I don’t consider myself a historian (or a worldly person or even a well-read person) by any long stretch. I leave that up to Judge Hejmanowski! But I do consider myself a forever-student, meaning, I never want to cease learning. This year, when we observed the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., my daughter (age 6) and I watched his “I Have a Dream” speech, and I challenged myself to learn something new about Dr. King. Consequently, I pulled up the King Institute at Stanford University, which has a plethora of resources online. I came across a letter that Dr. King wrote and, not to my surprise, his words of wisdom still ring true today more than 60 years later.
A woman from Cleveland, Ohio, wrote to Dr. King in 1959 and asked him to intervene in a criminal case where two young men were being sentenced for bombing the Little Rock Board of Education Building. This woman told Dr. King that she supported integration, but that these “young men” shouldn’t be going to prison for the bombing. In her letter to Dr. King, the woman surmised that the two younger suspects were casualties of the time, meaning that, in her opinion, they were ignorant and were “used” to facilitate these bombings. She implored Dr. King to write the sentencing judge and advocate that these men receive probation.
So, let’s put this in a bit of a historical perspective. The bombing of the Board of Education was one of many bombings that took place in Little Rock, Arkansas, over Labor Day weekend in 1959. These bombings were a continuation of the violent protests in opposition to the integration efforts of Little Rock High School. No one was physically injured as a result of these bombings in 1959, but the different locations and timing of the bombs demonstrated an orchestrated and organized event by those who perpetrated the crime. The five accused individuals ranged from 49 years of age to 24 years of age.
I was taken somewhat aback by the audacity of the woman who wrote the letter to Dr. King, and I was surprised he took the time (in 1959) to return a letter to a woman from Ohio! What he wrote to her was powerful, and his message resonates still today. He wrote that, in his opinion, the criminal justice system, even with its imperfections, is the best we have to deal with criminal offenders. He stated that society “must have a system to control and regulate behavior.” He goes on to agree with her that yes, these two suspects probably are victims of the system — a system that resisted integration and resorted to violence — and that justice should be tempered with mercy, but that it would be a mistake to let these men “go scotch free.” He wrote that if they were to “go scotch free,” others would then have an excuse, as well as a justification, to commit violent offenses themselves.
What Dr. King wrote in 1959 reflects our criminal justice system today. It seems we can’t really go a week or two without hearing about criminal justice reform or seeing it play out in violent shootings on the evening news. Yet, like Dr. King wrote more than 60 years ago, the same reasons exist today for which we should resist allowing criminals to “go scotch free.” If we do not hold people accountable under the law, others will then excuse their criminal actions with an attitude of, “Hey, look at so-and-so. He got a slap on the wrist, so I’ll just get a slap on the wrist, too.”
The criminal justice reform effort in 2022 is focused on letting criminals “go scotch free” by advocating to decriminalize certain acts or impose standardized and, in my opinion, lenient sentences. Proponents of this reform advocate for consistency, implying, I believe, that local criminal justice officials, like myself and our judges, are not in the best position to determine what is right and just for our community. The effort to let offenders “go scotch free” is even emboldened by prosecutors across the country refusing to prosecute certain offenses with the end result being criminal offenders simply not being held accountable. I don’t know about you, but I certainly don’t want a bureaucrat from a different county or state (who doesn’t pay taxes here, who isn’t raising a child here, who doesn’t interact with our local businesses every day) telling me or our judges how to do our jobs.
Luckily, we don’t live in that world yet. We still live in the world Dr. King fought for — one where society has a system to hold people accountable for their actions. You only need to look at two of the Polaris Mall shooters to see how that could’ve played out differently. If this case occurred in Los Angeles or New York City, I wonder if these shooters would have even been prosecuted, and, if they were, would the prosecutor in those big cities have resolved the case with just a slap on the wrist? All of the bombers in 1959 were prosecuted and went to prison. They did not “go scotch free” because the prosecutor did his job, and did not succumb to societal pressure, just as we were able to today! Two of our shooters (the third is still pending) were charged and convicted of serious crimes that reflected their actions, and each has been sentenced to lengthy prison sentences (11-15 years; 13-17 years) because my office did our job in fighting to hold these violent offenders responsible.
As I often say, it is a blessing to serve as your prosecutor and to be one part in the criminal justice system that works to keep you safe. If you haven’t figured it out though, I’m pretty stubborn. Whether I’m fighting the breakfast war with my 6 year old or fighting to hold criminal offenders accountable, I see every case and every victim as an opportunity to serve my community and keep you safe.
For more information about Dr. King, and to read some of his letters, you can visit kinginstitute.stanford.edu.
Melissa A. Schiffel is Delaware County prosecutor.