When Everybody Loses

When an 18-year-old man with severe mental disabilities was convicted of performing sex acts on a six-year-old neighbor, a Texas jury sentenced him to 100 years in prison. "He couldn't understand the seriousness of what he did," says his father.

Alex Hart has an IQ of 47, and is classified as mentally retarded. He can neither read nor write. Unable towork, he lived with his parents, did odd jobs and was, they say, courteous and gentle.

On the eve of his arrest, he was excited about a fair coming to town and asked a neighbor if he could mow her lawn to make a few dollars. She found him in the back shed fondling her 6-year-old stepson. When the police arrived, they read Hart his rights, and he confessed to what he'd done. As they transported him to jail, he asked repeatedly whether he'd get paid for mowing the lawn.

The sentence, which, as the Dallas News reports, is harsher than those typically meted out to repeat child molestors and rapists, has raised the larger question of how the state prosecutes the profoundly disabled.

The question is whether Hart was capable of understanding right from wrong; the court said yes, his parents say no. Many blame Hart's court-appointed lawyer for the severity of the sentence. Hart may not have understood his Miranda rights, and confessed to all five counts without an attorney present. Once appointed, the lawyer, assuming his client would get probation, apparently neither called witnesses on Hart's condition nor hired a liaison to help Hart understand what was going on. He also didn't challenge the finding that Hart was competent to stand trial, which his parents claim came after a cursory inspection. As a result, both judge and jury "say they would have preferred not to send Hart to prison," but they were presented with no option - no mental health facility or group home for disabled offenders. (Some jurors are saying the judge ignored their requests for alternatives, and that they were appalled that he chose to stack the sentences.) The District Attorney, however, stands by his decision to prosecute Hart on all counts, saying, "I hope people will remember he committed a violent sexual crime against a little boy."

Hart is currently in Texas' "Mentally Retarded Offender Program." He will appeal later this year; in the meantime, his father says the one upside is that his son has no idea of the severity of his situation. I use "upside" loosely, as the story is a tragedy. If Alex Hart is going to harm children, however unknowingly, he must obviously be kept away from them. One can only hope the child will sustain as little emotional damage as possible and receive counseling. But it's hard not to agree with the law professor quoted in the article who calls the sentence "not helpful to society or the offender."

Fairness Of 100-Year Prison Sentence For Mentally Disabled Offender Questioned
[Dallas News]