Death by Anecdote

How pundits use stories to mislead the public

One month ago, Bill O’Reilly, a Fox News pundit, brought a horrifying story to the public’s attention. In darkest Vermont—homeland of radical ice cream dealers and noisy presidential candidates—an uncaring judge had denied justice to a small child. Judge Edward Cashman sentenced a man who raped a young girl for four years to a measly 60 days in prison. According to O’Reilly, the judge doesn’t believe in punishing sex offenders, perfect evidence for the pressing need for harsher mandatory minimum sentences to keep liberal judges like Cashman in line. What better proof could one want of arrogant liberal judges completely distorting the law to suit their own ideology, right? It’s almost too horrifying to be true—and it isn’t.

Mark Hulett is, by most definitions, a bad person; he had sexual contact with a six-year-old girl until she turned ten. Sadly, Hulett is also mentally retarded, with an I.Q. between 75 and 85 and no understanding of why his conduct was considered inappropriate. In fact, he was invited to sleep in the same bed with his victim by her parents.

Faced with Hulett’s guilty plea, Judge Cashman—a Vietnam War veteran and former prosecutor known for handing down harsh sentences from the bench—found himself up against a classic dilemma: seek rehabilitation or settle for retribution. In this case, a bizarre twist in Vermont law made the choice particularly stark. Because Hulett was classified as “low risk” by the state corrections department, he would be ineligible to receive mental health treatment in a traditional prison. To get Hulett into a treatment program, Judge Cashman had to keep him out of jail.

Cashman made his decision: a sentence of 10 years to life—with all but 60 days suspended. Hulett would begin a treatment program for sex offenders after 60 days, but if he failed to complete the program or violated any of a list of other requirements, he could find himself in prison for the rest of his life. Last week, Hulett was reclassified as “high risk” by the state corrections department, rendering it possible for Cashman to place him in a prison-based treatment program. Cashman extended Hulett’s sentence to a minimum of three years, again requiring that he receive treatment or face an even longer sentence.

What I find most disturbing about the whole episode is its effect on the political climate in Vermont. The case, and O’Reilly’s story, has given a boost to Republicans in the state legislature who want to require judges to give harsher sentences to criminals. Ironically, the Vermont assemblymen couldn’t have asked for a better illustration of why mandatory minimums are such a despicably bad idea.

Mandatory minimums rely on the idea that legislators, not judges, are the best people to decide how much time criminals should spend in jail, an idea that would be funny if it wasn’t so frightening. After all, if legislators are making sentencing decisions, then the facts of each case, along with any mitigating or exacerbating circumstances, are rendered irrelevant. Legislators may complain about justices legislating from the bench, but in imposing stricter sentencing guidelines, lawmakers are judging from the legislature. Judge Cashman faced a tough decision, but he was the most qualified individual to make it, certainly more qualified than politicians in a far-away assembly house.

Defenders of mandatory minimum sentences argue that the people—or their elected representatives—should be deciding how long criminals stay in prison. But O’Reilly’s politically motivated mischaracterization of the Cashman case illustrates the need for independent judges who can weigh all the facts and provide a fair ruling. Sentencing decisions shouldn’t be made in the political sphere, where ideologues like O’Reilly can use misleading stories to obscure the facts and whip up the public’s bloodlust.

O’Reilly wasn’t really concerned about the punishment of one man. He used the case to serve a broader agenda, an agenda that calls for taking sentencing decisions out of the hands of judges. But, by showing that he and his allies are willing to play politics with such an important decision, O’Reilly undermined his own argument. If justice, not politics, is to determine sentencing decisions, then judges, not politicians and pundits, must decide.

Samuel M. Simon ’06 is a social studies concentrator in Eliot House. His column appears on alternate Thursdays.