Sisters’ sentence is justice denied

November 21, 2010


Let’s assume they did it.

Let’s assume that two days before Christmas in 1993, a 22-year-old black woman named Jamie Scott and her pregnant 19-year-old sister Gladys set up an armed robbery. Let’s assume these single mothers lured two men to a spot outside the tiny town of Forest, Miss., where three teenage boys, using a shotgun the sisters supplied, relieved the men of $11 and sent them on their way, unharmed.

Assume all of the above is true, and still you must be shocked at the crude brutality of the Scott sisters’ fate. You see, the sisters, neither of whom had a criminal record before this, are still locked away in state prison, having served 16 years of their double-life sentences.

It bears repeating. Each sister is doing double life for a robbery in which $11 was taken and nobody was hurt. Somewhere, the late Nina Simone is moaning her signature song:

“Mississippi Goddam.”

For the record, two of the young men who committed the robbery testified against the sisters as a condition of their plea bargain. All three reportedly received two-year sentences and were long ago released. No shotgun or forensic evidence was produced at trial. The sisters have always maintained their innocence.

Observers are at a loss to explain their grotesquely disproportionate sentence. Early this year, the Jackson Advocate, a weekly newspaper serving the black community in the state capital, interviewed the sisters’ mother, Evelyn Rasco. She described the sentences as payback for her family’s testimony against a corrupt sheriff. According to her, that sheriff’s successor vowed revenge.

You don’t have to believe that to believe this: Mississippi stands guilty of a grievous offense against simple decency.

But there is hope. Recently, the sisters’ cause has been championed by high-powered allies. New York Times columnist Bob Herbert and the NAACP have called on Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour to pardon the two women. I add my voice to theirs.

I have no way of knowing if the Scott sisters’ fate is tied in to some sheriff’s revenge and at some level, the question is moot. Whatever the proximate cause of this ridiculous sentence, the larger cause is neon clear: The Scott sisters are black women in the poorest state in the union. And as report after report has testified, if you are poor or black (and God help you if you are both), the American justice system has long had this terrible tendency to throw you away like garbage. Historically, this has been especially true in the South.

If you doubt it, play with the scenario in your head. Try to imagine some rich white girl doing double life for an $11 robbery. You can’t.

But then, that girl has access to a brand of justice unavailable to women like Jamie and Gladys Scott. She will receive every break the law allows her and maybe a few it does not. No one will throw her away.

And while it would be nice to think this problem of discarding people’s lives would be solved by the release of the Scott sisters, the truth is, that wouldn’t even address it.

How many other Scott sisters and brothers are languishing behind bars for no good reason, doing undeserved hard time on non-existent evidence, perjured testimony, prosecutorial misconduct or sheer racial or class bias?

So fixing the problem the Scott sisters represent involves nothing less than the reformation of the justice system, a commitment to make it, as the name implies, a system that reliably produces justice — as opposed to these too frequent miscarriages thereof.

Meantime, Jamie Scott, who is in her late 30s now, is in poor health. She is said to be losing her vision and both her kidneys have failed. And we wait for common sense to take hold in Mississippi.

It is a situation that shocks the senses, even if we assume they did it.

Now, assume they did not.

— Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald. lpitts@miamiherald.com


Maddy Griffin 7 years, 6 months ago

..."waiting for common sense to take hold in Mississippi." Good luck with that. Pardon them Governor Barbour.

skinny 7 years, 6 months ago

Release them. They served their time.

WHY 7 years, 6 months ago

It isn't the 11 dollars they are punished for but the aggravated assault charge. Don't point guns at people or help others do the same. I assume they did it because there was a trial and 12 people also thought they did it beyond a reasonable doubt. Should they get life sentences--that is a question for the legislature of the state not me.

christy kennedy 7 years, 6 months ago

Unbelievable, but not surprising. The women should be released and given restitution, and if the good old boy sheriff and judge are still around, they should be fired and thrown in jail.

xclusive85 7 years, 6 months ago

The sheriff doesn't give sentences. Why should he be fired? Also, sounds like there was a trial and this sentence is allowed by the law. The judge also followed the law, unlike the two sisters. So again, why should he be fired? They didn't commit the crime, the sisters did.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 7 years, 6 months ago

Pitts's comments were directed towards the Neo-Nazis and other white supremacists who had chosen these murders to advance their own racist agenda. They were not directed towards the grieving families in Knoxville.

