Privilege in the judicial system

Are heavier wallets leading to lighter sentences?

Jessica Kronzer and Kirsten DeZeeuw

The United States Judicial branch was designed to try all persons equally; well, at the very least, all white landowning males. Even though it was designed with good intentions, over the years the justice system may have made some questionable calls. Some believe that two major factors that seem to have a subliminal impact on a conviction are familial/social status and wealth.

Brock Turner, a former student of Stanford University, was convicted of raping an unconscious 23 year old woman in 2015, according to dailymail.co.uk. According to sexoffenderattourney.com, the average sentence for someone who convicted of rape is between 8-9 years. Turner was sentenced to six months, but was recently released after three months for “good behavior.” The victim in this case helped draw attention to the injustice by writing her heart-wrenching rendition of the crime in a letter. Now, Turner has returned home, is registered as a sex offender, and his neighbors are not too happy about his arrival. His release has sparked public outcry, including protesting outside his house. Turner’s family has even requested he receive police protection. Unfortunately, Turner’s case is not the only example of partiality in the justice system.

In 2013, 16 year old Ethan Couch killed four people while driving under the influence of alcohol. The huffingtonpost.com reports that, Couch’s blood alcohol level was three times the legal limit for an adult at the time of the incident. Couch was sentenced to 10 years on probation, but no jail time, when the average jail time for such crime in Texas, where the crime happened, is typically between 2-22 years. “At his trial in juvenile court that year, a psychologist testifying on his behalf said Couch suffered from “affluenza,” an affliction coming from being spoiled by his parents which prevented him from telling right from wrong.” More recently, CBS reports that after breaking probation Couch is to spend two years behind bars.

On the other hand, lacking wealth and having a family with a poor reputation can negatively influence one’s sentence. Steven Avery may have suffered from this injustice when convicted of the 2005 first degree murder of Theresa Halbach. The Netflix Original series, Making a Murderer, follows the trial and conviction of now 54 year old Steven Avery. According to stevenaverytrial.com, back in 1986 Avery was wrongfully convicted with sexually assaulting Penny Ann Beernsten, he served over 15 years of his 32 year sentence before he was released in 2003. In 2004, Avery files a civil lawsuit totaling in upwards of 36 million dollars of punitive damages against the Manitowoc Police Department (MPD) for his wrongful imprisonment. In late 2005, Steven Avery is arrested for first degree murder. Some prosecutors notice discrepancies in the case, like possibly tampered evidence, which suggests the possibility that Steven Avery was wrongfully convicted again because of judicial bias. Avery’s family has a history of having run-ins with the MPD, and many firmly believe that Avery’s familial status played a major role in his messy trial. Sadly, since Avery’s multiple requests for retrial have been denied, it is unlikely Avery will ever get released from prison or even be granted a retrial.

It is nearly impossible to guarantee a correlation between wealth or familial status, and unjust conversions, but cases such as these suggest the public may need to reevaluate the American justice system to see if it is fully upholding the ideals that were set when it was created.