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March 28, 2007

A Texas juve case creating controversy

Thanks to posts at TalkLeft and Grits for Breakfast, I have become away of a controversial case of seemingly unduly severe juvenile punishment coming out of Texas.  This AP story has these highlights:

A teenager has been jailed for more than a year for shoving a teacher's aide at her high school, sparking anger and heightening racial tensions in rural East Texas.  Shaquandra Cotton, now 15, claims the teacher's aide pushed her first and would not let her enter school before the morning bell in 2005.

A jury convicted her in March 2006 on a felony count of shoving a public servant, who was not seriously injured.  The girl is in the Ron Jackson Correctional Complex in Brownwood, about 300 miles from her home in Paris....  Under the sentence handed down by Lamar County Judge Chuck Superville, she will remain at the facility until she meets state rehabilitation standards or reaches her 21st birthday.

But her family and civil rights activists say they want her home now. They are condemning the sentence as unusually harsh and say it shows a justice system that punishes young offenders differently, depending on their race.  Creola Cotton, Shaquandra's mother, and activists argue that while Superville sent Shaquandra to the state's juvenile prison system, he gave a white 14-year-old arsonist probation. As many as 400 people marched and rallied in Paris on Tuesday, the second such protest in as many weeks by civil rights groups.

Meanwhile, the Paris school district fiercely denied claims of racism and chided the girl's mother for "playing a game" to start controversy.... Creola Cotton is preventing the district from fairly defending itself by refusing to let the school district make her daughter's entire record public, [Paris school district attorney Dennis] Eichelbaum said. "Mrs. Cotton has been wrongfully attacking the character of the district," Eichelbaum said. "She's being disingenuous with regard to her daughter being an innocent child."...

Prosecutors say they offered Shaquandra a plea agreement that would have reduced the felony charge to a misdemeanor and given her two years' probation.  But Creola Cotton rejected the plea behalf of her daughter, prosecutors said.

The Dallas South Blog, whose author Shawn Williams comes from Paris, Texas, offers lots of comments on the case here and here and here.  Also, there is a blog, Free Shaquanda Cotton, which pleads "Please help me, Shaquanda Cotton, receive proper justice. Leave me notes of encouragement, donate to my trust fund, and spread the word!"  That blog has links to other media coverage of this case.

March 28, 2007 at 09:25 PM | Permalink

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Tracked on Mar 29, 2007 8:19:13 AM

Comments

Oh the nerve of that mother, not letting this obviously racist school district drag her daughter further through the mud. People (and here I'm refering to the school officials, prosecutors, and judges in this case) disgust me sometimes.

Posted by: Anon | Mar 29, 2007 12:27:07 AM

"Obviously racist?" Wow. I'm glad you're so confident in your judgments of others.

And not for nothing, and though it's not explicit in the news coverage I've seen, it looks like the arsonist took a probationary plea offer and Ms. Cotton's mother turned one down for her daughter. Happens every day in the criminal justice system. It's one of those factors that leads to disparate sentences for similarly-situated defendants that some just choose to ignore -- to wit, sometimes defendants gamble by rejecting a plea offer and going to trial, and sometimes they lose.

Posted by: NCProsecutor | Mar 29, 2007 7:59:11 AM

I don’t think that a school district can have “character” that can be impugned.

NCProsecutor, This is strange. How can a parent turn down or accept a plea for their child?

Posted by: S.cotus | Mar 29, 2007 8:32:23 AM

S.cotus, I was wondering the exact same thing.

Appears also that her juvenile record is sealed and mom won't release -- nice end-run around that by the school district -- Hey, she won't let us release her record -- she's portraying her as innocent -- isn't that effectively telling the public that she has prior run-ins with the system? Might that as well explain why the arsonist received less time -- offender based characteristics -- isn't that what the big wigs call it?

Posted by: LonesomeClerk | Mar 29, 2007 8:41:54 AM

NCProsecutor, of course, is correct, but his answer does not exculpate the system but further indicts it. Every American has a right to a trial by jury, but the system bitterly punishes those who exercise that right, as in Ms. Cotton's case.

As Doc Berman has noted previously, the plea system uses ridiculously, untenably high sentences available under law to avoid trial in most cases. In Texas, 99.5% of criminal cases are pled. That's how we get innocent people in prison, folks - people take lesser sentences to avoid the "risk," as NCProsecutor puts it, of an extremist verdict which all involved know the system is essentially rigged to produce, at least for indigent and/or marginal defendants.

"Happens every day" is right.