And your bringing it up indicates that you are either ignorant or sympathetic to the goals of the Neo-Nazis (or both.) Which is it, Tom?

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 7 years, 6 months ago

That's certainly the Fox twist on it. But, then again, Fox was at the forefront raising this incident a cause celeb for the neo-nazis.

So I guess that makes you both ignorant and racist. But it's not like we didn't already know that.

Paula Kissinger 7 years, 6 months ago

They need to remain in prison if they are not smart enough to call the ACLU !

kernal 7 years, 6 months ago

First, they probably never heard of the ACLU. Second, Mississippi has long been known to have one of the worst public education systems in the U.S.. I know they won the dubious distinction as the worst in the nation at least once - would have to research how many times. That is probably why they never heard of the ACLU and you can bet no one would have told them about it.

JimmyJoeBob 7 years, 6 months ago

I don't know how you can blame the sheriff for arresting these people for committing an aggravated robbery. Would Mr. Pitts be in favor of a longer sentence if they had stolen millions of dollars? What he does not understand is pointing a gun at someone is the reason for the longer sentence. While I agree two life sentences is a bit excessive for aggravated robbery we don't know all there is to know about this case. From the way the story is writtend it appears there might be aggravating circumstances. Such as these two women were adults and they recruited three boys, possibly under age, to help carry out the crime. I think Mr Pitts took the wrong stance here.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 7 years, 6 months ago

And what are those "facts" that happen to be getting in the way?

Flap Doodle 7 years, 6 months ago

One of the preps recruited by the Ding-a-ling sisters was only 14 at the time of the robbery. The two victims, which were also black, were pistol-whipped. There were 5 blacks on the jury. Internet searches can fill in some of the blanks Lenny leaves.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 7 years, 6 months ago

So, that means that you can supply a link for your internet search, doesn't it?

Jacks_Smirking_Revenge 7 years, 6 months ago

Y'know, everyone is so quick to bash on Pitts' position and he gets thrown under the bus for almost every article. However, you still read the article, so he's doing something right...

As to the case at hand, we are not seeing all the facts, nor do we know the intricacies of Mississippi law. It does seem odd that they would get double life sentences. There is no mention of an appeal in this story but in doing some digging, all appeals writs and motions were catagorically denied. Thus it is hard to believe that there is a miscarriage of justice when a jury trial convicted her, the appellate court upheld the sentence, and the Supreme Court denied cert.

Is it unfortunate? Absolutely. Is a double life sentence appropriate? Probably not. But the only way something like this will change is through pieces by Mr. Pitts because legally these women are out of options for now.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 7 years, 6 months ago

But don't expect any pardons from Haley Barbour. He's very dependent on the racist votes that Mississippi has in such abundance.

Amy Albright 7 years, 6 months ago

Poor people with public defenders often miss their chance at appeals due to things like the wrong papers being filed or deadlines being missed — has nothing to do with the facts of the case. The public defenders are so overloaded with cases that they sometimes can't do the best job.

slowplay 7 years, 6 months ago

I have. It is. More than you could possibly imagine.

pace 7 years, 6 months ago

LOL, calling someone a clown because they say there is racism in Mississippi. You all don't know how funny you sound. I just read that to some good friends down there and after laughing really hard. They say Mississippi has some fine people and is beautiful and they are trying to change things but you might be wrong.. Kind of sweet of you though, to think that racism isn't part of the culture still. A good dream to have.

begin60 7 years, 6 months ago

Southern justice! I've had the misfortune to run into the same sort of upstanding legal minds right in Douglas County!

mom_of_three 7 years, 6 months ago

well, I have read a little about it this morning. Their lawyer did not call any defense witnesses, and he was disbarred (i think) for providing inadequate counsel.
The actual robbers got less time than the accomplices. According to some sites, the robbers who supposedly ratted out the sisters admitted IN COURT that they were coerced. Another one recanted his story later on paper, but that never made it to the courts.
According to an article in USA today from February 2009, the sisters did file for appeal and writs when they were first convicted, but those were always denied.

oh, and another interesting fact brought up by another article - the judge in their case was the same one who gave Edgar Ray Killens 60 years in prison for committing manslaughter (not murder) of the three civil rights workers in the 1960's. According to which account you read, the sisters may not have even been involved int the robbery, but were getting a ride home from the two men.
The 14 year old signed a statement without a lawyer which incriminated the women, and he said that is not what he told the police.

