Detroit Third Judicial Circuit Judge James Callahan sentenced 19-year-old gang member Latrez Cummings to six months in jail for his participation in the mob beating of Steve Utash, a 54-year-old white man who jumped out of his car to assist a 10-year-old African-American boy after his pick-up truck hit the child. Cummings and at least 20 others on the scene attacked Utash and beat him severely, leaving him with permanent brain damage.
Judge Callahan told Cummings that the lack of a father was what led him to his current plight. “That’s all you have needed in your life, a father, someone to discipline you, someone to beat the hell out of you when you made a mistake,” Callahan lectured Cummings. “Without the guidance of a father, being 19 years of age, I can understand how some of these problems existed in the past.” The judge added that Cummings has suffered without “somebody to beat the hell out of you when you made a mistake.” With the further rationalization, “We’ve all been 19 years of age, ” Callahan handed down the six month sentence, to be followed by probation.
The prosecutor, to her credit, went nuts. Said Assistant Wayne County Prosecutor Lisa Lindsey:
“That is no excuse, judge, that is setting a low bar. There are plenty of young black males who live in the city of Detroit who are raised by single mothers who do not, I repeat, do not engage in criminal activity. There are plenty of young black males who did not have a father who live in the city of Detroit who do not come into court and lie to a judge. There are plenty of young black males who live in the city of Detroit who do not behave the way this man behaved. The fact that he did not have a father, the fact that he is a young black male does not give him the right to engage in criminal activity….We can see. We all have eyes. He is a young, black male in the city of Detroit. It does not give him an excuse to go out and commit crimes nor is it a reason to show him leniency, because he doesn’t have a father.”
There are obvious justice and fairness dilemmas in cases like this, where the violence is perpetrated by a group and only a few members of that group are prosecuted. Although at least twenty people participated in the maiming of Utash, few witnesses came forward and only five of the attackers were charged. All of the sentences are relatively light, with only Wonzey Saffold, 30, who had a significant prior criminal record receiving substantial jail time serving more than six years in prison. James D. Davis, 24, was sentenced to one year. Bruce Wimbush, 18, received probation under a special program designed for defendants aged 17 to 20. Juvenile offender Courtney Robinson received an indefinite sentence in a juvenile residential center.
It is true that they are being punished while the majority of the mob that beat Utash is escaping without consequences, but that doesn’t lessen the culpability of those who were apprehended. Cummings admitted to “stomping” and beating a helpless, overwhelmed man who nearly died a result. Whether he did this alone or with 20, it is a serious crime.
Some ethics observations:
- At one level, the sentence starkly defines the dubious ethics reasoning that the culture has increasingly embraced over time, which is essentially the Clarence Darrow model. Darrow believed that there was no free will, and the criminals were simply unlucky players in life’s lottery, doomed to be punished by the winners for the inevitable results of being poor, badly raised, stupid, or otherwise socially handicapped. Thus the ethical reasoning of those who adopt Darrow’s world view is ruled by the ethical values of empathy, kindness, compassion, mercy, love and forgiveness. It certainly sounds good and feels good, but it also essentially disposes of another package of ethical values: responsibility, respect, accountability, fairness, and citizenship. While Darrow may have been correct in theory, no society can function in which all crimes are excused or only lightly punished because lawless people just can’t help being the way they are. If they can’t help themselves, then society’s duty is to protect everyone else from them, one way or the other. While it may not be “fair” that life deals a lousy hand to some while others begin their journey with a straight flush, it is less fair to allow those who contribute little to society to continue to abuse those who try to be law abiding and productive. Doing wrongful, harmful things should have proportional consequences, whatever the motives or reasons for the harmful conduct.
- The obvious comparison is to the much derided “Affluenza” case sentence, but that should proceed with caution and restraint. It is true that the sociopathic youth who was given a suspended sentence with mandated treatment was single-handedly responsible for harm to several victims, including four deaths, while Cummings shared culpability with twenty assailants for the injuries to only one victim. However, a) Cummings intended to harm his victim, while Ethan Couch rendered his carnage negligently and recklessly, but not intentionally; b) Couch was 16 years old, a minor, and Cummings is an adult under the law; and c) however one feels about Couch’s sentence, it was intended to rehabilitate and treat, and could be defended as something other than waiving the law out of pity.