Posted by: Gritsforbreakfast | Mar 29, 2007 9:22:54 AM

Grits:

I don't recall attempting to exculpate the system with my response. Please don't put words in my mouth, and I won't put words in yours.

I am curious, though, about your comment that the system has "bitterly" punished Ms. Cotton in this case simply for availing herself of her right to a jury trial. Are you so sure? I've read comments by the trial judge which made it sound like he really thought through the various options available. Maybe, like anon above, you're comfortable assuming that he was just engaging in ex post facto rationalization, but I'm not.

The sentence disparity between Ms. Cotton and the arsonist certainly could have been due to the arsonist's acceptance of an early plea, but that's just one possibility. A difference in criminal history is another plausible explanation; and frankly, racism on the part of the judge and the school system is another possibility (although that sort of charge requires a bit more proof than was alleged in anon's original comment).

My "happens every day" comment was meant to explain to anon that there are other explanation for the disparity than just racism, which I hope that this comment has cleared up.

As for the rest of your comment concerning a "rigged" system and "extremist verdicts," well, I wouldn't really know where to begin my response. Perhaps it would be best just to say this:

Posted by: NCProsecutor | Mar 29, 2007 10:15:00 AM

NCProsecutor has still not explained how a mother can plead guilty or not guilty for a child. I really want to know this. Is this the way things are done in North Carolina? Could, for example, during a juvenile trial, a mother stand up, and simply declare that her son must plead guilty? Or does it only work the other way? Could a month veto a guilty plea?

I think a lot of this is silly. Even in juvenile proceedings, the “victims” of the crime are not party to it. If this were so, we could argue that in “victimless” crimes, there is something inherently wrong with even second-guessing the views of a prosecutor if the “state” has a good reputation. I think North Carolina and Texas have bad reputations, so I don’t mind if criminal defendants impugn them. But, I would think it improper for a New York criminal defendant to impugn the credibility of New York or its witnesses. (It is a fact that New York is objectively better than those other states, and therefore it is beyond contention.)

There is no reason why juvenile records must be sealed. In fact, I think they should be as open as adult records. But, once states decide to seal them, then – of course – people will take advantage of their sealing to win public relations coups. But executive actors do similar things. Time and time again I have been told that the government has “information” that establishes its overwhelming interest in abridging some constitutional right. See, e.g., New York Times Co. v. United States, 403 U.S. 713 (1971) (Douglas, J., concurring) (“The Government says that it has inherent powers to go into court and obtain an injunction to protect the national interest, which, in this case, is alleged to be national security.”) Ultimately, the executive usually loses, but not after considerable litigation. Id.

There are lots of reasons why someone might have received more or less time. I don’t know the specifics of the case. Of course, as a lawyer, I think it is irresponsible and unAmerican to comment on a legal matter without at least reading the operative texts. (This is why real lawyers generally don’t comment on trials, since it takes a long time to read the record. Some lawyers think it is okay to do this – but only when talking to non-lawyers – because they wouldn’t understand their complete analysis of the record, anyway.)

Posted by: S.cotus | Mar 29, 2007 11:00:20 AM

NCProsecutor - I didn't say exculpate was a quote from you, but you're obviously trying to give a justification for disparate sentences. I didn't put words in your mouth, but I did characterize your comments, IMO accurately.

When I say "rigged," I mean that a prosecutor somehow secured a second degree felony indictment for an in-school shove by a 14-year old. For you non-Texans, that's the same offense level as forcible rape! I'm sure nearly anyone facing such an outlandishly exaggerated risk from an overcharged offense would normally take the plea. Cotton is in a Texas youth prison today because she availed herself of her constitutional right to trial.

I think it's true that happens every day, I don't think it has much to do with race, and I think it's flat out wrong. And S.cotus, one needn't be a lawyer to understand why. best,

Posted by: Gritsforbreakfast | Mar 29, 2007 1:39:13 PM

S.cotus:

North Carolina law does not provide parents the right to make decisions on behalf of their children in juvenile cases. But Texas law apparently does (from my reading of the press reports), as does Florida law (remember this controversial case).

As for the rest of your comment, let me start by saying that I surely hope that your second paragraph is sarcastic and not serious.

Any comment I would make beyond that would strain the limits of civility, and that I am unwilling to do.

Posted by: NCProsecutor | Mar 29, 2007 1:51:07 PM

S.cotus, i think that NC Prosecutor was recounting what was reported in the newspaper, not saying such a procedure had a legal basis. Your demands for authority etc. are a parody. Unfortunately, it seems to me that you don't realize that you are self-parodying.

