No one would argue that our legal system is perfect. Devised and maintained by humans, the process is bound to have flaws. Sometimes, emotions can take precedence and justice doesn’t seem that blind.
Last month's jury-suggested sentence of 12 years for 18-year-old Charles Williams III and his role in the June 6 mugging of Adam Taylor is one of these situations. William’s official sentencing will take place Friday, and according to state law, Judge Kevin Crane can choose to accept the suggested sentence or hand down a lesser one. Despite his tough guy reputation, I hope he chooses the latter.
To be clear, I believe each one of Taylor’s assailants is guilty of something (not necessarily the second-degree robbery that Williams has been convicted of) and deserves to be punished, but the extremity of this suggested sentence along with several other issues I have with this case leave me uncomfortable with the situation as a whole.
Considering second-degree robbery is a class B felony in Missouri and punishable by a sentence ranging anywhere from 5 to 15 years, the jury was close to recommending the maximum punishment, which Assistant Prosecuting Attorney Richard Hicks requested in his closing argument. After mulling over this case for quite some time, there are a few factors that have led to this sentencing overkill.
As the investigation unfolded and it became clear that the original crime consisted of seven black males mugging a single white male as part of a game called "Knock Out King," the racial tensions always simmering just below the surface of Columbia started to boil. Numerous comments on the Tribune's Web site called for the incident to be treated as a black-on-white hate crime, and a noticeable amount of presumably racist or inappropriate comments had to be deleted by the moderator. Some people felt these boys needed to be made an example of.
But it was the release of the surveillance video capturing the actual crime that really raised the ire of most people, myself included. Though less than two minutes in length, the recording is stirring. I admit, when I first watched the group descend on Taylor like a pack of wolves, I was appalled by the sheer lack of humanity I witnessed. However, this purely emotional response is part of the problem; the detachment required to be objective dissolves.
What became particularly damning for Williams et al. was when this video became the impetus for an initiative spearheaded by Taylor's mom to get more surveillance cameras downtown. Suddenly, these guys became the face of crime in Columbia for a fairly large campaign, not just some really stupid kids making really stupid decisions.
The initial reaction everyone has to this video is only natural, but it is not a place from which a rational judgment can be made. The evocative and almost carnal nature of most crimes is enough to greatly influence anyone, let alone 12 Columbia residents who have probably parked in that garage before and have varying predetermined opinions about race and crime in Columbia.
An article published in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology in 2006 proves this point. After an experiment in which a mock jury was tested to see how crime scene video affects a juror’s mentality, the “results indicated that exposure to the trial-relevant crime scene (video) led subjects to set lower standards of proof and brought out individual juror biases for the prosecution.”
I find this "lower standards of proof” bit extremely interesting considering the video never definitively shows which attacker stole Taylor’s wallet and money, but the jury only took 23 minutes to convict Williams of second-degree robbery. Huh? Besides, am I the only person that still wonders why Williams was charged with a crime that we cannot clearly see him commit while the video clearly catches him in the act of assault?
Williams and his cohorts are certainly guilty of a crime, and everyone who was involved in the incident and is of age deserves to do some time. But remove the emotion provided by the video and any pre-existing biases one might have and you realize something preposterous will happen if the jury-suggested sentence stands: Charles Williams III will go to prison for 12 years for kicking a guy four times and possibly stealing $45 and a wallet.
"The level of his criminal activity keeps rising as he gets older," Hicks said of Williams in his closing argument. "Fifteen years will send the message to Williams that he needs to change."
I agree, Williams does need to be sent a message, but I find it hard to believe that 12 years will deliver a message he would not understand in half that time.
Andrew Del-Colle is the Arts editor for Vox Magazine and a graduate student at the Missouri School of Journalism.