Back in 1993, when they were 19 and 21 years old, Jaime and Gladys Scott persuaded two men to give them a ride to a local nightclub in Forest, Mississippi. Jaime complained of nausea and asked for the car to be pulled over. When the driver complied, another car pulled up and disgorged three teenage boys armed with a shotgun. The victims were clubbed in the head with the shotgun butt, and relieved of their wallets, which proved to contain eleven dollars in cash. Jaime and Gladys left with the attackers, according to testimony from the victims.
All five of the perpetrators were eventually arrested, and while everyone involved was black, the case turned into a racial cause when the Scott sisters were slapped with remarkable double life sentences for their actions. The three armed boys pled guilty and received much smaller sentences, which they have already served. Civil rights activists began to clamor for parole, or a complete overturning of the verdict, maintaining that white women arrested in a similar situation would never have been given such harsh prison sentences.
The sisters apparently had poor representation at trial. According to a September 2010 story in USA Today, their attorney was reprimanded for “lack of diligence” and “failure to communicate with clients,” and was eventually disbarred on unrelated charges. They didn’t testify at their trial, and no one testified on their behalf, while two of their accomplices testified against them as part of plea-bargain deals.
Advocates for the Scott sisters have a way of describing the case in highly malleable terms. The sisters have always maintained their innocence, while some civil-rights advocates say the verdict doesn’t matter, only the excessive nature of the sentence. Their brother Willy, interviewed by ABC News while home on leave from a tour in Afghanistan, asked, “How do you take two teenage girls and some teenage boys and rob a person for $11 and get life in prison?” Apparently he didn’t get the “we’re innocent” memo.
Nadra Kareem, writing at Human Rights, compares the Scott’s tale with Les Miserables, in which a man is hunted by the law for 20 years after stealing a loaf of bread. She describes the crime as a petty theft in which “no one was harmed,” leading me to suspect she has never been clubbed in the head with a shotgun. This is a common refrain from the Scotts’ defenders – they tend to mention the tiny amount of money at stake, and leave out the little details about terror, shotguns, and head-smashing.
Granted that a double life sentence seems very excessive, but still, it’s not as if the ladies plucked eleven bucks out of an unattended cookie jar. Kareem asks if “black life is considered so worthless that lawmakers don’t care if the Scotts rot in prison over $11?” I find myself thinking about the value of the black life that might have ended at the muzzle of that shotgun back in 1993. It’s distressingly common for the victims to fade out of any discussion about high-profile crimes, which become all about The Persecuted Defendant versus The System, with The Victim reduced to a spectator… who must often be interviewed by Ouija board.
At any rate, Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour was finally persuaded to commute their sentences, 16 years after they were imprisoned. Since the whole affair has been clouded with racial politics since the trial, it should be noted that Barbour is white, and recently got in hot water with civil rights groups for some controversial musings on the history of integration in Mississippi.
The final strange twist in the story is that Jamie Scott is suffering from kidney failure… and Gladys Scott offered to donate a kidney as part of her parole agreement.
While Barbour initially said Gladys’ parole was “conditioned on” her kidney donation, his office later clarified that she won’t be sent back to prison if she can’t, or won’t, give up the organ. It would seem the sheer generosity of the offer influenced the parole decision, if all of the Governor’s statements are taken at face value. This should come as a relief to medical ethicists nervous about the spectacle of other prisoners clamoring for organ donation cards in exchange for parole. Hopefully ObamaCare wasn’t relying on that supply of organs.
The authorities seem satisfied the Scotts are no longer a threat to society, and their prosecutor, now retired, believes some relief from their heavy sentences is “appropriate,” although he still maintains their guilt. Given the facts of the case, it’s hard not to see double life terms as wildly excessive. Both law enforcement and the civil-rights community appear content with Governor Barbour’s decision to commute the sentences. As far as I can tell, nobody asked the now-forgotten victims for their opinion, and I doubt anyone ever will.