendants received sentences ranging up to eight years in prison.

The Scotts’ 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.

Release of Gladys and Jamie Scott from prison is expected in a few weeks.

LINN WASHINGTON is a founding member of ThisCantBeHappening!, the new independent, collectively-owned, journalist-run online alternative newspaper. www.thiscantbehappening.net

 

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Linn Washington, Jr. is a founder of This Can’t Be Happening and a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, (AK Press). He lives in Philadelphia.

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