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Paris, Texas is back in the news and once again the justice system is in the forefront. An adolescent boy with the mentality of a first grader induces a first grader, also mentally retarded, to engage in oral sex. A serious matter, to be sure. But 100 years in prison?
And what can be said about the court appointed ”defense” attorney who enters guilty pleas on his client’s behalf without suggesting that the boy’s retardation should be taken into consideration.
This story reminds me of the tragic case of Adolphus Barrow, a mentally ill Tulia resident who preferred crack cocaine to the Haldol his psychiatrist prescribed. ‘Dolphus (as he was known in the community) swallowed some crack when a police officer asked him what he had in his pockets. Since this was not the first time he had run afoul of local law enforcement, the Tulia resident was liable to the 25-99 sentencing range.
When Sammie Barrow and I arrived in the courtroom, the “trial” was already half over. (Local officials didn’t feel obliged to alert the family that their loved one was on the docket that day.) A break wasn’t called until ‘Dolphus had already been found guilty. At the first opportunity, I asked his court appointed attorney if he was aware that his client suffered was a paranoid psyzrophrenic who had been in and out of mental hospitals his entire adult life.
He hadn’t been apprised of that fact.
During the sentencing phase, I was placed on the witness stand to testify about Mr. Barrow’s mental health issues, but since I wasn’t an expert my testimony had no impact. It wouldn’t have mattered anyway. When the trial was over, the DA explained to me that the state of Texas had closed down so many mental health facilities that prison was the only realistic option.
They gave ‘Dolphus forty years. He died in prison just a few weeks ago. At the end, his family tried to visit him in the hospital but were told that a visit wasn’t possible because their loved one’s condition wasn’t that serious.
Read Howard Witt’s story below and you will realize that the defendant was denied a new trial not in spite of his mental retardation but because of it. The Judge and DA believe that the kid’s limited intellectual capacity makes him a potential repeat offender.
Given this reasoning, every mentally retarded male adolescent in Texas should be handed a life sentence. And, just to be sure, we ought to incarcerate all male adolescents, regardless of mental ability, while we’re at it–you can’t be too careful.
The real problem, as with the case of Adolphus Barrow, is that Texas makes no provision for special cases. It’s either prison or the free world. People like Adolphus Barrow and Aaron Hart need a third option. Maybe they are risks to public safety; but should that mean a life sentence in hell?
Paris, Texas, judge denies new trial to man with IQ of 47 who molested boy
Witnesses testify that Aaron Hart, 18, is mentally disabled
By Howard Witt
April 8, 2009
PARIS, Texas – For more than six hours Tuesday, as a parade of witnesses testified about the severity of Aaron Hart’s mental retardation and his inability to understand his legal rights, the 18-year-old defendant with an IQ of 47 sat silent and shackled in a chair, alternately fidgeting and making faces.
But in the end, none of it was enough to persuade a judge in this small east Texas town to reconsider the 100-year prison sentence he gave Hart in February after Hart pleaded guilty to molesting a 6-year-old boy.
Ruling in a case that critics of the local justice system say raises questions of fairness for the mentally challenged, Lamar County Judge Eric Clifford denied defense motions seeking either a new trial or a new sentencing hearing for Hart. His former special-education teacher testified that Hart functions below the level of a 1st grader.
Last September, Hart confessed to police that he forced the boy to perform oral sex. The boy’s stepmother had discovered them both behind a shed with their pants lowered. Hart’s court-appointed attorney entered guilty pleas on his behalf to five related felony counts, a jury recommended multiple sentences and Clifford stacked the prison terms to run consecutively, for a total of 100 years.
But Hart’s appellate attorney, David Pearson, argued Tuesday that Hart had received ineffective legal assistance because his trial attorney had failed to present any expert testimony about Hart’s mental functioning or his ability to comprehend the charges against him.
“This case cried out for a mental health evaluation, to explain this disability to the judge and jury,” Pearson told Clifford. “One of the features of people with this kind of mental retardation is they cannot appreciate degrees of wrongfulness.”
District Atty. Gary Young countered that a court-appointed expert had determined that Hart was legally competent and that a jury had determined he was a danger to the community.
“Everyone feels sorry for Mr. Hart,” Young told the judge. “The question is, do you leave him on the street or send him to prison?”
Clifford, who last week said he had agonized over the case, took only a few seconds to issue his ruling.
“Irregardless of whether he understood his Miranda rights, the evidence I have seen is overwhelming that he committed the offense,” Clifford said. “The court finds that allegations of incompetence of counsel are unfounded.”
Hart will remain in jail pending the outcome of an appeal likely to be heard in the fall. Hart’s parents say he has been raped repeatedly by other inmates since he was first arrested last September.
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