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June 1, 2013

Following prosecutor recommendation, Texas jury gives repeat felon 50-year sentence for theft of ribs

Babybackribs-011A helpful reader alerted me to this notable local article concerning a notable jury sentencing outcome emerging this past week from the Texas state courts.  The piece is headlined "Theft of ribs gets five-time felon 50 years in prison," and here are the details:

All Willie Smith Ward wanted was his baby-back ribs, but it cost him 50 years in prison. 

His problems started when he tucked a large rack under his shirt and tried to leave the H-E-B store at 1102 Speight Ave. without paying in September 2011.

A jury in Waco’s 19th State District Court also didn’t like the 43-year-old Ward’s previous five felony and four misdemeanor convictions and recommended that Ward be sentenced to 50 years in prison as a habitual criminal.  Jurors took two minutes Wednesday to convict Ward on robbery charges and about an hour to decide his punishment. 

Ward’s theft of the $35 rack of pork ribs turned into a robbery when he threatened a grocery store employee who saw the huge bulge under Ward’s shirt and tried to stop him in the parking lot.

“This verdict shows that the citizens of this county will not tolerate a continued disrespect and disregard for other people and their property,” said Assistant District Attorney J.R. Vicha, who prosecuted Ward with Chris Bullajian.  “People who choose to do so will be dealt with seriously and appropriately.”

The employee testified that he asked Ward what was under the shirt and the slab of ribs fell to the ground. He asked Ward what else he was hiding and Ward said, “I got a knife.” The employee told Ward, “Now you just turned a ticket into a 
serious crime.”

“If you don’t leave me alone, I’ll show you what I got,” Ward said, according to the employee’s testimony. Ward then ran off.

Ward has previous felony convictions for burglary, attempted robbery, aggravated assault, leaving the scene of an accident and possession of cocaine and four misdemeanor convictions, including two thefts.

He will have to serve at least a quarter of his sentence before he becomes 
eligible for parole.  A court official said Ward rejected a 20-year prison sentence in a plea offer from prosecutors 
before trial.

Though I suspect this sentencing story could make a lot of news as an example of extreme sentencing, the last three sentences of the story confirm my instinct that this headline-making case was actually resolved in a relatively fair and effective manner.  Let me explain.

For starters, it appears that Willie Smith Ward (aka the "Baby Back Bandit") will only be serving about 12 years in prison for sure, at which point he will be eligible for parole. And given his considerable and serious criminal history as well as the threats of violence involved in this latest crime, a prison term requiring at least a decade behind bars does not seems that extreme and does seem likely to increase public safety.

Second, for a crime in which it would appear guilt was not in doubt, the local prosecutor was here prepared to give the Baby Back Bandit a huge sentencing discount if he pleaded guilty. This seems to mean that, simply by accepting responsibility for his latest crime, the Baby Back Bandit would have receive a much lower sentence which would have made him parole eligible in only five years.

Last but not least, unlike in the federal sentencing system with mandatory minimum sentencing terms that often enable prosecutors to select and mandate an extreme sentence for certain crimes without any jury or judicial review, in this case the prosecutor was only able to make a sentencing recommendation and it was up to a jury to decide if an extreme sentencing term was justified. The fact that local jurors decided to "throw the book" at the Baby Back Bandit (and actually spent some real time debating the sentence) reinforces my confidence that this sentencing outcome is not as extreme as it might seems upon first consideration.

One last thought: Should this habitual offender consider pitching himself to Chili's in the hope they might want to bring back its most (in)famous commercial jingle, perhaps along with the 'Nsync folks?

June 1, 2013 at 10:32 AM | Permalink


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"A court official said Ward rejected a 20-year prison sentence in a plea offer"
b-b-b-baby brain

This is the key... plus all of the unidentified non-convictions.

Posted by: Adamakis | Jun 1, 2013 11:45:55 AM

This kind of case points up the problem with the chattering class and criminal punishment. Most ordinary people reading this would simply shrug and say that the guy either got what he deserved or, at a minimum, don't feel sorry for him. But in America, we have a dedicated "be nice to criminals" cadre who, for whatever reason, have decided to prove to the rest of us how enlightened they are by fighting tooth and nail to keep criminals out of jail.

