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Cam's Corner | The Problem With Our Justice System

Cam's Corner | The Problem With Our Justice System

Every day on “NRA News Cam & Co.” we feature a segment called the “Deal of the Day,” in which we highlight the lengthy criminal history of someone accused of yet another crime of violence. This segment serves as a daily reminder that when we talk about the need to enforce the laws that are already on the books, we aren’t simply talking about theoretical cases and theoretical laws. We’re talking about real criminals and their very real victims.   

Take Dana William, for example. He was one of our Deals in late January of this year after I learned that he was the suspect in the abduction and murder of a 68-year-old couple not too far away from my home in Amelia County, Va. The story in the Richmond Times-Dispatch noted that William had been released from prison six months earlier after serving a little more than two years of a 30-year sentence for rape. On a January Thursday not long ago, police say William took his ex-wife and children hostage, then killed her father Woodell Brooks and abducted her mother Olene. A few days later, Olene Brooks’ minivan was spotted in Fitchburg, Mass., where Dana William had lived previously. A U.S. Marshals Service Fugitive Task Force squad zeroed in on a home where they believed William was holed up, but as they moved in, William shot himself in the head. He died at the hospital without ever telling officers what happened to Olene Brooks. As of this writing, law enforcement officers have fanned out across Amelia County to look for her remains.   

What went wrong? Why was William out of prison after serving less than one-tenth of his prison sentence? As it turns out, William was actually sentenced to 30 years with 28 years suspended, the result of a plea agreement reached by prosecutors and the defense when the victim in the case told prosecutors she had concerns for her safety and didn’t want to testify. As William was nearing his release date, the state attorney general’s office tried to have the man declared a violent sexual predator based on the 2012 rape and two other alleged sexual assaults (one that took place in 2007 in Virginia, another from 2012 in Massachusetts). That would have allowed a civil commitment that would have kept Dana William away from society for an undetermined additional amount of time. But a Chesterfield County, Va., judge ruled that the state hadn’t proven its case, noting that in the 2007 case, charges of sexual battery were dropped and William eventually was convicted only of simple assault and trespassing. In the 2012 case out of Massachusetts, William never even faced formal charges. What went wrong? Why was William out of prison after serving less than one-tenth of his prison sentence?

The state of Virginia was appealing the judge’s decision (in fact, a hearing had been set before the state Supreme Court in mid-February), but it’s obviously a moot point now. What’s left is the obvious question: Why was Dana William out, and who is to blame? With headlines like “Judge Denied State Request To Keep Abductor Of Amelia Grandmother Behind Bars,” it’s evident that some in the media have decided that since the judge had the power to keep Dana William in state custody and didn’t, the fault must lie with him. But how does a judge rule that someone is a persistent sexual predator when there’s only been one prosecution for a crime of sexual violence? What happened in the 2007 case that led prosecutors to drop the charge of sexual battery? Why were there no charges filed in the 2012 Massachusetts rape case? And how many other cases might have gone uninvestigated because the victim was too afraid to report what happened to her? 

The truth is that while in some cases there might be a clearly idiotic decision made by one or two individuals that leads to a career criminal getting a sweetheart deal, in many other instances it’s simply the system at work. If you don’t have witnesses willing or able to talk to the police investigating the crime, the case becomes a lot harder to solve. Similarly, if you don’t have witnesses willing and able to testify, it becomes a lot harder to win a case at trial. And given the case load of the average prosecutor, they’re looking to get the best deal they can whenever possible and save the expense (and risk) of a trial before a jury of the defendant’s peers. 

Based on surveys of federal and state prosecutions, less than 5 percent of all criminal cases at the state and federal level will ever go to a jury trial. More than 95 percent of the time, these charges are being plea bargained down in exchange for a guilty plea. At the same time, the acquittal rate in our court system is plummeting, which suggests that there are some innocent people who are accepting guilty pleas to reduced charges in order to avoid the risk of being falsely convicted of far worse charges at trial. 

There are many reasons why I’m not a fan of the anti-gun agenda, starting with the constitutionally protected right of all law-abiding Americans (including those living in deep blue cities) to keep and bear arms. But it’s also important to remember that the push for anti-gun laws distracts us from the real progress that can and should be made in our criminal justice system. This country has seen a remarkable drop in violent crime since the mid 1990s, but that doesn’t mean it can’t go up again (we saw a similar drop in violent crime starting in the mid-1930s that lasted until the mid-1960s) and it doesn’t mean that crime has gone away.

In jurisdiction after jurisdiction, a small group of very violent offenders—far less than even 1 percent of the population—is responsible for a very large amount of crime. Sometimes they’ll get away with their crimes. Sometimes they’ll be arrested, but won’t ever get charged. Sometimes they’ll take a plea deal and be out on the streets in a short amount of time. But chances are, unless they get arrested for a crime that led the local evening news, they will never receive the maximum sentence allowed by law if they’re convicted. Chances are they’ll never even go to trial in the first place. The truth is that while in some cases there might be a clearly idiotic decision made by one or two individuals that leads to a career criminal getting a sweetheart deal, in many other instances it’s simply the system at work.

I suppose that the anti-gun activists who want to add an untold number of gun laws (aimed solely at law-abiding gun owners) to this already dysfunctional criminal justice system of ours would argue that the laws were, in fact, enforced against a guy like Dana William. He was, after all, convicted of simple battery in 2007 and rape in 2013. Police brought charges and prosecutors got a win. Proof that the system works, right? 

And it is proof—as long as you’re OK with a 30-year rape sentence actually amounting to 26½ months in prison. As long as you can believe that the system works when a guy eligible for more than 500 years in prison for buying and selling guns illegally on the streets of Milwaukee walks away with probation for his crimes. As long as you can stomach guys like Owen Ross Castonguay bragging about his dozens of arrests for domestic violence, then yes, the system is working. The problem is we just don’t have enough laws on the books.  

But for those of us who think a 30-year sentence for rape should mean serving something close to 30 years, who believe that a guy with a dozen priors for beating up women shouldn’t be offered a plea deal when there are three eyewitnesses who’ll testify (even if it makes the docket just a little bit smaller), who understand that the criminal justice system isn’t just made up of laws, but of a finite number of flesh-and-blood human beings who are tasked with the enforcement of those laws from arrest to prosecution to incarceration or monitoring those on probation and parole … well, we see a problem that won’t be solved by making it more difficult and dangerous to be a legal gun owner. 

Lady Justice should wear a blindfold, not a clown nose. The anti-gun movement’s agenda attempts to harness the power of the criminal justice system in order to reduce the scope and size of our rights as legal gun owners, while the movement remains unconcerned with the criminal justice system’s treatment of the individuals actually responsible for violent crime. They may claim to be “gun safety advocates” or working to prevent “gun violence.” Their efforts, however, are solely aimed at legal gun owners.

Those truly concerned about safety, both personal and public, know the problem is that our laws truly aren’t being enforced—not the way they should be, and not for the most violent offenders among us.  

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