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Why Do People With Special Needs Get Shafted By The Criminal Justice System?

Christopher Smith, a South Carolina man not getting any justice from the criminal justice system (image courtesy WMBF-TV)
Christopher Smith, a South Carolina man not getting any justice from the criminal justice system (image courtesy WMBF-TV)

I was planning on taking today off, but for the last few days, something I wrote last week has been nagging at me. It reminded me of a disturbing trend that I’ve seen in recent years–the criminal justice system’s apparent blind eye to those with special needs.

Last week, I told you about the case of Christopher Smith, a special-needs man in Conway, South Carolina who had to endure four years of modern-day slavery at the hands of the manager of the restaurant where he worked. Smith has been diagnosed with delayed cognitive development, which results in below-average intellectual functioning. Before being rescued last fall, he was forced to work long hours even when he was in no condition to work, and had to live in a filth-infested apartment near the restaurant. He was also frequently beaten and burned with tongs.

Despite this, restaurant manager Bobby Edwards is presently only charged with second-degree assault, which carries a maximum of three years in prison. Considering the horrors that he forced Smith to endure, that doesn’t even qualify as a phrase. Even more outrageous, the restaurant’s owner, Ernest Edwards–Bobby’s brother–is not presently facing any charges at all even though several witnesses have said they told him about what Smith had to endure. The restaurant has since been sold, but Ernest Edwards still owns two other restaurants in the Grand Strand. Smith was only rescued when the mother-in-law of a waitress complained to authorities.

As it stands now, the only reason that Smith has a chance of getting any real justice is that a prominent law firm in Charleston has taken up his cause, and has filed a potentially business-destroying lawsuit against the Edwardses and their company on his behalf. Smith’s complaint makes for horrifying reading. Reading it again made me wonder–should Smith have even had to sue in order to ensure the Edwardses are truly held to account for what they did to him? There is something fundamentally wrong with the criminal justice system when a supervisor can do this to his employees and only face three years in prison, while the owner could potentially escape jail time altogether.

I could go on and on about cases I’ve seen like this, but one other case in particular sticks out for me. In March 2014, two girls in Maryland were arrested for tormenting an autistic classmate for several months. They even made him walk across a frozen pond, and refused to help him get out–though he was lucky to get out on his own. The boy had very limited social skills, and didn’t understand what these girls did to him. And yet, these two girls may both be out on the streets again once they turn 21. The ringleader, 17-year-old Lauren Bush, only got four years in a juvenile facility. Her cohort, a 15-year-old girl, only got a maximum of six years.

I believe that, if all possible, kids shouldn’t be tried as adults. At the same time, though, there is something wrong with a criminal justice system where it is possible for two girls who took advantage of a special-needs classmate in this way to be back among us this soon. If there was ever a case where juveniles should have been tried as adults, it was this one.

I also recall one instance where the criminal justice system actually put a special-needs person through the wringer–in my home state of North Carolina. In 1993, Floyd Brown was arrested for beating a retired Anson County teacher to death, mainly on the strength of a very detailed confession that he supposedly gave to State Bureau of Investigation agent Mark Isley. However, Brown had the mental capacity of a seven-year-old, and an IQ in the high 50s. He couldn’t tell time and could only get as far as “K” when reciting the alphabet.

Brown languished in a state mental hospital for 14 years. Finally, in 2007, a judge threw out the charges and ordered Brown released, saying that he would never be mentally competent to stand trial. Despite overwhelming evidence that Isley abused his badge to exploit a special-needs person, he has yet to be held to account.

The purpose of the criminal justice system is to enforce the minimum standard of behavior that allows people to live in society. But if taking advantage of special needs people doesn’t fall below that minimum, I’d like to know who sets that minimum.

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Written by Darrell Lucus

Darrell is a 30-something graduate of the University of North Carolina who considers himself a journalist of the old school. An attempt to turn him into a member of the religious right in college only succeeded in turning him into the religious right's worst nightmare--a charismatic Christian who is an unapologetic liberal. His desire to stand up for those who have been scared into silence only increased when he survived an abusive three-year marriage. You may know him on Daily Kos as Christian Dem in NC. Follow him on Twitter @DarrellLucus or connect with him on Facebook. Click here to buy Darrell a Mello Yello.