Posted by: federalist | Mar 29, 2007 1:55:39 PM

Grits:

I never attempted to justify the disparate sentences, as my subsequent comment explained. I simply stated that there was another likely explanation (other than anon's assumption of racism). If I were truly trying to defend the sentence on that basis, I'd have engaged with you on your whole "rigged system" business.

As for Ms. Cotton, you seem to be operating from a well of facts deeper than the one in my backyard, so tell me -- what offense would Ms. Cotton have been pleading guilty to in order to accept the state's probationary offer? Was it, in fact, the felony you describe? Is it common for such a serious felony conviction to be punishable by just probation? Please, share with the rest of the class.

Posted by: NCProsecutor | Mar 29, 2007 1:58:51 PM

NC Prosecutor,

My point is simply that states and state entities don’t have “reputations” and one can pretty much say whatever stupid crap about them you want. Sure, you might look like an idiot. But, they still have to play by their own rules even if its means not defending themselves.

I am somewhat troubled by the fact that you relied on a newspaper article – written by a nonlawyer – to conclude that a parent can accept or reject a plea deal. Now, in the case you “cited” what you say might make sense. After all, a waiver of the right to a trial (or whatever process exists) must be done intelligently, and if a parent says “no” it probably isn’t intelligent. But, I scoured Florida statutes, and I did not find a statutory right of a parent to veto a child’s guilty plea. Like most states, it see,s to be in the hands of the judge. On the other hand, it seems beyond odd that a parent can conclusively demand that a child accept a guilty plea.

I don’t see what the problem is with the system being “rigged.” Some people complain that the system is “rigged” in favor of defendant. But, the logical reply to that is, “So what? We don’t need to treat the state fairly. The framers of the constitution agreed that the state would be hobbled in its own court.” On the other hand, the state does have many advantages that count as rigging. The state generally has the ability to detain people pending an initial hearing. It is very difficult (though not impossible) for most people to seek injunctive relief or declaratory judgments. Generally, the state is in control of most of the evidence they seek to use. A state can terminate criminal proceedings (at least pre-conviction) unilaterally. And the list goes on. The question is whether the “rigging” is too extreme.

Federalist, There is nothing funny about it. If you cite a legal proposition you need to cite it. That is the American way.

Posted by: S.cotus | Mar 29, 2007 2:34:34 PM

S.cotus:

I commend to you a more thorough review of my comments above. You will see that nowhere did I state with certainty the legal procedures of any state other than the great state of North Carolina. You will kindly note the use of the word "apparently" which is intended to denote a level of uncertainty concerning the proposition which follows the word. Perhaps I could recommend that you scour a dictionary in case my word choice continues to confuse you.

For my part, I am truly amazed at your insistence that I explain and defend a parent's right to enter a guilty plea on behalf of a juvenile, and that I cite the statutory or case law authority which would purport to provide such authority to a parent. I am not aware of anything in my comments above which would have triggered such a duty on my part. Since you appear to believe that I have such a duty, you should cite support in the form of statutory or legal authority for that legal proposition.

After all, that is the American way. Isn't it?

Posted by: NCProsecutor | Mar 29, 2007 3:35:21 PM

NCProsecutor, I was not accusing you of saying that such authority existed. However, I think that it was a bit foolhardy to jump to the conclusion that, based on a non-legal publication, such a procedure existed.

Posted by: S.cotus | Mar 29, 2007 8:03:52 PM

News reports indicate Miss Cotton has been released. One hopes that she has learned a lesson. Life for her will be better that way.

Posted by: | Mar 31, 2007 8:28:44 PM

The scales of justice can be rigged for you to fail. That is fact. Serious fraud and false evidence can be given to a jury to consider and be instructed. Innocent people will be further oppressed/suppressed and obstructed from justice. Public employee's cannot be allowed to defraud the justice system and public. It is not only the fraud but the waste of taxpayer money

Posted by: MOLINA | Apr 30, 2007 4:03:46 AM

Evidence that just confirmed your innocence by the prosecution witness can be deleted/altered/tampered with and obstructed. Immediately a secret conference in the hallway toward judges chambers will take care of that. Rigged scales of justice will get you and anyone convicted. The public needs to wake up and be made aware this fraud happens and they are paying and paying for this. They keep taking your money for more prisons. Rigged justice...tampering with evidence...obstruction of justice...you need to be aware and protect yourself and family. send a donation so this awareness can be expanded to help. MOLINA 927 south Bruce- #5 Anaheim, Ca. 92804

Posted by: MOLINA | May 6, 2007 6:00:27 AM

Wow..such arguments from adults..

Can we(somebody) please just work on getting miss cotton OUT?

Posted by: | May 8, 2007 12:34:58 AM

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