At its best, the justice system metes out a punishment that fits the crime. But lawmakers, judges, and parole boards are human. And sometimes human beings make mistakes. What follows are 10 such cases: 5 times the system may have gone overboard — and 5 where the sentence might not have been harsh enough…
A Year for a Beer?
Portsmouth, Maine, resident Paul Baldwin wanted a beer really badly, but he didn’t have the $1.99. So he shoplifted it… and that small theft in 2009 landed him in jail for a full year.
Police records showed that it was Baldwin’s 152nd arrest for crimes ranging from trespassing to theft to arson. Baldwin was so comfortable in court he reportedly told Judge Sawako Gardner “I don’t need a lawyer. I’ve been in this court more than you have.”
Sadly, Baldwin’s familiarity with the process didn’t stop him from jumping back into the beer-stealing game after his stretch behind bars. In 2010, Baldwin was caught on camera swiping two 18-packs and a 12-pack of beer.
A 12-Year Pop for $31 of Pot
Patricia Spottedcrow is a single mother of four; who in 2010 needed to make ends meet. So she became a small-time marijuana dealer, like in the Showtime hit Weeds. Spottedcrow, however, was in Oklahoma not Hollywood, and when she tried to sell $31 worth of pot to an undercover cop, she was hit with a jarring prison sentence: 12 years.
Although it was her first felony conviction, Spottedcrow was convicted of possession of a controlled substance in the presence of a minor because all of her children (all under the age of 10) were home at the time of the bust.
Spottedcrow served two years of the sentence before a pardon from Gov. Mary Fallin reunited her with her children in 2012. Happily her state-imposed time-out was educational. On her release she told a local reporter: “Being away from my kids, that was enough for me to know I wanted to change my life.”
He Wanted it His Way
Ever hear about the man who robbed fast-food restaurants while in drag? It sounds like a joke, but for Darryl Robinson, 44, of New Orleans, it was no laughing matter. He was sentenced to 247 years in prison for just that.
In May 2008, Robinson robbed a Burger King at gunpoint and was caught on surveillance camera wearing a floral dress, wig, and bra as he did it. He was tried and convicted of armed robbery and attempted armed robbery two years later, and received 198 years and 49 years respectively… to be served consecutively.
District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro explained it to reporters like this: “While his modus operandi may have seemed funny to many people, this defendant was nevertheless a very dangerous criminal.”
17 Years and a Kidney for Your Freedom
Back in 1994, Jamie Scott, 21, and her sister Gladys, 19, were deemed the criminal masterminds behind a robbery of two men that netted a whopping $11. At trial, the three teenaged boys who allegedly brandished a shotgun and scared the men into turning over their wallets in Forrest, Mississippi, turned on the Scotts. The sisters were given life sentences for armed robbery — even though neither carried a gun.
The harsh sentences caused a national uproar. A New York Times op-ed piece cited the leader of the NAACP as a strong critic of the punishment, and even quoted original prosecutor Ken Turner as saying life behind bars might not be the most fitting punishment since this “was not a particularly egregious case.”
Finally in 2011, the groundswell of support for the Scotts bore fruit — but even their release would be controversial. Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour suspended the Scotts’ life sentences with one noteworthy condition: that Gladys (then 36) donate a kidney to her big sister Jamie, who suffered from kidney disease requiring daily dialysis.
At Least Jail Food Tastes Better
One would think that eating glass would be punishment enough on its face, but the wince-inducing practice earned Mary Evano of Massachusetts more than four years in prison.
Evano and her husband would eat shards of glass and then file false claims with insurance companies. Between 1997 and 2005, they bilked insurers for over $200,000 by saying various hotels and restaurants served them food tainted with broken glass.
Mary Evano was sentenced in 2010. Hubby Ronald pled guilty as well, earning himself a five-year prison stretch alongside his wife.
Man Shoots Dog’s Best Friend, Walks
When Charles Clements of University Park, Illinois, saw the neighbor Joshua Funches’ fox terrier peeing on Clements’ lawn, the confrontation turned deadly. Although Clements would be found guilty of murder, he wouldn’t spend a day in jail.
After Clements accosted his neighbor in May 2010, Funches cursed at him. Clements, a former Marine, showed Funches his weapon and then put it back in his pocket. Funches allegedly screamed: “Old man if you pull a gun on me you better plan on using it,” before socking Clements in the face.
