Commentary: Why Even Heinous Crimes Can Generate Extreme Sentences

AP photo of the three men who killed Ahmaud Arbery

By David M. Greenwald
Executive Editor

Once upon a time we know what would have happened with the men who hunted down and killed Ahmaud Arbery.  We know it because we saw the men who killed Emmett Till get acquitted.

Some have called for the 88-year-old Carolyn Bryant Donham, who was 19 at the time and instigated the whole thing, to be prosecuted… but she hasn’t.

In 1963, Bryon De La Beckwith murdered civil rights leader Medger Evers.  Twice the state prosecuted him for murder, but both trials ended with hung juries in 1964.  It was only 30 years later that he was prosecuted, in 1994, and this time convicted.  He would die in prison.

So the fact that, despite some early missteps, the men who killed Arbery were found guilty of murder and sentenced to life in prison in some clear ways represents progress.

As David Singleton, a professor at the Salmon P. Chase College of Law at Northern Kentucky University, writes in a Washington Post op-ed, “as a political progressive committed to dismantling white supremacy, I was relieved when the jury found Arbery’s killers guilty of murder.”

But like Professor Singleton, while I see a more equitable justice system as progress, I find myself increasingly questioning if imposing as lengthy a sentence as conceivable is really what justice requires.

Not only did the state court give the men life without parole, but just for fun the federal courts—which during the civil rights era were the lifeline against jury nullification—added two more life sentences for the father and son and 35 years for William “Roddie” Bryan.

Writes Singleton, “As a former public defender who now works to end mass incarceration and the extreme sentences that contribute to it, I believe the answer is clear: No.”

Progressives these days have begun to question mass incarceration—the US of course leads the world with more than two million people behind bars—the highest incarceration rate in the world.

As many have noted, if mass incarceration makes us safer, the US would be the safest nation in the world.  But we know that’s not true.  And we also know that mass incarceration has become, as Michelle Alexander put it, a modern day Jim Crow with huge racial disparities.

Progressives however have also been concerned about the legacy of white supremacy, which meant that racially charged murders against Black people in the south long went unpunished.  Moreover, with few exceptions, police have not been held accountable for unjustified killings either.

But demanding equal injustice is not much better.

Professor Singleton cites data from sentencing experts like Marc Mauer and Ashley Nellis who argue that “extreme sentences are the real drivers of the 500 percent increase in the prison population over the past 40 years.”

In their book The Meaning of Life: The Case for Abolishing Life Sentences, Mauer and Nellis note that “one out of seven people in prison in the United States has been sentenced to life.

Moreover, they advance the argument that “lengthy sentences make no sense from a public safety perspective, given that most people age out of committing violent crimes by their mid-20s.”

Furthermore, “continuing to imprison people long past the time when they can be safely released is expensive, especially when they are elderly.”

Professor Singleton argues, “But the economic costs of mass incarceration are not the only costs. To paraphrase Bryan Stevenson and Sister Helen Prejean, people should not be defined forever by the worst things they’ve done. But a life sentence, especially life without parole, does just that.”

They argue, “When we keep people incarcerated who have transformed themselves behind bars, are no longer dangerous, and have the potential to be productive citizens, we all lose.”

Singleton cites the work of Ohio Justice & Policy Center’s Beyond Guilt project.  The project seeks to free people “excessively punished who admitted to their guilt, have typically served at least 10 years in prison, and who have demonstrated their rehabilitation and fitness to return to society.”

Since the project’s launch in 2019, “we have obtained the release of more than 40 people, many of whom were serving life sentences for murder.”

The men who killed Ahmaud Arbery are not likely to spawn much sympathy, particularly from progressives.  I get it.  One of the big problems though is that the same system, as Singleton points out, that imposes the sentences of death in prison for two of the three, and the third won’t even be considered for parole until age 82, is, “The system that imposed those sentences is the same system that sentences Black people such as Robinson to extreme punishment. It is a system we should work to reform.”

For Singleton, he believes that ending mass incarceration requires both state and federal authorities to “eliminate such draconian punishment and enact laws that allow judges to revisit sentences based on the incarcerated person’s demonstrated rehabilitation and fitness to live in society.”

It may be that the men who killed Arbery are beyond redemption.  But why do we have to determine that now?

As Singleton argues, “Meanwhile, although I am relieved that Arbery’s murderers are being held accountable, I hope they will someday be released—after they have served an appropriate period of their sentences and demonstrated their fitness to return to society.”

There are truly dangerous people for whom society is only safe if they are locked away.  There are people who are also truly beyond redemption.  But for most, there is a chance at least that they can be released after they serve the appropriate time for their crime and demonstrate that they have earned a second chance.

About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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  1. Ron Oertel

    I actually agree with this.

    I don’t see what sentencing those three dummies to life in prison accomplishes.  For that matter, I doubt that sentencing Chauvin to a lengthy sentence accomplishes anything (let alone the other cops indirectly involved in that).

    Nor do I see the point in sentencing the female police officer to ANY PRISON TIME who accidentally shot the guy fleeing from them (rather than using a taser) – in that dangerous weapon to others (a fleeing motor vehicle).

    I do suspect that at least some of these folks will never understand or accept the harm that they inflicted upon others, regardless of prison sentences.  Same is true regarding many of the other people in prison who harm others (and are probably a lot more likely than the 4 dummies to harm others, again).

    This would not apply regarding the female officer who accidentally shot the guy fleeing, as she clearly understood the impact of that mistake.

  2. Walter Shwe

    In general I agree that most incarcerated people deserve a chance to eventually get out. That’s what parole hearings are for. Maybe sentences should all have the possibility of parole.

    People such as ex-cop Drew Peterson should probably never be released. He not only murdered his 3rd wife and tried to have the prosecutor that put him away killed from behind bars, but probably murdered his 4th wife too.

  3. Bill Marshall

    Juan Corona

    Charles Manson

    Dorothea Puente

    When would society EVER be safe from them? Until they remained in prison, or died…

    Puente was in her ‘later years’ when she committed the murders… Corona was in his mid-50’s…

    Were the convictions, sentences, unbalanced as to POC’s?

    All 3 died in prison.  And this was unjust?  Would be interesting how much $$$ they left to others after they were housed, fed, clothed, medically treated, at taxpayer expense for years,,, if others profited, that might really be injustice….

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