This week's feature, "The Forgotten," explores an option for cutting prison costs that Governor Bill Ritter hasn't tried -- clemency for prisoners who may have received excessively long sentences and pose little risk to public safety. The article explores some of the more obvious kinds of sentencing inequities -- nonviolent drug offenders doing more time than rapists, for example. But other oddball cases keep popping up, like the stick-up artist doing 400 years.
Any discussion of sentencing disparity wouldn't be complete without some mention of the difficulties posed by domestic-violence prosecutions. Meet Jennifer Harris, who used to drive an ice-cream truck and live with an African immigrant named Mamadou Ballo -- right up until the day their frequent arguments turned into a desperate struggle for a gun.
One day in the summer of 2003, Ballo came home from his cab-driving job to find Harris cleaning a gun in their Aurora apartment. Accounts of what happened next vary wildly, but it's undisputed that Ballo ended up with a wound in his abdomen and a bullet lodged in his buttock. Harris was charged with attempted murder. She was convicted, appealed, convicted again, and now is serving 38 years.
How does Ballo feel about that? He couldn't be reached for comment, but in 2004, after Harris was sentenced the first time, he wrote a letter to the judge, offering a different version of the crime then the one he told the police -- or testified to at trial:
Judge this lady is not guilty... You should do something, so this lady does not go to prison... I was afraid that this lady was going to go to immigration on me. She do not like liars. I lie to this lady all the time and she always forget it. I ball my fist up and hit her in the right side of her head real hard. She would never shoot me thats why I tried to take the gun away from her. It was a accident. My friends would not take care of me if I did not sign the papers against her. I needed there help... You should let her go.
Initially, Ballo told the cops that Harris had threatened him with the gun because she suspected him of cheating on her; that she then tried to tie him up and shoot him; that he resisted and dragged her outside but got wounded in the process. At trial, he acknowledged having beaten Harris on previous occasions, said he panicked when he saw the gun, and that it went off when he tried to take it from her. He also admitted that he was afraid of being deported if he admitted to the police that he had beaten Harris. In a 911 call played for the jury, Harris reports shooting him; in her appeals, Harris claims the gun went off accidentally and the tape was altered.
Victims who are reluctant to testify or who change their story are not uncommon in domestic-violence cases. Prosecutors often ignore victims who change their mind and don't want to press charges; once the process starts, it can be almost impossible to stop it. But the medical evidence surrounding this particular tussle shows that both combatants sustained bite wounds and bruises from the struggle over the gun, and Harris had a swollen face from Ballo hitting her.
Ballo spent several weeks in the hospital. Harris is spending several decades in prison. Gangbangers shooting up neighborhoods and road-rage drivers who kill people with apparently more premeditation than seems to be demonstrated here often do less time than the ice cream lady is doing for putting a cap in her abuser's ass.
Harris isn't eligible for clemency for several years. But she might be one of several domestic cases a governor could look at more carefully, with an eye to leveling the playing field -- much as Richard Celeste did in Ohio twenty years ago when he granted clemency to 25 violent felons who also happened to be battered women.
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