What Is The Fair And Just Punishment for Charles Southall III?

After all, his crimes were non-violent. He’s African-American, and systemic racism has caused the “over-incarceration” of black men. He’s a man of God, and the Bible tells us to forgive. It says that there should be redemption even after heinous wrongdoing. Should Charles Southall III even spend time in prison at all?

For more than three decades, he has led the First Emanuel Baptist church in New Orleans and Baton Rouge. But the minister also embezzled donations from congregants that were supposed to fund charity projects and building improvements. He stole grant and loan funds from the Edgar P Harney Spirit of Excellence Academy that he had created, and deposited them in a bank account controlled by him and an accomplice. He converted rental and sale payments on properties owned by his church. All together, the minister took about $900,000, and used the money to pay off his personal expenses and purchases.

He pleaded guilty and has pledged to pay back what he can. The guess is that Southall will spend less than a decade in prison, probably much less. Are you satisfied with that result?

I’m not.

The verdict here on Ethics Alarms is that even a decade isn’t enough. This man has done far more harm than the typical thief, even more than the typical thief of nearly a million dollars. He took money that was supposed to help the needy. He misused funds families of ordinary means gave to the church in the spirit of charity and generosity. He abused their trust, and quite possibly damaged the faith of many of them. Southall betrayed his profession, and it is a profession that is supposed to bolster virtue and values in society, not make a mockery of them.

What Southall did is worse, in my view, than armed robbery. It deserves the same kind of harsh sentence Bernie Madoff received for stealing the assets of foundations, investors and retirees. Madoff took billions, and was sentenced to 150 years, because that was the maximum the law allowed. Madoff, however, didn’t steal his money in the name of God, charity, and community service.

150 years locked up for Southall seems about right to me.

17 thoughts on “What Is The Fair And Just Punishment for Charles Southall III?

  1. I’d have to concur. Madoff got the sentence he did because the amounts were so astronomical. But this guy’s crimes are quite possibly worse, even though the amounts are much smaller.

    One can argue that investors with Madoff should have been wary because he was promising such an outlandish return. That doesn’t excuse him stealing from them, but there should’ve been red flags.

    This guy’s parishioners gave him money out of the goodness of their hearts, trusting he would do good works with it — because that’s what we expect today from our churches, right? Perhaps none of them gave their life savings to him, but I am sure some of these donations were a hardship, albeit one willingly entered into.

    Lock him up and throw away the key. Eventually he’ll have to answer to his god.

    • D.G.
      You captured my sentiments exactly. Madoffs investors were well heeled “savvy investors” which permitted Madoff to solicit them. There is a duty to warn but also a duty to perform due diligence. Madoff got 150 years because the people scammed had clout.

      These parishioners may have given their last dollar to this man in hopes that he would help others that had no dollar. There is a special place in hell for people like him.

  2. They use the argument that systemic racism has caused the “over-incarceration” of black men. But the reality is that this seemingly “over-incarceration” is entirely due to blacks having a far greater propensity towards criminal behavior, not any systemic racism. Case in point: The more the police are forced to pull back from enforcing the law, the more black crime and murder there is. This is why crime is the number one issue on people’s minds.

    • If I am this guy’s lawyer; I argue the legacy of systemic racism should be, must be, a mitigating factor in sentencing. I hit that hard, loud, and long, and before you know it, there will be nary a dry eye in the room because I am that convincing.

      Isn’t the legacy of systemic racism and ALL that entails, the primary underlying reason for the astronomical black crime rate?

  3. Hmmmm. I don’t like what he did, but I’m not sure prison sentences need to be determined by ick factor. The justice system needs to be consistent for prison terms no matter how likable a criminal is, how many excuses they have or who the victims are. Otherwise you get pet causes of the day influencing things, and it turns into a mess.

    • NP
      I suppose it is how you define Ick. Should a person murdering and dismembering a child be different than just murdering people the child. The latter has more ick factor than the former but I would say the dismembering creates aggravating factors that require greater punishment.

      If embezzlement requires a prison sentence then does it matter how much or who is harmed. I would say yes because a clerk pocketing a hundred bucks from the register is different embezzling a thousand dollars, a million dollars or a billion dollars. Another factor is who is swindled. Does a greedy person who has the knowledge to know better get swindled different than someone that places their limited resources with a person who represents himself as a person of unimpeachable trust such as a clergyman? I say yes.

