In August 2017, Willie Nash was arrested on misdemeanor charges and placed in the Newton County Jail in Decatur, Mississippi. Nash was in possession of a cellphone at the time of his arrest. During the booking process, jailers either didn’t search Nash or failed to detect the phone during a search.
Mississippi law, Mississippi Code Section 47-5-193 (Rev. 2015), prohibits inmates in county jails or state correctional facilities from possessing a cellphone. A violation of this law can subject an inmate to a sentence of not less than 3 or more than 15 years in prison. There is no evidence that Willie Nash was aware of this law when he was placed in the county jail.
In any event, Nash openly asked a jailer to charge the cellphone after he was in custody. The jailer turned the phone over to the sheriff who referred it to the local district attorney. The D.A. charged Nash with violating Section 47-5-193. The African American father of three, who has a relatively minor criminal record, was nonetheless prosecuted and convicted at a trial.
Man Sentenced to 12 Years for Possession of Cell Phone
On August 23, 2018, Circuit Judge Mark Sheldon Duncan, a white jurist, sentenced Nash to twelve years in the state’s incredibly violent prison system, telling him that he should consider himself “fortunate.”
Nash appealed the unusually harsh sentence to the Mississippi Supreme Court, arguing that the 12 years amounted to “cruel and unusual” punishment because it was disproportionate to the offense.
On January 9, 2020, Mississippi’s highest court unanimously upheld the sentence because it fell within the statutory range of punishment authorized by state law. Although concurring with the decision, one justice of the court, Justice P.J. King, strongly pointed out that the Nash case “demonstrate[s] a failure of our criminal justice system on multiple levels.”
A Failure in Our Criminal Justice System
The Willie Nash case has drawn national and international media attention as a travesty of justice, underscored by the fact that he is an African-American who was sentenced by a white judge in rural Mississippi. There are tens of thousands of Willie Nash’s in the American prison system serving cruel and unusual prison sentences, victims of the racial biases embedded in the nation’s criminal justice system.
Often, justice is not only too blind, but, as the Willie Nash case illustrates, it is often cruel and unusual.
Inmates Serving Life Sentences Reaches All Time High
As of 2017, the Sentencing Project reported that there were nearly 162,000 people in the U.S. prison system serving life sentences—a surging all-time high. More than 44,000 of these individuals are serving what is known as “LWOP” (life without parole) life sentences—sentences that do not allow for parole under any circumstances and offer only a minuscule hope for executive clemency.
It is nothing short of stunning that one in every seven U.S. inmates are serving life sentences—roughly 12,000 of whom were convicted as juveniles. Nearly 3300 of the LWOP lifers were convicted for non-violent offenses, like stealing a $150 jacket.
Man Serves 36 Years for Theft of $50.00
Take for example 58-year-old Alvin Kennard who was recently released after serving 36 years in the Alabama prison system for stealing $50 when he was 22 years old. He received a LWOP sentence under Alabama’s Habitual Felony Offender Act because he had a prior conviction for a service station burglary.
In 2013, the Alabama Sentencing Commission adopted new guidelines which, if they had been in place in 1983 when Kennard was sentenced to the LWOP, he could not have received a sentence of more than 20 years. A state district court judge recently re-sentenced Kennard to time served under the new sentencing guidelines.
Staggering Cruelty in Criminal Justice System
Kennard is not an anomaly—many LWOP inmates were convicted for petty offenses like stealing gas from a truck, cashing a stolen check, or stealing someone’s tool set. The Sentencing Projects informs that the American justice system incarcerates people for life at a rate of 50 per 100,000.
This staggering criminal justice cruelty begs the question: How many of these people are innocent or were the victims of prosecutorial or law enforcement misconduct?
The Chicago Tribune reported last year that somewhere between 2 and 10 percent of the people convicted, in the U.S, either through a trial or a coerced guilty plea, are innocent.
There are roughly 2.2 million people incarcerated in prisons and jails in the U.S. If ten percent of those people are innocent, that means there are roughly 220,000 people who have been wrongfully convicted and sentenced to prison for both violent and non-violent crimes in this country.