Clements fired a shot as he fell to the ground, killing Funches — more than 45 years Clements’ junior. Judge Daniel Rozak emphasized the age difference and the young man’s aggression when he ultimately sentenced Clements to four years’ probation for the second-degree murder conviction.
Killing Caught on Videotape
On March 16, 1991, Latasha Harlins, 15, walked into the Empire Liquor Market in South Central Los Angeles to get a bottle of orange juice. She did not make it out alive. Though the shopkeeper who killed her was let off by the judge, she would not escape punishment, which came later as part of a larger payback.
Shopkeeper Soon Ja Du saw Harlins stash the orange juice in her backpack and accused her of trying to shoplift. Store surveillance cameras showed Du pulling at Harlins’ sweater, drawing punches from the teenager. Du threw a tool at Harlins and, as she tried to leave, pulled out a .38 revolver and shot her in the back of the head.
A Los Angeles jury convicted Du of voluntary manslaughter that same year — a crime that carries a maximum sentence of 16 years behind bars. Instead Judge Joyce Karlin sentenced her to five years’ probation, community service and a $500 fine.
The controversial sentence in the Harlins killing is cited as one of many instances of angry frustration experienced by LA’s African-American community that found expression in the 1992 Rodney King riots. During the riots, Du’s store was torched and never again reopened for business.
Texting + Driving = Killing = Probation?
Platte County Kansas teenager Rachel Gannon lost control of her vehicle because she was paying more attention to her smartphone than her driving. She rammed her car head-on into a vehicle driven by Loretta Larimer, 72. Larimer was killed and a girl, 10, in her backseat was injured. Gannon received only 48 hours of “shock time” in jail then five years’ probation for the accident on the judge’s assumption that she’d learned her lesson.
Although Gannon pleaded guilty last year to involuntary manslaughter, third-degree assault and texting while driving — charges that could have earned her many years in prison — even Larimer’s son John agreed with the judge’s decision at the time: “I didn’t want to see this young girl go to prison or anything like that. I think it would have been very negative, very detrimental.”
But just a few months later, Gannon, then 17, was back in court for violating her rules of probation. Specifically she hosted a party where she served and drank alcohol. Gannon was subsequently sentenced to a year in jail — but she’s being let out during the day to attend high school.
Twins Drown; Mom Gets a Year
No one disputes that being a new mother of twins is tiring work, but when Melody Butt took a catnap last year, the State of Wisconsin held it against her. Butt fell asleep as her 11-month-old son and daughter splashed around in the bathtub. The twins drowned because of her negligence, but a judge sentenced Butt to only a year in jail — with work-release and child-care privileges.
“I take full responsibility for allowing myself to be so overwhelmed,” Butt told the court, “I pay the price everyday.” The two crimes Butt pleaded to — neglecting a child resulting in death and neglecting a child — could have netted her up to 25 years in prison. Instead she’ll be in and out of jail for a year and then on probation for the next 14 years.
Although the light sentence will help Butt to be an active parent in the lives of her three surviving daughters, Gov. Scott Walker and other state politicians were dismayed at the lenient sentence and called for explanations from the Department of Corrections and the Department of Children and Families, both of which agreed with the court’s decision.
Early Parole Leads to Double Murder
Born in 1945, Russell Obremski was a reckless youth. His adolescence in Klamath Falls, Oregon, was characterized by an ever-lengthening rap sheet: vandalism, gasoline theft, lewd phone calls, even threatening girls at knifepoint. When he finally received the long sentence he so richly deserved — 20 years in prison for carnal knowledge with a 14-year-old girl — Oregon authorities let him go after just 14 months.
Unsurprisingly, Obremski did not emerge from his short stint behind bars a changed man. Still on parole for the statutory rape, Obremski traveled south to Medford, Oregon, where he killed LaVerna Mae Lowe (who was eight months pregnant) and Betty Ann Ritchie — each shot in the head.
Obremski was caught, convicted and sentenced to two life prison terms. Again, Oregon officials found him parole-worthy, and in 1993 he was released again after serving 24 years. Less than five months later, Obremski was arrested again for sex abuse and sodomy of a 4-year-old girl. An Oregon jury acquitted him on those charges, but luckily for the general public, Obremski was put behind bars anyway, for violating the no-alcohol rule of parole — he had imbibed a 1994 Valentine’s Day beer with his fiancée.