Mississippi Court Affirms 12 Years for a Black Man with a Phone

Photo courtesy Matthew Ansley.

While everybody was fretting over being locked away in their own house for a few more weeks, one Mississippi man is facing being locked away in state prison for 12 years for walking into a county pen with a cellphone.

Mississippi resident Willie Nash didn’t know what hit him the day Circuit Court Judge Mark Duncan handed him more than a decade for having a phone on him at the time of his booking in a Newton County jail. Nash, who is Black, was only arrested for a misdemeanor charge of disorderly conduct, according to the Washington Post. But, of course, this was a judge appointed by former Gov. Phil Bryant, who’d praised confederate heritage month in 2017, and this particular judge currently presides in a circuit court in Neshoba County, which is the setting for the historic lynching of three civil rights workers that rocked the world in 1964. Judge Duncan, pictured below, apparently cared nothing for how his legal brutality would reflect upon his county’s history when he whacked Nash with his sentence. He even told Nash he was darned lucky he didn’t give him the additional two years of a 15-year maximum sentence.

Southern Poverty Law Center attorney William Bardwell appealed Nash’s sentence up to the Mississippi Supreme court, arguing that Nash’s sentence “is not merely ‘harsh.’ It is grossly disproportionate to what he did.”

Nash’s real mistake appears to be ignorance. Unaware that he was breaking any law, Nash naïvely handed his phone over to a security guard and asked the man to charge it so he could text his wife. It was only then that the phone even came into play, probably because the guards had failed to clean it off him as he entered the jail, according to Bardwell.

“When Willie Nash was arrested and booked at the Newton County Jail, his cell phone was not discovered. There is no evidence that he concealed the phone; rather, it is a virtual certainty that Nash was not searched in accordance with jail policy,” Bardwell stated. “In short order, Nash offered up the phone’s existence and even provided the code for jailers to unlock the phone. For this, Nash was rewarded with a felony conviction and a 12-year prison sentence.”

Mississippi may be just one of three jurisdictions that can dole out a sentence of more than 10 years for possessing a cell phone in jail. This includes Illinois and Arkansas, although it doesn’t look like Illinois and Arkansas have ever actually done it, while more civilized states set a maximum sentence of five years or less for possession of a cell phone in a correctional facility. Several states don’t punish with any jail time at all.

Nash’s attorney argued that he would’ve actually been better off just clocking the security guard upside the head or setting fire to the whole damn jail rather than surrendering his phone.

“If, rather than asking to recharge his cell phone, Willie Nash had instead burned the Newton County Sheriff’s Office to the ground, he would have received a shorter prison sentence than the one he is currently serving. Miss. Code Ann. § 97-17-5 (second degree arson punishable by up to 10 years),” Bardwell wrote. “If, rather than offering up his cell phone to his jailer, Nash had instead punched the jailer and broken his nose, he would have received a shorter prison sentence than the one he is currently serving. Miss. Code Ann. § 97-3-7 (simple assault on a police officer punishable by up to five years).”

Despite all this, the Mississippi Supreme Court supported Duncan’s rotten decision, and more recently, a three-judge panel of the Mississippi Supreme Court declined to reconsider its earlier decision to uphold the sentence. In their more recent pronouncement, the court affirmed that the penalty was severe, even while agreeing to let it stand.

“Though harsh, Nash sentence falls within the statutory range of three to 15 years. And the judge based his sentencing on the seriousness of Nash’s crime and evidence of Nash’s criminal history,” the court wrote. (Nash committed burglary decades ago before settling down with a family.)

That quote up there means that if state law ever allows police to lock kids up for accidentally stomping a snail, the Supreme Court will affirm that move, apparently because “it’s the law.”

In a concurring opinion, Associate Justice Leslie D. King—who is the only Black judge on the court in a state that’s almost 40 percent Black—sounded slightly nervous about the harshness of the decision, writing that while the Court upheld case law in its ruling, the case “seems to demonstrate a failure of our criminal justice system on multiple levels.”

King admitted in his opinion that he thought the security guards, in failing to nab Nash’s phone, were idiots, but he nevertheless allowed his supreme court besties to destroy Nash with everything they had.

“First, it is highly probably that the Newton County Jail’s booking procedure was not followed in Nash’s case,” King wrote. All inmates were supposed to be strip-searched when booked, but Nash’s large smartphone “would have likely been impossible to hide during the strip search.” The judge also noted that the officer who booked Nash did not testify at trial.

“It seems problematic to potentially allow someone into jail with a cell phone and then to prosecute that person for such action,” King stated.

King then goes on to point out how Nash’s “criminal history evinces a change in behavior,” noting that he was convicted of burglary way back in 2001 and has since gotten “a wife and three children who (now) depend on him.”

“Combining this fact with the seemingly innocuous, victimless nature of his crime, it seems it would have been prudent for the prosecutor to exercise prosecutorial discretion and decline to prosecute or to seek a plea deal,” says King, which sounds like grumbling a bit over the shards of glass woven into the bullwhip before obediently handing the thing on over to the overseer.

Critics like columnist Leonard Pitts say this is what you can expect from a court system that “promiscuously discards Black life.”

It can’t be stated enough that Bardwell filed an appeal to this same court, asking judges to reconsider their travesty, but the court rejected that request earlier in April and said they were going to just roll with the travesty thing. Shocked but perhaps not too surprised, the Southern Poverty Law Center stated in April that it would file an appeal all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Let’s hope for a shred of humanity in the U.S. Supreme Court, because they’re coming up empty in Mississippi.

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