Writing the Tribune piece, famed author John Grisham cited “bad police work” as a primary cause for wrongful convictions:
“Most cops are honest, hard-working professionals,” longtime advocate for the wrongfully convicted said. “But some have been known to hide, alter or fabricate evidence; lie on the stand; cut deals in return for bogus testimony; intimidate and threaten witnesses; coerce confessions; or manipulate eyewitness identifications.”
Poor Police Work, Forced Confession Sends Innocent Woman to Prison for 39 Years
It was bad police work that sent Cathy Woods to prison with a life sentence for the 1976 killing of a college student Michele Mitchell in Washoe County, Nevada.
In 1979, while Woods was a mental patient in a Louisiana mental hospital, Reno police detectives coerced a fabricated confession from the mentally challenged suspect. She was convicted for the Mitchell murder in 1980 and sentenced to life imprisonment.
In 2014, DNA technology not available at the time of her arrest and conviction revealed that serial killer Rodney Halblower, known as the “Gypsy Hills Killer” who raped and murdered at least five women in Northern California in 1976, also killed Michelle Mitchell in Reno that same year. Halblower is currently serving a life sentence in the California prison system for the murders of two teenage girls.
Faced with the irrefutable DNA evidence, a state district court judge vacated Woods’ conviction and exonerated her later in 2014.
In 2016, Woods filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against Washoe County and the detectives who coerced the confession from her.
Last month Washoe County agreed to pay Woods $3 million for her wrongful conviction and 39-year imprisonment—the longest period of incarceration for an innocent woman. Through its officials, the County issued this statement:
“The conviction and subsequent incarceration of Woods for murder is a tragic situation that Washoe County hopes is never repeated,” the county said. “While money can rarely compensate an individual for loss of freedom, Washoe County sincerely hopes that this monetary settlement will be utilized for the best possible care of Woods.”
2,382 Exonerations of Wrongfully Convicted People Highlights Systemic Failures
There have now been 2,382 exonerations since 1989 of people wrongfully convicted by the American justice system, according to the National Registry of Exonerations. These people served a combined 21,890 years in prison while the guilty offenders, more often killers like Halblower, went about their business of committing more crimes.
Justice is not perfect but there is no excuse for a guilty person like Alvin Kennard being forced to serve 36 years for stealing $50 or an innocent person like Cathy Woods having to serve 39 years for a crime she did not commit.
Repeat Offender Laws in Texas
In 2016, the Texas Observer reported that the State of Texas has had some form of a repeat offender law in place since 1856.
Life Sentence for Theft of $230.11
In 1973, a Texas judge sentenced William Rummel to a life sentence following his third conviction for theft—petty offenses that together amounted to $230.11. Seven years later the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Rummel’s life sentence did not constitute cruel and unusual punishment.
Texas has since revised its so-called “three strikes law” under which Rummel was sentenced giving juries the discretion to sentence a repeat offender anywhere from 25 to 99 years with the option of imposing a life sentence if jurors so desire.
Still, as the Observer pointed out, there remain serious miscarriages of justice in the Texas justice system when it comes to non-violent repeat offenders.
Man Sentenced to 50 Years for Stealing Rack of Ribs
For example, in 2013, a Waco jury sentenced 43-year-old Willie Smith Ward (a repeat offender) to 50 years in prison for stealing a rack of baby-back ribs while a Fort Worth jury in 2019 sentenced Julie Sue Witt (also a repeat offender) to 50 years for stealing $50,000 from her employer.
Both Ward and Witt are now among the ranks of 44,000 people in American prisons who serving sentences of 50 years or more—sentences which have become known as “virtual life sentences,” according to the Sentencing Project. Neither Ward nor Witt have a life expectancy needed to complete the sentence service on their 50-year terms.
The nation, and especially Texas, can do better than this at dispensing justice.
Cruel and unusual punishment, which is what Nash, Ward and Witt received, is not justice—it is pointless punishment inflicted for the sake of punishing. There is no legitimate penological objective served by the grossly disproportionate sentences given to these three people, much less the 36 years and 39 years Alvin Kennard and Cathy Woods were wrongfully incarcerated.
Justice must be served, not abused.