The children’s board game, Chutes and Ladders, offers a clearer template for understanding our criminal justice system than a hundred studies put forth by academicians and think tanks. Here is one example:
Russell Burton, who has been called a “Ted Bundy in the making,” was born in 1967. According to the Los Angeles Daily News, when Burton was 17, he was arrested in Lancaster, California and charged with “breaking into a woman’s apartment and fondling her in bed.” “Fondling” is a troubling term here: you fondle your child, or a puppy. When you break into a woman’s house and try to rape her, that isn’t “fondling.” (“81 Years for Sexual Predator,” L.A. Daily News, 4/27/05, fee for link)
LADDERS: But apparently, the judge felt otherwise. A Los Angeles Juvenile Court Judge allowed Burton to avoid prosecution for B & E and attempted rape — by joining the Army. The Army accepted him, and he was stationed in Georgia. Thus, in 1984, nearly ten years after the first hard-won battle for rape law reform, the sentence for breaking into a woman’s house and attempting to rape her could still be no sentence at all.
Columbus, Georgia has paid a high price in violent sex crimes. Several serial offenders have cut a bloody path through that town — and the Army did precious little to stop at least two of them.
On September 3, 1987, Burton pulled alongside a car being driven by three teenage girls in Columbus, Georgia, near Fort Benning, where he was stationed. He got the girls to pull over by indicating that something was wrong with their car, pointed a gun at them, and forced them to drive to a remote area. He raped one girl and orally sodomized the other two.
Benning was 19 years old when he committed this crime. The sophistication of the attack and the high risk involved — multiple victims, gun use, confrontation in a public place, abduction from one location to another — indicates that he was already an experienced, violent rapist.
CHUTES: In 1988, Burton was sentenced to life for the rape, 20 years for the kidnapping, and 20 years for the sodomy. He entered prison in Georgia with a life sentence. There was no sentence of life without parole in Georgia at that time.
Astonishingly, life without parole only became an option in Georgia a few week ago, during the 2009 Georgia General Assembly (previously, a prosecutor had to try for the death penalty to qualify a case for life without parole). Throughout the 1980’s and 1990’s, when Democrats controlled the Georgia legislature, defense attorneys controlled the judiciary committees. Credit where credit is due: such sentencing reform only became a reality in Georgia when Republicans took over both chambers.
LADDERS: In any case, Burton didn’t have to wait for any parole board to cut him loose: the United States Court of Appeal for the 11th Circuit did that in February, 2002, fourteen years after he was sent away for life. The Court granted Burton a new trial on the grounds that the district attorney “inappropriately” mentioned that Burton had exercised his right to remain silent when he was arrested. Now, I know that constitutional attorneys would argue that mentioning Burton’s demeanor upon arrest is horribly prejudicial and tramples all over his rights. But this blog isn’t a courtroom, so facts can be stated in plain English here: a violent sexual predator was released from prison because a prosecutor told the truth about what the violent sexual predator did when he was arrested, instead of not telling the truth about it, in a court rigged to let criminals off for virtually anything, instead of designed to discover the actual truth of a case.
Rigged like the fairway games at a sleazy carnival.
Or a dice throw in a children’s board game. Such is our appeals process.
MORE LADDERS: Burton was released from prison pending a new trial. Then somebody decided that it wasn’t worth spending the money to try him again — thus deciding that the safety of women is less valuable than other things we could be spending money on, like appeals for violent rapists like Burton.* In 2003, he was permitted to plead guilty to one count of rape and three counts of kidnapping in exchange for time served.
MORE CHUTES: It turned out to be a good thing that Burton was required to plead to a sex offense. Rapists used to be routinely permitted to plead down to non-sexual offenses. That is why a high percentage of the first several thousand rapists identified through DNA matches had prior records only for crimes such as substance abuse and burglary, two common pleas that allowed predators to move from place to place and continue committing sex crimes with impunity.
Burton moved back to California and was required to register as a sex offender, which turned out to be one of the many, many thousands of good things that arise from sex offender registries — things you will never read about in any newspaper, of course. Newspapers depict registering sex offenders as terribly cruel and ineffectual.
Anyway, after the good judges of the 11th Circuit threw Burton’s life sentence out on a technicality, and after the State of Georgia declined to try him again, it took him less than a year to go on a violent, crazed hunting spree against women. It may have taken even less time, for there are no guarantees that Burton didn’t attack women in Columbus, or elsewhere in Georgia, or Alabama while he was awaiting the re-trial that never happened.
