Post Date: October 7, 2013
I want to believe in the innate goodness of mankind and the general fairness of prosecutors. But sometimes I just can’t. Sometimes a story is so incredible that you have to ask yourself, “How do these people sleep at night?!”
The story I’m trying to make sense of today is that of Herman Wallace, a 71 year-old who spent 40 years in solitary confinement in a Louisiana prison for the murder of a prison guard. I don’t know if he was guilty or innocent, though it’s pretty clear he didn’t get a fair trial. But guilty or not, spending 40 years in a cell for 23 hours a day is a very brutal punishment.
Unbelievably, his punishment wasn’t enough for state prosecutors. After a federal judge ruled last week that Mr. Wallace, who had terminal liver cancer, should be freed from prison because of a flaw in the indictment, a Louisiana district attorney successfully persuaded a grand jury to re-indict Mr. Wallace for the murder.
That’s right: though Mr. Wallace was close to death after spending 40 years in solitary confinement and presented no threat to the public, the district attorney was concerned that he hadn’t served his full life sentence. I can’t help but ask, “At what point did revenge overtake justice?”
The district attorney will not get the pleasure of retrying Mr. Wallace because Mr. Wallace died last Friday, just three days after his release.
Are all prosecutors heartless, revengeful, and out for victories instead of justice? No. There are many good prosecutors. I just had lunch with one (well, he’s a former prosecutor now). But in my 23 years running FAMM, I have heard from too many people sentenced to prison for too long. Yes, mandatory sentences are often to blame, but some of the responsibility also lies with the prosecutors who abuse the awesome discretion our laws give to them.
We need those who lead our federal and state justice systems to exercise greater oversight of prosecutorial decision-making. That’s why U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder’s memorandum to federal prosecutors gives me hope. The “Holder Memo” issued in August basically tells prosecutors not to bring outrageous charges in drug cases. It lays out policies for prosecutors to follow in charging drug cases with an eye toward reducing the number of nonviolent people getting mandatory minimum prison sentences. The memo even directs prosecutors to go back and look at cases of individuals who have been convicted, but not yet sentenced, and decide if the person should be re-charged with offenses that don’t carry mandatory minimum terms. FAMM’s general counsel, Mary Price, explains the impact of the Holder Memo in this op-ed.
These are welcome developments. Of course, the Holder Memo doesn’t apply to non-drug cases, which is a problem. If we’re serious about improving our justice system and downsizing overcrowded federal prisons, we shouldn’t have mandatory minimum sentences at all – and certainly not for nonviolent offenses, regardless of whether they involved drugs. But the Holder Memo does set a tone for moving beyond revenge and toward justice, and that’s a direction we can all support.