The grieving family of slain Code Enforcement Officer Mickey Wright lashed out angrily when the man that killed their loved one, Dale Mardis, received a twelve year prison sentence as part of a plea bargain. Wright’s widow had to be restrained to keep from attacking the defendant as he entered his plea, and another relative kicked the interior walls of the courthouse so hard that the drop ceiling tiles above him fell out.
Their grief, their anger is certainly understandable. Part of the problem, though, is that they believed a jingoistic public relations slogan that was conjured out of thin air simply to make Bill Gibbons’ District Attorney’s office sound “tough on crime”.
“No deals. Hard crime gets all the time.” There were few radio or television outlets Memphians could turn to without hearing it during every commercial break. It was more ubiquitous than a Corey B. Trotz commercial or news coverage of Anna Nicole Smith’s death.
Of course, as with most catchphrases, this one had little to do with reality, and was directed at people that know precious little about the inner workings of the justice system.
No one likes to hear the term “reduced time” in reference to violent offenders. But there can be little doubt that the criminal justice system would grind to an abrupt halt without plea bargains. The wheels of justice turn slowly enough without every defendant deciding they have nothing to lose by pleading their cases in front of a jury.
It would also be next to impossible to shut down any form of organized crime, be it La Cosa Nostra or the Gangster Disciples. The only way to get information on anyone in a leadership position is to bust someone lower on the food chain and entice them to roll over on their leaders.
But the most dangerous side effect of such a policy is this one--- Some defendants will be acquitted.
And that’s the reason for the plea bargain that caused the current controversy. The charge against Dale Mardis was first degree murder. Proving a motive for a murder is not a required element of a trial--- But if a jury doesn’t hear a plausible one, it starts questioning the rest of the case.
The motive that the district attorney’s office built the Mardis case around was extreme racism--- That Mardis was so overcome by his hatred of black people that he felt compelled to murder Mickey Wright.
Witnesses had some forward recently that called that motive into question, insisting that Dale Mardis was no racist at all.
The slam dunk of a case against Mardis turned into a shaky one. Rather than take a chance on him going free altogether, they struck a bargain--- Twelve years in exchange for a guilty plea.
As much as the Wright family must hate that Mardis will be a free man in twelve years--- Who wouldn’t?--- There was a very realistic possibility that if the district attorney’s office was forced to go to trial with a weak case, there might well have been an acquittal and no prison time at all.
This case provides an object lesson neither in the inherent flaws of the justice system, nor in the evils of plea bargaining. The greatest lesson that can be taken away from this is to recognize that criminal justice should never be reduced to slogans that could fit on a bumper sticker.
Bill Gibbons made an irresponsible promise and based an irresponsible ideology upon it. It was nothing short of an appeal to voters to see his office as one that criminals look upon and quiver with fear. There were barbarians at the gate, and he was all that stood between the peaceful people of the city of Memphis and an angry, raging, criminal horde that salivated at the thought of running roughshod over their lives.
No precise numbers are available, but one of the worst kept secrets of our system of criminal justice is that the vast majority of criminal offenses end not in the defendant being found guilty by a jury, but the defendant agreeing to slightly less time in exchange for a guilty plea.
That District Attorney Gibbons doesn’t seem to grasp this concept makes one wonder just how fit he is to hold office. At the very least, the voters deserve an explanation.