337-704-2615 contact@thomasvalonzo.com 601 944-1980

The Scott Sisters: A Mississippi Criminal Defense Attorney’s Take

The movement to commute the life sentences of the Scott sisters, who were convicted of armed robbery 17 years ago, is really heating up in Jackson, Mississippi.  Supporters question the sisters’ guilt and feel that the consecutive life sentences are an excessive punishment in any case.  As reported in the Huffington Post, the sisters’ mother Evelyn Rasco asked, “How can they give my daughters two life sentences for a crime that netted 11 dollars where no one was injured?” The small amount of money gained from the robbery, $11 for each of the five people involved, has been mentioned again and again in news articles and blogs.

A Life Sentence for Stealing $11

So, putting guilt aside, is the sentence appropriate?  Life in prison is the maximum prison sentence possible under Mississippi law for armed robbery (the minimum is 3 years). Generally, in my experience as a criminal defense attorney and public defender, a defendant would not receive the maximum sentence for armed robbery unless it was a third time conviction or more. The sisters reportedly had no criminal history, so it is not clear to me why they received life in prison. However, the fact that the sisters gained only $11 in the robbery has no bearing on the sentencing.

The Amount of Money Is Not Important for a Felony Offense

I can understand that people would think that a life sentence is too harsh for such a small amount, but under Mississippi criminal law, the amount of money is not relevant. The robbery involved a shotgun, so this is a felony offense, regardless of the amount taken. The idea behind the armed robbery charge is that the use of the weapon creates an extremely dangerous environment where someone could be injured or killed.  Even though the weapon was not used and there were no injuries, the atmosphere of danger was created by the mere presence of the shotgun during the robbery.

Amount Taken Is a Factor for Non-Violent Theft

Theft that does not involve weapons, on the other hand, is sometimes controlled by the amount of money or value of the product taken. This is because the crime is more related to the property value. For example, in Mississippi, shoplifting goods worth $500 or less is a misdemeanor offense and shoplifting goods over $500 is a felony. However armed robbery is more of an attack on the body of a person with the possibility of injury or death, and this is true regardless of the amount taken.

The Sisters’ Age and Lack of Prior Convictions Is Real Issue

The more compelling argument for an excessive sentence is that the sisters had no prior convictions and were young at the time of the robbery. A life in prison sentence for such a young person can be considered “cruel and unusual punishment” under the United States constitution and potentially grounds for a pardon.  But the charge is armed robbery no matter what the amount — so focus on the age and forget the $11.