Unfortunately, some of these twits happen to be governors (e.g., Hickenloopy or the execrable Pat Quinn).

What it's done is distorted the debate in such a ridiculous manner. Check out, for example, the ridiculous habeas petition for the condemned Georgia murderer, Warren Hill. The petition actually says that Hill is "innocent of the death penalty." In a justice system unpolluted by serious consideration of nitwitted arguments like "capital punishment is barbaric" such an argument would be laughed at for its naked sophistry. "Innocence of the death penalty" should mean (if ordinary parlance were used) basically that the crime itself committed by the guy simply was not death eligible and would strongly imply that the difference between what the criminal did and what he was convicted for had a big gap. In this case, the defense has facilely applied it to the alleged status of the killer. It's fundamentally dishonest, but my guess is that at least four Supreme Court Justices will take it seriously. A serious justice system would simply dismiss the petition for that nonsense. This sort of solicitousness for criminals bespeaks a pathetic lack of moral courage and squeamishness about punishing those who seriously transgress societal norms.

People on this website have asked why I can be such a "dick" or call my attacks on judges "troubling" etc. etc. I have a deep reservoir of contempt for liberals. A liberal will handwring about a death sentence, but cheerlead for a thug like Martha Coakley (yup, I am looking at you Barack Obama and all other Democrats who supported that evil witch) and people like Eric Holder who will tell us about there being too many people in jail, but then have his jackboots prosecute a father for defending his children against a grizzly bear.

Liberalism in this country is statist, hypocritical and morally weak. I am surprised I don't have even more contempt for them.

Posted by: federalist | Jun 1, 2013 4:27:49 PM

So many questions! Clearly this man must have served time on the previous offenses. What did the system do with him during that time? Did the system do anything to prepare him for live on the outside? Or, did it just make him a better prisoner? Did he try to find a job? Could he not get hired because of his record? Don't get me wrong. I do not excuse this offense. As a citizen, not employed in the legal sysgtem in any capacity, I have more questions than answers.

Posted by: Elmira | Jun 1, 2013 9:55:36 PM

Of course not Elmira! not only did they NOT preprare him for support himself outside. Thanks to 100's of laws and the creation of the internet and the failure of the govt to control the personal info that goes on it. They will hound him forver after his release pretty much guaranteeing he continues to be a criminal. Since it's pretty much the only thing a large majority of those who are released can do.

Posted by: rodsmith | Jun 1, 2013 11:07:46 PM

A street is out there named after a mass murderer? Who knew?

Serious crime even with a cutesy name. Armed robbery for $35 or $500 really amounts to the same thing on a basic level, especially a chain. A bit different when it's some poor person you rob, though even there, not as much in his case with all those crimes and all.

The discretion and jury involvement are important aspects. Was the jury aware that the 50 years was a sort of grade inflation deal? If it really is a hard 12, it's sorta misleading. That's not even 1/4 of the sentence. Rejecting a 20 year deal doesn't factor in much for me though it amounts to a hard five (though this guy seems like a sort who might not be liable to get that parole the first go around).

My only beef is that the jury took so long to find him guilty. Two minutes? Really? Maybe, someone had to go to bathroom or something.

Posted by: Joe | Jun 2, 2013 12:17:43 PM

'Liberalism in this country is statist, hypocritical and morally weak. I am surprised I don't have even more contempt for them.'

here's a comment for the commenter of the quoted statement above, if you don't like it please do everyone a favor and leave, one less morally bankrupt troglobite like you would surely be welcomed, maybe a deserted island somewhere, weak and frightened people like yourself should be protected from themselves

Posted by: Ted Jackson | Jun 3, 2013 7:22:40 PM

Ted Jackson --

Didn't liberalism used to welcome dissenting views?

Posted by: Bill Otis | Jun 3, 2013 9:41:32 PM

All the clucking about Martha Coakley and the Gerald Amirault case is really amusing. "federalist" and company are suddenly "pro-defendant" and with no mention of Reagan-appointee Charles Fried's role in the persecution of the Amirault family. What was it again? Oh, yeah, "finality" trumps justice, that was it.

I've no love for Martha Coakley, but exploiting this tragic case for partisan ends is shameful.

Posted by: 8th Amendment | Jun 4, 2013 1:01:22 AM

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