Haley Barbour Will Decide the Fate of the Scott Sisters

| Tue Oct. 12, 2010 1:00 PM EDT

Jamie and Gladys Scott are two young women from rural Mississippi who were convicted, on questionable evidence, of involvement in an armed robbery that netted $11, and were sentenced to life in prison. Jamie Scott is suffering from end-stage renal disease, exacerbated by prison conditions and inadequate treatment–so her life sentence may soon become a death sentence.

Mother Jones was among the first non-local media to cover the case of the Scott sisters. Now the case in finally getting some national attention: The president of the NAACP, Ben Jealous, has called the sisters’ situation “utterly inhumane”; along with a growing number of grassroots supporters, he is urging Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour to consider a pardon or commutation of their sentence. Today, this same call was made by New York Times op-ed columnist Bob Herbert. After describing the Scotts’ conviction and sentence, he writes:

This is Mississippi we’re talking about, a place that in many ways has not advanced much beyond the Middle Ages.

The authorities did not even argue that the Scott sisters had committed the robbery. They were accused of luring two men into a trap, in which the men had their wallets taken by acquaintances of the sisters, one of whom had a shotgun.

It was a serious crime. But the case against the sisters was extremely shaky. In any event, even if they were guilty, the punishment is so wildly out of proportion to the offense that it should not be allowed to stand.

Three teenagers pleaded guilty to robbing the men. They ranged in age from 14 to 18. And in their initial statements to investigators, they did not implicate the Scott sisters.

But a plea deal was arranged in which the teens were required to swear that the women were involved, and two of the teens were obliged, as part of the deal, to testify against the sisters in court.

Howard Patrick, who was 14 at the time of the robbery, said that the pressure from the authorities to implicate the sisters began almost immediately. He testified, “They said if I didn’t participate with them, they would send me to Parchman and make me out a female.”

He was referring to Mississippi State Prison, which was once the notoriously violent Parchman prison farm. The lawyer questioning the boy said, “In other words, they would send you to Parchman and you would get raped, right?”

“Yes, sir,” the boy said. The teens were sentenced to eight years in prison each, and they were released after serving just two years...

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Life sentences for robbery can only be imposed by juries in Mississippi, but it is extremely rare for that sentencing option to even be included in the instructions given to jurors. It’s fair to think, in other words, that there would have to be some extraordinary reason for prosecutors and the court to offer such a draconian possibility to a jury…

The reason for giving the jury the option of imposing life sentences in this case escapes me. Even the original prosecutor, Ken Turner, who is now retired and who believes the sisters were guilty, has said that he thinks it would be “appropriate” to offer them relief from their extreme sentences. He told The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Miss., “It was not a particularly egregious case.”

The appeals process for the women has long since been exhausted. It is up to Governor Barbour, who is considering petitions on the sisters’ behalf, to do the humane thing.

Haley Barbour is widely thought to be in the running for the presidency on the Republican ticket, a fact that could cut two ways in the case of the Scotts. On the one hand, he might want to maintain his law and order stance at the expense of the two women. On the other hand, the Scotts’ sentence is so absurd that even the DA who convicted them says it should be reduced, and Barbour might be thinking of letting them go as a small step towards wooing the black vote. In any event, the Scott sisters’ supporters have made their case a difficult one for the governor to simply ignore, which is how he deals with most clemency requests.

None of these developments have had any effect on the hardnosed Judge Marcus Gordon, who originally sentenced the two women, and who remains in charge of their case. According to Nancy Lockhart, the legal analyst who made the case public and remains in close touch with members of the Scott family, Gordon would not sign an order for the sisters to attend their grandfather’s funeral–but they were allowed to attend the wake in shackles.

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