And really, Pitts does make a good point. Would a white woman have received the same sentence?

notajayhawk 7 years, 6 months ago

"Their lawyer did not call any defense witnesses, and he was disbarred (i think) for providing inadequate counsel. "

Who would he have called as witnesses? Maybe there was nobody to give them, say, an alibi, or even a character reference? And the sisters didn't even testify on their own behalf.

He was disbarred, yes, two years later, but not for this case. If he gave inadequate representation to the sisters, seems that would have been a basis for overturning their conviction.

"the sisters may not have even been involved int the robbery, but were getting a ride home from the two men."

Except they left the scene with the robbers, not the men who were robbed.

"According to which account you read"

Yes, and that's the thing, isn't it? Most of what's available to read is from the 'Free the Scott Sisters' websites, or the NAACP. The NAACP still refers to them as the "accused", not the "convicted".

fu7il3 7 years, 6 months ago

Let's assume they did it. What about the victims that were lured out of town and had a shotgun stuck in their face? How should they feel? Maybe Pitts should think about them.

sissezz 7 years, 6 months ago

Why is it soooo hard to admit when something is unjust? Above all else a double life sentence is not appropriate.... surely we can all see that? Forget Pitts... just think about the fact that these two women are still in jail for a felony where NO lives were taken. How many times do we see true MURDERS out within a decade? Its easy to start talking about Pitts views but it doesnt change the fact the this is a GROSS injustice. Cant we ALL agree on that??

notajayhawk 7 years, 6 months ago

"the larger cause is neon clear: The Scott sisters are black women"

The other perpetrators were also black. So were the victims.

"All three reportedly received two-year sentences and were long ago released."

Yeah. They were juvenile offenders, Lenny. Duh.

"The sisters have always maintained their innocence."

Um, yeah, that's pretty much the way it works, Lenny - if you plea bargain (which includes - gasp! - taking responsibility and owning up to your actions), you get a smaller sentence. Especially when you're a juvenile.

"Observers are at a loss to explain their grotesquely disproportionate sentence."

Nope, I think I just explained that to you.

"Each sister is doing double life for a robbery in which $11 was taken"

No, each sister is doing double life for conspiring to and participating in armed robbery. And BTW, I like how the 'let's tug at the heartstrings' crew keeps harping on the dollar amount. Is that what decides it? On one of the websites I perused for more details about this crime, one blogger commented that it's ludicrous to hold a soccer mom who embezzles thousands of dollars from the PTA to a higher standard than an armed robber that only got $11 - they don't get a pass for choosing their victims unwisely.

"Now, assume they did not."

Ooh, very powerful closing there, Lenny. If you're going to 'borrow' from the closing arguments from the movie "A Time to Kill", you left out some paraphrased version of "Can you see her?"

"Try to imagine some rich white girl doing double life for an $11 robbery. You can’t."

Something that's even more impossible to imagine: That if some miscarriage of justice occurred with the defendant being white, we'd hear about it from the Pitts.

begin60 7 years, 6 months ago

Oh so respectfully notajayhawk, Mr. Pitts speaks up for every variation of injustice at the hands of mainstream culture very often--poor white, gay, brown, Asian, etc. Thankfully, I'm not one either.

Ralph Reed 7 years, 6 months ago

@Tom, re: your 1224. Congratulations! You've once again proven to us the real reason you don't like President Obama. (I posit that you don't like Leonard Pitts for the same reason.) In fact it appears now you've expanded your reach to include an entire group of human beings.

Tom, it really doesn't matter any more what you write here, as it's always colored by your hatred of color. We know where you stand and why you hate an entire group of humans, so give it a break and try and write something cogent. I know that's a stretch, but give it a try anyway.

Maddy Griffin 7 years, 6 months ago

Ignore him. He trashes very article Pitts ever writes here, but comes back for every new piece.It's always the same tripe.."Pitts is a racist, Pitts plays the race card,etc. I agree with you and RalphReed, but confronting Nancy-Tom does no good, it's always the same stuff.

notajayhawk 7 years, 6 months ago

"It's always the same tripe."

Very true, grammy, every one of Pitts' columns is the same old race-baiting with new names.

Kornphlake 7 years, 6 months ago

Loves how the comment section became a right-wing forum full of individuals with no history of posting on the site. Not really.

Steve Jacob 7 years, 6 months ago

$11 bucks or $11 million, does not matter. A gun was used in a robbery, that makes it a serious crime.

jafs 7 years, 6 months ago


But is it more serious than a crime in which someone was actually injured or killed?

