Outrage in the courtroom
Dec 18, 2013 | 3579 views |  0 comments | 88 88 recommendations | email to a friend | print
The justice system in Texas is usually thought of as one of the toughest in the world, with frequent criticism of the state’s use of the death penalty. But now a Texas judge is drawing criticism for being too lenient in his sentence in the case of a teenager who killed four people while driving under the influence of drugs and alcohol.

It’s easy to see why. The judge gave the boy probation and turned him loose, shocking the families of those he killed when he plowed into a disabled vehicle parked on the side of the road.

A psychologist described the boy as a victim of “affluenza” to deflect responsibility from the boy whose blood alcohol level was found to be three times the legal limit when tested after the accident. From a wealthy family, he had never been taught to take responsibility for himself, he argued, and he had been raised with a sense of entitlement and privilege that impaired his judgment.

Reports also indicate up to 23 charges against the boy’s father have been dismissed, so it’s little wonder the boy thought he could get away with murder. Apparently, he has.

That’s just the latest case to bring criticism from victims, pundits and the public, and not all the cases were as far away as Texas.

An Alabama judge in Limestone County is also being criticized for his sentence of a serial rapist of 20 years in prison — all of it suspended. The man will never see the inside of a prison for his crimes. His victim was so outraged she went on national television to tell her story, discarding the usual veil of anonymity in the media for victims of sex crimes.

That case came to public attention not long after another rape case in Montana. That’s where a judge sentenced a teacher to 31 days for the rape of one of his students, a 14-year-old girl, who committed suicide before the case came to trial.

While defendants can file appeals, once a judge pronounces sentence in a criminal case — as long as it’s within legal guidelines and the judge is not illegally influenced — that’s usually the end of it. The prosecution can’t appeal.

Criticisms aren’t always about leniency. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor recently suggested in an opinion that some Alabama judges were overriding jury recommendations to impose death sentences to help their chances of being re-elected.

The “affluenza” term in the Texas case is destined to take its place beside the “Twinkie defense” in the nation’s judicial lore. That Twinkie defense was actually a media invention in a California murder trial in which the defendant was convicted of manslaughter. Justice Antonin Scalia mentioned the phrase in oral arguments in 2006 when he talked about judges “silly enough” to allow side matters in trials “that maybe shouldn’t be brought in.”

We’re certainly glad trials are held in courtrooms and not in the media. Constitutional safeguards are designed to protect the rights of individuals and to mete out justice according to law rather than popular opinion. But our system of government works best when citizens pay attention and let their opinions be known.

While we respect the law and the system, judges can make mistakes; some of them are outrageous mistakes.