The Common Good

Seeking Mercy (and Justice) in Mississippi

In 1994, Jamie and Gladys Scott were convicted in a Mississippi state court. Despite the fact that Jaime was only 21 and her sister Gladys merely 19; that they were both mothers of young children; and that this was the first time either of them had gotten in trouble with the law, they were sentenced to not one, but two, consecutive life terms. Their crime? According to prosecutors, on Christmas Eve in 1993, the sisters were near their hometown of Forest, Mississippi when they convinced two men to give them a ride. As they were driving, one of the sisters asked the driver to pull over. At that point, three teenagers who were in another car, ran up and, armed with a gun, robbed the two men. The sisters then fled with the three teenagers. The robbery netted $11; neither of the two victims suffered any physical injury.

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The imposition of such a harsh sentence for such a crime (which, while horrible -- especially for the victims -- is certainly minor and nothing like the types of crimes for which people are typically sentenced to life imprisonment) would be questionable enough, but there are serious doubts about whether Jamie and Gladys were even involved in the crime that landed them in prison. The sisters have always maintained their innocence, and there is credible evidence to corroborate their argument. While the three teenagers who actually (and undeniably) committed the robbery initially swore that Jamie and Gladys were involved as part of the plea deal they struck (they were each sentenced to 8 years in prison, but got out after serving 2), they have now admitted that they were coerced into making those statements.

For the past 16 years, Evelyn Rasco, Jamie and Gladys' mother, has lobbied for someone -- anyone -- to pay attention to this case and rally to defend her daughters. Recently, her efforts have begun to pay off. The president of the NAACP, Benjamin Jealous, has spoken out against this overly punitive sentence and requested that the governor of Mississippi, Haley Barbour, pardon the sisters (their appeals have been exhausted, so getting relief from the governor is now their only realistic option). In so doing, Mr. Jealous has brought national attention to the plight of Jamie and Gladys, and within the last few weeks hundreds of people, including elected officials, marched and protested in Jackson, Mississippi, calling for the sisters' release. Even the man who originally prosecuted them has publicly stated that it would be "appropriate" to provide some relief to the sisters (although he still maintains that he believes the sisters are guilty).

But even if the Scott sisters were involved (although I will admit that I find the evidence of their innocence to be compelling), the horrible ordeal they have had to endure over these past 16 years shines a light on a much broader problem in this country: Namely, we sentence people to prison terms that are far too long. On average, lengths of prison sentences have increased over the past decade, and although steps have been taken to correct this problem much work remains to be done. Also, the sad reality is that women are increasingly bearing the brunt of our punitive criminal justice policy: The Sentencing Project reports that the number of women in prison is increasing at approximately double the rate for men.

Governor Barbour has taken a step in the right direction for the Scott sisters by asking the Mississippi Parole Board to review the case and determine if clemency is warranted. Both the governor and the parole board should move with the utmost speed; neither of Jamie's kidneys are functioning any longer, and it is not hard to imagine how difficult it must be to endure such a condition while in prison. Hopefully, others nationwide will join in the effort to ensure the stop of the horrible practice of sentencing thousands of people to overly long, and hence unjust, prison sentences.

portrait-johnathan-smithJohnathan Smith is a New York-based lawyer. He also serves as a youth minister at Gethsemane Baptist Church.

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