When I was in law school, I took a class called Mental Illness and the Law. The cases we studied were devastating accounts of how our justice system mishandles defendants, convicted felons and prisoners who suffer from serious and debilitating mental diseases or defects. A recent court case noted in USA Today is yet another example of our system’s shortcomings.
Aaron Hart, an 18-year-old from Paris, Texas, received 100 years in prison for sexually abusing a 6-year-old neighbor. He pleaded guilty to five counts including aggravated sexual assault and indecency by contact, and received two five-year terms and three 30-year terms, which will be served consecutively. Hart is mentally retarded, has an IQ of 47, cannot read or write and speaks haltingly.
Apparently the jury didn’t envision this woefully misguided outcome:
Jurors said they sent the judge notes during deliberations in February, asking about alternatives to prison, but didn’t get a clear answer. They believed the judge would order concurrent sentences, jurors said.
The judge decided to make the sentences consecutive because he “felt” there was no other option:
“In the state of Texas, there isn’t a whole lot you can do with somebody like him,” [Judge Eric] Clifford said.
The young man had no prior felony record. “Aaron is 18, never committed a felony, had no violent record. He couldn’t understand the seriousness of what he did,” said his father, Robert Hart. “I never dreamed they would think about sending him to prison. When they said 100 years – it was terror, pure terror to me.”
My heart goes out to everyone involved here (except Judge Clifford, of course). A child was sexually violated. A mentally retarded person was sentenced to prison for a crime he perhaps didn’t understand was wrong (Hart’s appellate attorneys are arguing that the court-appointed physician performed tests on Hart assessing mental illness, not mental retardation). And a jury tried to render an appropriate sentence but was stymied by a lazy judge and a justice system ill-equipped to handle mentally retarded criminals. How is it possible in this day and age that Hart’s only option is lifetime imprisonment?