Thursday, April 25, 2024

THE TRUTH CLINIC: Neither Justice Nor Society Benefits From Escalona’s 99 Year Sentence

By James Breedlove
Elizabeth Escalona, a 23-year-old mother of five, was sentenced to 99 years in prison by Texas State District Judge Larry Mitchell on Friday, October 12, 2012.
Ms. Escalona had pleaded guilty last July to the charges of felony injury to a child; her 2-year old daughter, Jocelyn.
During a five day hearing before Judge Mitchell testimony revealed that Escalona had brutally attacked Jocelyn then stuck her hands to an apartment wall with super glue adhesive.  Jocellyn suffered bleeding in her brain, a fractured rib, multiple bruises and was in a coma for a few days.
The public vitriol expressed against Escalona during the hearing, as evidenced by tweets and responses to media polls, conjured up images of a wild-west mob intent on storming the jail, dragging the accused out to the edge of town, and hanging her from the nearest oak tree.
The television media was the primary instigator of this outrage by making it the lead news story morning, noon, and night with the ratings grabbing words “Latest On The Trial Of The Mother Who Attacked Her 2-Year Old Child and Glued Her Hands To A Wall” accompanied by graphic images of the hospitalized child. It seemed like the media was competing for a spot on Time magazine’s next “social media trial of the century” list.
In his sentencing statement Judge Mitchell addressed Elizabeth Escalona and said his decision came down to one thing.
“On Sept. 7, 2011, you savagely beat your child to the edge of death. For this you must be punished.”
Judge Mitchell had the flexibility of sentenced Escalona to anything from probation to life in prison. A sentence as long as 99 years occasionally happens but is very unusual for felony injury to a child cases in Texas.   Also, at the time of the hearing Jocelyn had recovered and was not exhibiting any ill effects of her ordeal.
Consider, for comparison, the punishment for a few other crimes.
Many victims of drunk driving crashes die.  However, in Texas and many other states the maximum sentence for a drunk driving homicide averages 20 years.
Simple assault is punishable by not more than 1 year in jail; third degree felony assault carries a 2 to 10 year sentence; second-degree felony assault has a penalty of 2 to 20 years; and a first-degree felony assault with a weapon suggests a penalty of 5 years to life.
To be considered for a 99 year sentence in Texas on illegal drug charges the accused has to be convicted of possessing almost a half-pound of the Group 1 drugs (cocaine, heroin, meth); or one pound of the Group 2 drugs (Ecstasy, PCP, Hashish); or one pound of Group 3 or 4 drugs (Valium, Xanax, Ritalin, Dionine, Motofen, Buprenorphine).
In explaining the 99 year sentence the Judge Mitchell said he believed many of the allegations that Escalona was abused as a child. “And again, outside of the context of this trial, I think even the state would find you to be a sympathetic figure, because they prosecute people for what was done to you. But I can’t consider that evidence outside of the context of this trial.”
But the unanswered questions are: In sentencing Elizabeth Escalona to a 99 year prison term how has justice been served and how has society benefited?  Or has incarceration become such a business behemoth that feeding it profit sustaining inmates takes priority over any consideration for the redemption of the accused or the cost to society? Or is the fear of retribution from an enraged public, fueled by inflammatory media coverage, incentive for an elected official to pacify the public by giving them Barabbas instead of justice?
In this case Judge Mitchell could have pronounced a Solomon like decision that would have offered 23 year-old Elizabeth Escalona the option of redemption or incarceration.  His sentence could have consisted of a fixed period probation (with or without a minimal incarceration period) with specific criteria defining what will prove that she is a productive member of society.  If successful Elizabeth would be redeemed, her family would be restructured, society would be relieved of the obligation of taking care of her five children and paying approximately $60,000 per year for incarceration.
If she failed the probation requirement then the maximum incarceration portion of the sentence would become effective.  There is everything to gain and nothing to lose by trying the Solomon route.  Neither justice nor society gains by taking the Mitchell route.
There were several strong statements made during the five day hearing that should have suggested consideration of alternative sentencing.
Defense attorney Angie N’Duka repeatedly indicated that her client had accepted the blame for her actions and recognized the severity of the injuries that the child suffered from the attack. “They are despicable, but then the real question should be, What is justice for Jocelyn? Giving Elizabeth the opportunity to be a better mother, giving her the opportunity to get counseling services, will be justice for Jocelyn.”
She argued that Elizabeth was a “train wreck” waiting to happen before the attack, the product of a broken home, childhood abuse that included illegal drugs at the age of 11, gang banging, and having her first child at age 14.
Melanie Davis, a counselor who evaluated Elizabeth, concluded in her testimony that the young mother loved all of her children and that she would benefit from continued counseling. Davis said that Escalona had a short term goal for herself of finding a job and the long-term goal of getting her children back.
Currently Escalona’s five children are being cared for by her mother, Ofeila, who is not in a position to continue without outside support.

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