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May 3, 2016

An (unhelpful?) exploration of how a troubled young man gets 50 years in Mississippi prison for first felony convictions

Rorschach-test_00411577The Clarion-Ledger is starting a series of articles titled "Blinded Justice" that will "examine how justice and punishment are dispensed across Mississippi in wildly varying ways."   This first piece, headlined "50 years for first-time felon? Tyler Moore's story," tells an interesting tale of a troubled youngster seemingly getting slammed on felony burglary charges because local prosecutors seemingly got tired of his many (misdemeanor-level?) crimes.  But the article does not really explore just why prosecutors ultimately were so eager to throw the book at this particular offender.  Here are excerpts from the lengthy piece which, for me, raises more state sentencing questions than answers:

Tyler Moore is serving 50 years in prison.  It was the first felony conviction for the 24-year-old man, struggling to beat a drug addiction and his bipolar disorder.  According to the Mississippi Department of Corrections, his tentative release date is 2061.  “I’ll be dead and gone by then,” said his mother, Lisa.  So how does a first-time offender who pleaded guilty to burglary get 50 years in prison? This is his story....

[In] 2010 ..., [after a charge of] misdemeanor possession of marijuana paraphernalia, Brandon police knocked on the door one morning about 5 and took him to jail on a hit-and-run charge.  The charge against him arose from a party where a young man claimed Moore had run his car into him.  Moore denied the claim, saying the young man jumped on his hood.

On April 1, 2011, the judge reduced the charge to leaving the scene of an accident, and Moore was fined.  While walking out of the courtroom that day, he muttered to someone, “You lying sack of s---.” The judge sentenced him to 10 days in jail.

The misdemeanors kept coming — contributing to the delinquency of a minor and then shoplifting when he walked out of Belk’s with a pair of sunglasses.  Moore apologized to the judge and admitted he had a drug problem.  He spent two days in jail, and the judge ordered drug tests for the next six months.

In August 2011, Moore’s family opted for a change in scenery, moving to Branson, Missouri....  He passed all the court-ordered drug tests. What his family didn’t know was his drug addiction now included spice, which couldn’t be detected by the tests....

As months passed, Moore grew homesick, and an old girlfriend wanted to see him.  He made it back to Mississippi before Christmas.  “I return and have like no money, so what do I do?” he wrote in a sworn statement. “I decide to steal out of some cars to get some money.”  In a Reservoir neighborhood, he went from car to car, stealing University of Alabama floor mats, an iPod, a University of Florida gator decal and other items.  

On Feb. 2, 2012, the Rankin County Sheriff’s Department arrested him and charged him with breaking into six cars....  After two weeks in jail, the judge released him on bond with the understanding he would go to a drug rehabilitation center, where he stayed 30 days.  He admitted using crack cocaine, marijuana and alcohol.

A day after his release in April 2012, deputies responded to a call, where they questioned Moore about a mother saying he had sex with her 15-year-old girl.  They arrested him, and he sat in jail for two weeks on a statutory rape charge. He insisted on his innocence, but he failed his polygraph test.  Once again, the judge sent him for 30 days to drug rehab.

After his release, his mother witnessed an improvement. He got a job at a car dealership... [but] when his employer learned of his burglary arrest, he was fired.  Devastated, he sank into depression.  A psychiatrist diagnosed him with bipolar disorder and prescribed medication. His mother said her son continued to struggle and began hanging out with the wrong crowd....

On a Thursday morning, Jan. 10, 2013, Moore discovered he had 21 missed calls on his cell phone.  When he talked with his mother, she told him deputies were looking for him. “They say you’ve been breaking into houses.”...  That evening, deputies showed up a second time, jailing his mother, father and 14-year-old brother on accessory after the fact charges after learning he was in Louisiana.

Moore’s grandmother decided to turn him in to the Rankin County jail on Sunday, a day before his court appearance.  When they arrived in Brandon, he bolted.  Deputies pursued him and caught him in a Reservoir subdivision, charging him with five counts of house burglary.  With his family behind bars, he confessed to the burglaries.

In a March 4, 2013, memo, the district attorney’s office gave Moore two options: He could plead guilty to auto and home burglaries and receive 50 years, or he could plead guilty to the burglaries and statutory rape, and receive 30 years.  Moore refused to plead guilty to statutory rape.

Ten days later, his new defense lawyer, John Colette of Jackson, proposed to prosecutors an alternative of 25 years in prison, with 25 suspended....  In response to the 50-year offer from prosecutors, Colette told them in a July 26, 2013, email, “Nobody was killed.”