What is certain is that in 2004, freshly arrived from Georgia, he stalked and tried to abduct a woman in a parking lot in Palmdale, California. The woman escaped. He then attacked a teenager with a knife, trying to drag her into his car. She escaped, and he was arrested. After his arrest, three young girls came forward and reported the following crime:
The girls said a man approached them at the store saying he had car trouble and needed a ride, Lankford said. When he climbed into their car, he threatened one girl with a screwdriver and forced the sisters to take him to another town and back. He then forced one sister to drive his car while he rode with the other two. At a second parking lot the sister driving his car jumped out, and the man ran to his car and sped away. (“Felon Chargd in New Crimes,” Columbus Ledger-Inquirer, 3/2/04, fee for link)
These are the types of crimes that end with children’s bodies melting in the desert. Luckily, those five victims escaped, but who didn’t?
By 2004, Burton was a fluent advocate for his own rights. Upon arrest, he said to the police, “I’m a child molester, I want my phone call, and I want my attorney.” (ibid.) Here is where the sex offender registry comes in: had he not been listed as a sex offender, he certainly would not have mentioned his prior convictions, and he might have been let free to await trial before the three young girls had time to see him in the newspaper or the judge learned of his record in Georgia. Such things happen all the time, as readers of this blog know.
So the sex offender registry law may have saved lives in California that week. The next time you read a news story condemning registries, remember Russell Burton.
CHUTES: In 2004, Burton was tried in Los Angeles Superior Court and found guilty of stalking, attempted kidnapping, making terroristic threats, and possession of cocaine. His sentence for these crimes illustrate the effectiveness of California’s “three-strikes and you’re out” laws:
Burton’s sentence consisted of three terms of 25 years to life plus a one-year weapons enhancement and a five-year prior-serious-felony enhancement. (“Rapist’s Sentence Cut by 25 Years,” Los Angeles Daily News, 10/30/06, fee for link)
A dozen years earlier, prior to sentencing reform, Burton would likely not have received such a long sentence for these crimes, even though he has proven that he poses a serious threat. And without the “three-strikes” rule, any sentence he did receive would have been slashed automatically the moment he set foot in prison.
LADDERS and CHUTES: Burton immediately set to appealing his new convictions. Why not? In 2006, an appeals court agreed to throw out one of his 25-year sentences, the one for stalking, on the grounds that following a woman from one shopping mall to another did not rise to the level of stalking (the more people learn about the substance of most appeals, the better). But in addition to doing this, the 2nd District Court of Appeals of California also rejected Burton’s claim that the three-strikes law constituted cruel and unusual punishment because so much time (14 years, to be precise) had elapsed between his crimes. Here is what the court had to say, as reported in the Los Angeles Post:
“His prior strikes were for serious, violent offenses. So were two of the three convictions for which he was originally sentenced here, presently including the attempted kidnapping of a young woman, using a knife,” the ruling said.
“The interim between the two sets of offenses was consumed mostly by imprisonment, which did not restrain appellant from recommencing the same type of crime upon release. Given appellant’s unbroken history of violent crime, we cannot find this case to be one of the admittedly rare ones in which the recidivist sentence is unconstitutional,” the appeals court said.
CHUTES, CHUTES, CHUTES. It looks as if Burton has finally lost in his bid to be free, thanks to the public outrage over repeat offenders that inspired changes in state laws and sentencing policies. We won the game, this time.
But none of these laws are carved in stone, and many voices, including highers-up in the new Justice Department administration, are clamoring to roll back sentencing guidelines, overturn three-strikes laws, and eliminate sex offender registries. The federal Adam Walsh law, requiring states to participate in a national registration system, is officially in limbo, short-circuiting the next stage of information-sharing between the states. We’re at an information impasse in other ways, too: if any private industry in America had an IT network resembling that used by most courts, they would cease to exist.
The price of incarceration is eternal vigilance, too.
*Re-trying Burton doubtlessly would have been difficult, especially for the victims. And it is always a risk to involve jurors in rape cases, for prejudices against rape victims persist and in many ways have grown stronger. Too many people feel it is their duty to root for convicts as under-dogs, and they stupidly romanticize anyone appealing a case — until it’s their own daughter or mother who gets raped. But difficulties like this are also used as an excuse to do nothing at all to restrain violent offenders in the interest of saving money in an overwhelmed and under-staffed court system. This should have been a case where all stops were pulled out to keep Burton in prison.