“Let the punishment fit the crime” is a famous line from one of Gilbert and Sullivan’s operettas. However, Massachusetts citizens are even more sophisticated than that Victorian concept of justice. They insist that the prosecutor’s charge must be appropriate to the circumstances.
U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz aggressively prosecuted Aaron Swartz, a 26-year-old computer prodigy, for wrongfully downloading numerous academic journal articles from an MIT website available only to subscribers. Swartz acted not for personal gain but because of a strong political belief that the internet should be free and open to everyone.
When confronted with being branded a felon, threatened with imprisonment for an extended period, as well as being subjected to a substantial fine, and when required to pay substantial legal fees for his defense, Swartz committed suicide. Swartz was known to suffer from clinical depression.
Those who support Ortiz’s scope of prosecution that allowed for a 35-year imprisonment and a $1 million fine assert that she was merely doing her job. Opponents argue that she lacks sensitivity and sound judgment and should be replaced.
Ortiz demonstrated a similar insensitivity in the case against former Boston City Councilor Chuck Turner. While Swartz was just beginning a strategy of civil disobedience in support of his commitment to an open internet, Turner had been a community activist since 1966, aggressively in defense of civil and human rights. He successfully first ran for city council in 1999.
Turner was charged primarily with accepting a $1,000 bribe as compensation for helping a constituent receive a liquor license. The constituent, Ron Wilburn, was an FBI plant. The action against Turner was an offshoot of the FBI case against former State Sen. Dianne Wilkerson, who was convicted with much more persuasive evidence. The evidence against Turner was flimsy and he had no recollection of the incident that had allegedly occurred several years before.
Turner is an opinionated and stubborn individual who can sometimes irritate even those who support him. Everyone who knows Turner knows that it is uncharacteristic for him to accept bribes. He is well known to be unacquisitive and often used his own funds to benefit others. This unjust decision brands Turner as a felon and causes him to forfeit his annual pension of $21,800. As a man in his 70s, it will not be easy for Turner to start over upon his release from prison.
This case was not originally brought by Ortiz but she did nothing to mitigate the gross injustice.
There were 506 murders in Chicago last year. That is more than the number of military fatalities in Afghanistan for 2012. Nonetheless, Americans seemed to be unconcerned about the availability of guns until 20 first-grade students and six adults were massacred in Newtown, Conn.
There is now a public outcry to restrict access to firearms. President Barack Obama has established some policies by executive order, but significant change will have to come from Congress. As expected, the National Rifle Association has been conducting a major PR campaign to alter the current public sentiment.
A standard slogan of the NRA is that “guns don’t kill people, people do.” As repugnant as this statement might be, it does express a truth. African Americans must question what in black culture causes young men to revert to murder so readily. And most importantly, what can be done to change this?
According to polls, blacks support changes in the gun laws more than other groups, but that alone will not alter murderous hostilities. It is time for profound self-inquiry to find the destructive causes that so disrupt the tranquility of black communities.