The district attorney’s office didn’t budge.  Moore faced a new charge, this time of escape, after his bunkmate tried to pry open a window in the Rankin County jail.  Colette spoke with the sheriff and prosecutors, who agreed to dismiss the charge.

On Aug. 5, 2013, Moore pleaded guilty to five counts of auto burglary and one count of house burglary. “I just wanted to tell everyone I hurt I’m sorry, and my family,” he told the judge. “I’m not a bad guy. I’ve made some mistakes and I’m on drugs and I ran with the wrong crowd.”...  He confessed, “I don’t understand anything anymore, and I need help.”....

In keeping with the plea bargain, the judge sentenced him to 60 years in prison, suspending 10 of those years, with each sentence running consecutively. Circuit Judge John Emfinger dismissed the other burglary charges and the statutory rape charge. Because authorities recovered nearly all of the items, the judge ordered less than $300 in restitution.

Moore thought his sentences would run concurrently. “It did not seem real,” he wrote, “and to this day, it does not seem real.”... When Moore arrived at the Central Mississippi Correctional Facility, a correctional officer thought the 50 years of time were a mistake and double-checked with Rankin County Circuit Court to make sure the burglary sentences were indeed consecutive, not concurrent....

Moore's new lawyer, veteran defense attorney Tom Fortner, said the 50 years “seems like an awfully harsh sentence for a young person without a prior felony. There are a lot of people convicted for worse crimes who aren’t getting 50 years in prison.”  Fortner asked Judge Emfinger to reconsider his client’s case, saying his then-defense lawyer, Colette, failed to make clear to Moore how soon he would be eligible for parole.  Moore initially believed he would be eligible for parole as early as 2017, but it turned out he won’t be eligible until at least 2025. His tentative release date is 2061.

I find this case so very interesting and blogworthy because it strikes me as a a kind of Rorschach test for assessing the state and problems with modern sentencing systems. Though the article focuses on the severe sentence Moore got at the end of this story, one could reasonably complain about all the sentencing leniency he received for his considerable prior low-level offending. Similarly, though the article suggests it was peculiar and worrisome the local DA pushed for a 50-year sentence in a plea deal, one could reasonably wonder why a sentencing judge did not seem troubled by imposing this sentence. And while a 50-year prison term seems quite extreme for just a series of (minor?) burglary offenses, one could argue that this case was sentence just right if Moore can work hard to improve himself while incarcerated so as to earn parole after serving only 12 years.

May 3, 2016 at 10:09 AM | Permalink

Comments

"because it strikes me as a a kind of Rorschach test for assessing the state and problems with modern sentencing systems"

Exactly.

So let me tell you how I see it. The offender has an problem. OK. The prior efforts were not working. Got it. The difficulty for the prosecutor is what ELSE does he have to hit the defendant with but a bigger hammer?! That's the problem. The underlying problem is the only meaningful way our society has to deal with delinquents is (a) jail (b) prison (c) or let them go. Occasionally we see treatment programs, especially for drug crimes, but these are few and under funded.

So what our CJ system needs is not more compassion. What it needs are more options, better tools. I don't blame the prosecutor for being frustrated. I blame a system that doesn't give the prosecutor many options other than escalation to deal with the issues.

Posted by: Daniel | May 3, 2016 12:34:05 PM

But 50 yrs, 10 would if been plenty.

Posted by: MidWestGuy | May 3, 2016 1:09:00 PM

@Midwest

A difference in degree, not of kind. Does it really make it any better that a person who needs treatment rather than jail is in for "only" 10 years? Modifying the length of time a person is in prison is not an alternative to prison.

Posted by: Daniel | May 3, 2016 7:15:12 PM

I don't see how it is society's place to offer treatment at all (indeed I would prefer SC's 1-2-3d model and off to the executioner with him).

Posted by: Soronel Haetir | May 4, 2016 11:42:15 AM

SH, maybe a few meds could help you, a half dozen fentanyl lollipops may be just the treatment to cure your issues

Posted by: Ted | May 4, 2016 7:52:46 PM

And what issues would those be?

Why, exactly, should society cater to criminals in any way? Were they not so untrustworthy I might even endorse using the chattel slavery option that the 13th amendment leaves open.

Posted by: Soronel Haetir | May 5, 2016 12:39:03 AM

My name is Lisa Moore, i am this young man's mom thank you for doing this blog my husband found it today after we have been investigating Rankin County for the last couple of years. We have been watching other sentencing of other people get much less time with much more charges. I need this blog to be viral public and I need your help. Please email me and I can share with you much more information on this case. moorel24@yahoo.com

Posted by: Lisa Moore | Dec 12, 2017 3:06:19 PM

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