excerpt from the book
Interestingly, three-fourths of the district judges said that the prosecutor was the most influential participant in the sentencing process, and about 40 percent said that prosecutors often failed to fully share all facts related to the case and to sentencing.[i] Even when judges recognized that defendants may have been unfairly treated or disparately impacted earlier in the process, these judges considered sentencing to be independent of earlier stages.
In other words, they did not seek to correct wrongs committed earlier in the process by imposing a more lenient sentence. One judge explained: “I try to recognize when there have been a lot of times where the people before me didn’t get equal treatment—not by me but somewhere along the way. [But] I’m not meant to equalize it; I just cannot get to it.”[ii]
A July 2009 report by the Sentencing Project found that two-thirds of criminals in the United States who are given life sentences are Black or brown. Yet when Blacks are the victims of violence from white assailants, the white perpetrators often enjoy considerable latitude from police, prosecutors, and judges.
On November 9, 2012, at approximately 2:00 p.m. in the city of Ward, in Lonoke County, Arkansas, Christopher Reynolds, thirty-five, was conducting a meeting at his house for his business, which distributed a system that supplements gasoline engines with compressed natural gas or hydrogen, reducing gas mileage on vehicles. His employees Rachel Watson, Brian Washington, Melissa Peoples, and Ernest Hoskins Jr. were all present.
Reynolds, who is white, was discussing with twenty-one-year-old Hoskins, who is Black, why his sales figures for the week were so low. According to the statement signed by Reynolds, Hoskins responded that Reynolds needed to get off his couch and work as well. The two men started “bantering back and forth.” Shortly afterward, Reynolds picked up a Desert Eagle .44 Magnum pistol and pointed it at Ernest’s head. They continued to banter for approximately one minute. Reynolds wrote in his statement, “I pulled the trigger and the gun did not go off. I then pulled the slide back and a round went in the chamber. I tried to de-cock the hammer on the pistol by pulling the trigger and holding the hammer as it moved forward. The gun then went off and struck Ernest in the face. I put the gun back up and called 911.”
Hoskins was a newlywed and soon-to-be father when he was shot and killed, and Reynolds was not arrested until the day after Thanksgiving, two weeks later, when Hoskin's mother, wife, and I held a press conference.
According to an Arkansas Times editorial:
A killing, with three witnesses, in which the perpetrator admitted he held a gun in the victim’s face for a full minute before pulling the trigger, jacked a round into the chamber when it didn’t fire, then shot the victim dead…. It doesn’t seem like it would take one of the great legal minds of our age to conclude the charges Reynolds might face could potentially include murder.
Why, then, was Reynolds released without charge within hours of the shooting—before, Ernest Hoskins’s wife says, she had even been notified that her husband was dead? Why did it take an additional fifteen days before Reynolds finally was arrested and charged? Why did Reynolds wind up formally charged on March 1 with only a single count of manslaughter, a charge that could bring him as few as three years?
One has to wonder if it matters that Ernest Hoskins was Black, while Christopher Reynolds is white. That the shooting occurred in the overwhelmingly white Lonoke County? As Hoskins’s family often asks, if it had been the twenty-one-year-old Black man from Little Rock who introduced a gun into a tense business meeting in Lonoke County and wound up shooting his white boss in the face, would he have slept in his own bed that night, much less been charged with manslaughter?[iii]
Reynolds was offered and accepted a plea deal for manslaughter, not murder—manslaughter has a ten-year maximum sentence—for shooting Hoskins in the head and killing him. With good behavior, Reynolds will be eligible for parole in two and a half years.
A statistical study published by the Law and Society Review found that African American defendants received sentences one to seven months longer than other defendants convicted in parallel cases.[iv] The Sentencing Project looked at thirty-two state-level studies of prison sentences and found that Black and brown defendants were more likely to be incarcerated than white defendants for similar crimes and, in some jurisdictions, minorities repeatedly received longer sentences.[v]
Critics have argued that the studies that pinpoint the presence of racial discrimination in sentencing fail to take into consideration important variables like criminal history and the seriousness of the crime. But even studies that use more rigorous statistical methods and incorporate that sort of data still reveal racially discriminatory sentencing.[vi]
[ii] Steven Klepper, Daniel Nagin, and Luke-Jon Tierney, “Discrimination in the Criminal Justice System: A Critical Appraisal of the Literature,” in Alfred Blumstein et al., eds., Research on Sentencing: The Search for Reform, 2 vols. (Washington, DC: National Academies Press, 1983), 2:19.
[iii] David Koon, “The Killing of Ernest Hoskins: A Matter of Intent,” Arkansas Times, April 4, 2013, https://www.arktimes.com/arkansas/the-killing-of-ernest-hoskins-a-matter-of-intent/Content?oid=2786173.
[iv] Celeste A. Albonetti, “Sentencing Under the Federal Sentencing Guidelines: Effects of Defendant Characteristics, Guilty Pleas, and Departures on Sentence Outcomes for Drug Offenses, 1991–1992,” Law and Society Review 31/4 (1997): 789–822.
[v] Ashley Nellis, Judy Greene, and Marc Mauer, “Reducing Racial Disparity in the Criminal Justice System: A Manual for Practitioners and Policymakers,” 2nd ed., Sentencing Project, September 1, 2008, https://www.sentencingproject.org/publications/reducing-racial-disparity-in-the-criminal-justice-system-a-manual-for-practitioners-and-policymakers/.
[vi] Cassia Spohn, “Thirty Years of Sentencing,” in Winnie Reed and Laura Winterfield, Criminal Justice 2000: Volume 3—Policies, Processes, and Decisions of the Criminal Justice System (Washington, DC: National Institute of Justice, 2000), 453.