      • Obviously different crimes need different punishments. Murder and embezzlement are different crimes and need different punishments. There can be degrees of punishment built into the system for different crimes. Murdering a child? Life imprisonment or the death penalty. Embezzling 1 mil dollars? 10 years in prison.

        I even see where it makes sense to have degrees of punishment depending on how extreme the crime is if those degrees can be measured objectively. Embezzling 1 billion dollars is a greater degree of embezzlement than embezzling 1 million dollars.

        I object to the idea that we should be tacking on extra years for how much we dislike a criminal (or removing years based on how much we like them) using subjective criteria. He was a minister! He was a conservative! He was an election denier! He was white! The victim was black! Bah. That just leads to multi tier justice systems where some people can do whatever they want, and other people are punished unduly harshly for trivial crimes because of whatever emotional criteria are currently swaying people’s opinions.

        Crimes and punishments need to be determined by a set standard that applies to everyone regardless of how people feel about it at the time. If embezzling 1 million dollars needs a higher penalty than 10 years, fine. But it can’t be some huge range of possibilities determined by how mad the public currently is.

      • Be patient with me. I’m an accountant not a lawyer but I learn a LOT from this blog, so bear with me.

        This: “Does a greedy person who has the knowledge to know better …” feels a bit like “o.k., but what was she wearing?” What does it matter if the victim was greedy? Or naive? Or trusting? Or should have known better? How does that figure in? I’m genuinely asking.


        • In this case it’s not “what was she wearing” it’s “was the rapist a stranger, or someone the victim knew and trusted?” The issue with the perp being a minister is that he was in a particular of trust, which he then abused. It’s why a traitor is worse than an enemy combatant, an adulterer worse than an uncommitted person sleeping around, a family member abusing a relative worse than a shifty guy hitting on random women at a bar.

          • But what does that have to do with the law? The crime is the crime. Do we prosecute people based upon our feelings of the level of injustice? Do we prosecute people on what they think, who they are, who they prey upon? Isn’t that bias?

            • I agree, feelings alone shouldn’t be the basis for prosecution, but that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m not part of his church, and I don’t know this guy from Adam, so I have no emotional stake in this at all, but I agree with our host that his punishment should be the maximum the law allows, or at least pretty close to it.

              If this guy had robbed a bank, his position as a pastor wouldn’t be a factor, because it would have nothing to do with the crime (though there’d still be feelings of outrage; “How could a pastor do this?”). In this case his position of trust was a key part of the crime. Those who abuse positions of trust need the hammer brought down on them, hard, for two reasons, neither of which has anything to do with emotion:

              1. To send the message that being a criminal in the guise of saint will not be tolerated. Unfortunately, people in Southall’s position often get away with a relative slap on the wrist, and sometimes not even that (like the Catholic priest abuse scandal). The best counter for that, and to discourage other miscreants, to send a no-tolerance message.

              2. To preserve the reputation of the institution in question. People OUGHT to be able to trust religious leaders and charitable causes. Getting bamboozled by such results in less charity, especially if the bamboozlers seem to get off easy. It’s easier for people to be generous if they can reasonably expect that their donations will go where they’re supposed to, and any cheaters will be dealt with decisively.

        • Investing in the market inherently has an element of risk. If you make an investment and the company goes broke, you’ve lost all your money but there is not necessarily any criminal or fraudulent activity.

          Investors are supposed to do what is called due diligence to determine if that investment is acceptable to them in terms of risk vs. reward. Part of that should be to know if the vehicle you’re investing in promises returns that are ‘too good to be true’, which is pretty much what Madoff did. I mean, wasn’t he promising something like 10% return — was it per month or per year? Even 10% per year is pretty outlandish on a sustained basis, and would indicate a very high level of risk. But the dollar signs outweighed the stop signs for many of these people.

          This is not to say that what he did was ok — he set out to rob these people, and he did.

          What I am saying is that there is — or should be — a degree of caution in investing that normally need not be there when donating to one’s church. I think it is a higher degree of corruption. On the other hand, I am also sure there were many people who would’ve been happy to see Madoff hung, drawn, and quartered — which, if you don’t know, is particularly barbaric method of execution (typically reserved for traitors or heretics).

          Does that make sense?

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