- The sentence Judge Callahan gave to Cummings, when paired with the “reasons” offered by the judge, is far worse—ethically indefensible— than the violently derided sentence Judge Boyd gave Couch (and his parents, who are paying for the Rolls Royce treatment center he was sent to.)
- Callahan’s explanation for the sentence calls his judgment and competence into serious doubt. Cummings needed a father—so what? So did Bill Clinton; so did Malcolm X; so did Babe Ruth and Barack Obama. Everybody needs something they lacked in their upbringing: how does that excuse in any way beating a man to the point of death? What Cummings needs most of all is a conscience. If he doesn’t have one, and they are extremely difficult to cultivate this late in life, then the longer he is kept away from the rest of us, the better for all concerned. If someone had “beaten the hell out of him” when he “made a mistake,” that would have made Cummings less likely to beat the hell out of a motorist whom Cummings thought made a mistake? Ah. This is a smoking gun statement proving that the judge is, sadly, an idiot, and unfit to sit on the bench, and maybe even a park bench. That’s terrible logic, terrible social science, and terrible child rearing practice—and it certainly is terrible judging. This is a ridiculous argument that only a ridiculous judge could make, one so intellectually deficient that he can’t even see how foolish it makes him look to everyone who isn’t dumber than he is. “We’ve all been 19 years of age”???? What are you saying, your Honor? That you wanted to beat the brains out of people when you were 19? That everybody is like Cummings at that age? I have news for the judge: black or white, they aren’t. I don’t know anyone who did this, wanted to do this or fleetingly considered doing it. Callahan is making an “everybody does it” rationalization when not only does everyone not do it, almost everyone doesn’t do it!
- Compared to the uproar over the “Affluenza” verdict, the scarcity of media and online condemnation of this one has been deafening. Judge Boyd was widely but falsely accused of racial bias because she had sentenced African American criminals much like Cummings to prison, but since Cummings is black and his patron judge is white, there is no fake racism charge to level, and thus no “story.” While they all pounced on the Couch sentence, the Cummings fiasco has received no coverage at all from CNN, MSNBC, the Daily Beast, or the Huffington Post, nor from conservative sites like The Blaze. Not enough culture wars fodder there to exploit, apparently.
- Yet there are double standards galore to be found here. For example, Sean Bergin, a New Jersey TV reporter, has been suspended for editorializing in his report on a cop shooting about the epidemic of “fatherless black men,” which was widely taken as a racial slur. (Bergin’s commentary was unprofessional for a reporter, suggesting that he has a future at Fox or CNN.) Criticizing Bergin’s remarks, Bob Butler, the president of the National Associated of Black Journalists, told the AP:
“Are there problems in the inner city with kids without fathers? Yes. But does that make kids violent? No. There are a lot of kids without fathers who go to college, graduate and become upstanding citizens. He’s talking about a social phenomenon where there’s lack of opportunity in communities.”
I will not hold my breath waiting for Butler to make a similar comment in relation to the rationale for Cummings’ rap on the wrist, and neither should you.
- Meanwhile, a mob of 20 or more African-Americans beating a white man into a coma prompted no investigation or action from Eric Holder’s Justice Department, and no condemnation from President Obama. You will recall that the latter felt compelled to inject himself into a local murder investigation when the victim “could have been his son.” I guess when the assailants could be his sons, Obama adopts the proper neutrality that a President is supposed to maintain in such local criminal matters. Now, I’m not sure the attack on poor Utash should prompt such an investigation, but then, I think “hate crime” is a crock. Since the current administration wants to wallow in seeking civil rights violations, however, when black Americans are harmed by whites–and when tasteless Fourth of July floats offend black citizens who think race should insulate the President from criticism—I don’t see how it can ignore this kind of obvious race-based attack and still credibly claim to represent all Americans equally. I encourage someone to reconcile this discrepancy for me.
Pointer and Facts: Jonathan Turley