Thursday, August 16, 2007

O Florida, venereal soil.*

Every time I think my former home state has done its utmost in the way of legal lunacy, something happens to confound me further. The latest Flori-DUH award must go to Broward County Sheriff Ken Jenne and, in particular, State's Attorney Mike Satz, who should have had better sense, for mounting a successful prosecution and trial of one Terry Lee Alexander, age 20. Young Mr. Alexander's offense was that, being jailed on a ten year robbery sentence, he had, in the confines but not privacy of his cell, what in my high school lingo was called a hot date with Sally Five-slide.

As Fred Grimm observed in his July 26 Miami Herald article:

At the time of the offense, Alexander was punished with 30 days without TV, music, exercise time and other jail house perks. But obviously self-abuse demands a criminal charge and a full-blown jury trial, and two prosecutors, and a court-appointed taxpayer-paid defense lawyer and six jurors (and an alternate), and a judge, and a court reporter, and a couple bailiffs, and a pretrial deposition, and a daylong trial.
The upshot of all this was a guilty verdict and sixty extra days tacked onto Alexander's ten years.

Perhaps an aggravating circumstance was that Alexander was observed in the act of, as we said in my college dorm, making the beast with one back**, by a female jailer. Nevertheless, the jailer, Coryus Veal, was on notice of the prospect of such an observation. According to Grimm, she testified: "They had warned me about what goes on in there." Indeed, as Grimm commented:
In the course of the one-day trial, prosecutor Cynthia Lauriston and Veal managed to describe Alexander's offense in startling detail, eight times, once with Lauriston approximating the action with arm motions. It was hard to imagine the original act had a much more lascivious effect than the lurid stuff those poor women had to utter, over and over, in Courtroom 417 Wednesday.
It may be that resort to a "law and economics" approach would have been helpful here. A simple cost/benefit analysis would likely lead to the conclusion that allowing, or at least tolerating, prisoners' resort to a time-honored method of relieving certain tensions would have benefits, in the form of a more docile inmate population, that outweigh the cost of occasional discomfort to jailers.

Update: Nick asks, quite reasonably, just what was the crime of which Mr. Alexander was convicted? According to Grimm's article,
[t]echnically, Alexander faced charges of indecent exposure, with lots of lewd, lascivious, wicked, deviant, etc. tacked on. He also faced the prosecution's tortured contention that his jail cell qualified as a "public place."
This article by Debra Cassens Weiss in the ABA Journal gives additional interesting details. Veal testified that she observed Alexander doing the deed "from a master control room." Evidently, technology has enabled penology to realize Jeremy Bentham's vision of a panopticon with efficacy undreamed of in Bentham's time.***

Weiss's article also notes that, in attempting to convince the jury that her client's action was harmless, Alexander's attorney, Kathleen McHugh, asked Ms. Veal if other prisoners were thereby inspired to, as it were, take matters into their own hands. "Did you call in a SWAT team?", McHugh asked. Ms. Veal answered, "I wish I had."

Another ABA Journal piece, by Martha Neil, reports that during voir dire Ms. McHugh asked prospective jurors about their own history with respect to recourse to self-help. According to Ms. Neil, all nine men and eight out of ten women asked the question gave an affirmative reply.
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*With apologies to Wallace Stevens.
**Cf. Othello, Act I, Scene I; also see here.
***Of course, Bentham's consequentialism would argue for a hands-off policy concerning Mr. Alexander's hands-on practice, just as would a University of Chicago style law and economics analysis, which has consequentialist underpinnings.