by Dr. Boyce Watkins, Syracuse University – Scholarship in Action
Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour has stated that he has no plans to pardon Jamie and Gladys Scott. When he was asked if he planned to pardon the sisters after releasing them from prison, Barbour told the Associated Press, "Tell 'em don't save any space in the newspaper for that to be announced."
Jamie and Gladys Scott were recently released after being incarcerated for an armed robbery that netted just $11 back in 1994. The sisters were released on the condition that Gladys donate her kidney to Jamie, who has been diagnosed with kidney failure. Gov. Barbour likely chose to release the sisters to alleviate some of the pressure he’d received for sounding like the racially-divisive political figure that he actually is. Many of his comments about President Obama and black people in general made him sound exactly like the kind of man who’d be elected governor of a state like Mississippi.
When I think about the Scott Sisters, a couple of things come to mind: First, I am confused as to why the state won’t pay for the kidney transplant. The horrible conditions of the prisons in Mississippi are part of the reason that Jamie was sick in the first place. The state should be covering the cost of this operation.
My second question is why the world felt that freeing the Scott Sisters was more meaningful than it actually was. First, there’s no evidence that they were actually innocent of the crime for which they were convicted. I must confess that the $11 was less of a concern for me than the fact that the crime was violent. This is not, in any way, a defense of the Mississippi criminal justice system, which is barely a step away from slavery. But it does make me wonder if the Scott Sisters case was a matter of the squeaky issue getting the Civil Rights oil. I also doubt the nation would have felt such sympathy for the case if they were the “Scott brothers” instead.
A case that got my attention to a greater degree was that of Rodney K. Stanberry. Rodney has been in prison for well over a decade for a murder that I am firmly convinced that he did not commit. Not only is there an abundance of reasonable doubt in his case, but one could even go beyond the standard legal expectation and actually prove that he was innocent. Personally, our energy would be just as well spent fighting for men like Stanberry as it is arguing that the Scott Sisters’ punishment was extraordinarily harsh. I am in agreement with the decision to free the Scott Sisters, but this case is hardly the greatest Civil Rights violation occurring in the United States right now, and the benefits of their exoneration don’t go beyond the Scott family itself.
The final thought that goes through my head is that both the cases of the Scott Sisters and that of Rodney K. Stanberry are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the problems with our nation’s criminal justice system. My email and mailbox are filled with cases in which people of color have been denied the basic necessities of equal justice because they couldn’t afford a good attorney or were victims of lazy police work. Perhaps it’s time that we as a community start pushing our elected officials and civil rights leaders to make mass incarceration a top priority of the 21th century. If we keep celebrating small victories and don’t start pushing for systemic change, there will be hundreds of thousands of Scott Sisters cases to occur in the future.