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Look at the facts carefully before making a false assumption about a sentencePosted Wednesday, July 8, 2009, at 10:12 AM
The "Hangin' Judge" is no more.
That title has generally been bestowed upon Judge Roy Bean, whether he deserved it or not.
With a reputation for handing out sentences of death by hanging, there was no jail to house criminals in the area of Texas served by Bean in the 1800s.
Bean's been turned into a colorful legend of the Old West but in reality, Bean only sentenced two men to hang and it's said they both escaped.
The title probably should have instead been bestowed upon a judge in Arkansas who really did sentence 172 men to hang.
Our legends are not always historically accurate. But then, accuracy doesn't always make for a hit television show or a blockbuster movie.
Bean's been portrayed by several actors from Walter Brennan to Paul Newman -- Academy Awards were won but most left out the part about Bean being a jerk who didn't have much respect for the law of the state of Texas.
Bean owned a saloon and after he became a judge and called himself the "Law West of the Pecos," it's said he used bullets to wipe out all competitors to his business.
He was a shady character who used law books as kindling. Accounts vary -- some do say he had a soft side, gave to the poor and let a lot of people off the hook. But all seem to agree he handed out bizarre rulings and ignored the actual law.
Bean was a heavy drinker who held court in his saloon. He selected the juries -- from his favorite customers. They bought drinks during recess and got sloshed while listening to testimony.
Bean supposedly never turned in any of the fines he collected but just pocketed the money. He set the fines case-by-case according to however much money the criminal had in their pocket.
This is one of Bean's typical rulings: "It is the judgment of this court that you are hereby tried and convicted of illegally and unlawfully committing certain grave offenses against the peace and dignity of the state of Texas, particularly in my bailiwick. I fine you two dollars; then get the hell out of here and never show yourself in this court again. That's my rulin'."
When an Irishman was accused of killing a Chinese worker, Bean rapped his pistol on the bar to bring order to the court and then proclaimed that homicide was the killing of a human being but he could find nothing in the law about killing a Chinaman. Case dismissed.
Bean did frequently use a phrase normally uttered at the end of a death sentence, only Bean used it at the end of the weddings he conducted ... "May God have mercy upon your souls."
Judge Roy Bean died in 1903.
This is not the Old West. This is Greene County and it's 2009. Now our judges are elected to oversee our courts and make sure justice is dispensed to our citizens, according to the law of the state of Indiana. Unlike Judge Roy Bean, they have to follow the law.
They can't pocket the money from fines. They can't call in their friends to sit on juries. They can't sentence anyone to whatever they darn well please -- we have rules about these things.
Citizens elect legislators and citizens elect judges. Legislators make the laws. Judges hand it out.
The state sentencing guidelines are a maze of lists of crimes with ranges of possible sentences.
The judge can look at a case and use some discretion about whether the high end is appropriate, or the low end or somewhere in between but they have to stay within the range prescribed by law.
Even so, there's a bunch of "if this then that" stuff -- aggravating factors, mitigating factors, whether there's more than one crime involved, whether two or more sentences can both be served at the same time or whether one is served before the other one starts -- and judges have guidelines they must follow on all of this stuff.
There are some cases where the crime committed generates a cry of "Hang 'Em High" in the court of public opinion. But in the courtroom, the judge can only sentence that despicable person to whatever our law allows.
When you read about a sentence and immediately think it's not long enough, look at the facts carefully before making a false assumption that a judge has been too lenient.
Chances are good that the problem is with the law.
If you want to jump all over it, jump toward the legislators who make, and can change, those laws.
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Anna Rochelle is editor of the Greene County Daily World and can be reached by sending an email to firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling the office at 812-847-4487.
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