Rapists and murderers are serving far less time, and then getting out, than these individuals are.

Doesn't seem reasonable to me.

weeslicket 7 years, 6 months ago

as usual, in on this way late. i've read a number of really strange comments. leaves me shaking my head, somewhat.

mr. pitts asks two rather good questions. 1. if they are guilty, aren't 2 life terms rather exessive for this crime? 2. if they are not guilty, aren't 2 life terms even rather more exessive?

one last question: in our current system of justice, is innocence actually a winning argument? for all occassions?

notajayhawk 7 years, 6 months ago

1.) No. 2.) Moot point - they were found guilty by the jury.

one last answer" I could be wrong, but my understanding is that innocence is not a basis for overturning a verdict by an appeals court - there has to be some reversible error in the process.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 7 years, 6 months ago

"There is always the absolute presumption of innocence in American criminal jurisprudence,"

Well, not really. At least not in the deep south, if you happen to be black.

"Any one of the twelve jurors could have voted for a verdict of innocent, and there would be no finding of guilt;"

But if false testimony is presented at trial, and the defendants lack the legal representation and/or the investigative power to successfully challenge it, getting that one vote, even if there were black people on the jury, can be next to impossible.

"The defendants could have appealed on the basis of inadequate aid of counsel, and had their sentence overturned and remanded for retrial; that didn't happen. They could have appealed the sentence on Constitutional grounds, but that doesn't look like that worked, either."

Appeals take proper legal representation, which takes money. Not to mention appeals courts willing to entertain the arguments put forward. When those are lacking, as has been consistently the case in the deep south for poor black defendants pretty much always, successful appeals are nearly non-existent.

While the wealthy (a demographic classification which doesn't often coincide with being black) rarely engage in armed robbery, when they do engage in crime, their experience within the criminal justice system is markedly different from that of those who lack their wealth.

jayhawklawrence 7 years, 6 months ago

You have to wonder about a guy that has an ignorant and hate filled view toward Blacks but gets upset when someone refers to him as racist.

But you are not supposed to point out the obvious fact that the person is racist because racism is looked down on in our society and even racists resent being in that position.

Having grown up around some racist white folks, I always found them to be extremely illogical in how they think and talk.

Sometimes I thought it might be caused by fear and ignorance and in some cases some bad experiences with minorities. Mostly, I think, it is a learned behavior that can be unlearned when the person is placed in a different environment that challenges his learned concepts toward minorities.

Leonard Pitts may not be perfect but I am very grateful for his insight into the lives and situations and challenges of minorities.

fu7il3 7 years, 6 months ago

The challenge for these sisters was not to arrange to have two guys robbed at shotgun point. They failed.

While we are doing all these assumptions, lets assume the guys hadn't given up their eleven dollars so easily and they would have killed them. No one would be complaining about two life sentences.

No one cares about the 11 dollars other than the people who are trying to downplay what they did. What they did was put together a situation where it was very likely someone was going to get killed. That's why robbery is so serious.

If you want injustice, look to the robberies where the suspects got away with the crime, not the ones who went to jail.

jafs 7 years, 6 months ago

We let rapists and murderers out in far less time than these two are serving.

Is that reasonable or just?

Wouldn't it make more sense to have people who have actually injured or killed serve more time than those who haven't? If we want the punishment to "fit the crime", as they say.

rbwaa 7 years, 6 months ago

the actual argument here should be about the two life sentences that were given. the finding of guilt is a given because a jury handed it down. there are numerous murderers who receive sentences of 20 or 25 years. how is that comparable to armed robbery?

weeslicket 7 years, 6 months ago

thank you for all of the comments. it was nice to be on topic for a while.

my thoughts about this right now: 1. even if these two are fully guilty, 2 life terms seems rather excessive. 2. if one is accused of a crime (guilt or innocence to be determined later), you (and i mean any one of us here) still face the full force and fury of the prosecution, including all of its very well-equipped and practiced systemic spokespersons. iow: the procesution always operates at an advantage that the average person cannot realistically compete with, financially or otherwise. 3. and, being truly innocent of an accusation does not GUARANTEE justice on behalf of your liberty. as for me, this makes me feel uncomfortable.

i remember an earlier poster said "just don't break the law, and then, no worries" but, what if the heavy hand of legal enforcement grabs you by the collar... do you have the resources to demonstrate your innocence?

think a little bit before you answer that.

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