Unequal Justice

In this photo released by Korean Central News Agency via Korea News Service in Tokyo, former U.S. President Bill Clinton arrives in Pyongyang, North Korea, Aug. 4, 2009.
AP Photo/Korean Central News Agency
Attorney Andrew Cohen analyzes legal issues for CBS News and

Good for Derek and Alex King. Showing a sensitivity sorely missing these days in the criminal justice system, their judge, mediator, prosecutor and defense lawyers all got together and cut the boys a bit of a break. In fact, the bench and the bar conspired to go to extraordinary lengths to bring reasonable justice to the young men - boys, really - who killed their father last year.

I have no strenuous complaint about the sentences the boys received after pleading guilty to third-degree murder and arson and coming clean about their role in their father's death.

The murder didn't happen in a vacuum. The boys had a horrible childhood, culminating in their disastrous relationship with Ricky Chavis, a family friend who will never again have to stand trial for murder but who still is in an awful lot of trouble for his role in this sordid story. And prosecutors blew whatever chance there once may have been for a clean conviction of the boys by trying them and Chavis back-to-back while arguing contradictory theories of the case to different juries.

Meanwhile, the sentences - eight years for Derek and seven years for Alex - were based in part upon the nature of the rehabilitation they are likely to receive at the prison they'll go to. Indeed, from Circuit Judge Frank Bell's decision a few months ago to send the case to mediation after trial to the care the mediator gave to the boys' post-prison future, it's easy to argue that this was a case where the system's moving parts successfully focused their attention upon the individuals involved and not just their crimes. That doesn't happen nearly often enough in Florida or anywhere else in this country and when it does it ought to be applauded.

But I won't blame Nathaniel Brazill and Lionel Tate if they aren't clapping today. For those two Florida boys, quite justifiably, the results of the King Brothers case are a travesty upon justice. Brazill, you may remember, was tried as an adult in Florida and sentenced last year to 28 years in prison for killing his middle school teacher.

Like Alex King, the younger brother in the current case, Brazill was 13 at the time of his crime. But no judge came to Brazill's defense, either before trial when the issue of an adult prosecution was raised or after trial when sentencing was being decided. Brazill will be in prison until he is 42 years old, barring some unforseen intervention by Florida Governor Jeb Bush.

And if Brazill has a right to ask why his sentence is four times as long as Derek King's sentence, imagine what must be going through Lionel Tate's mind about now. Tate was tried as an adult and convicted in 2001 for the murder of a six-year-old little girl who was killed after Tate imitated certain wrestling moves on her. Tate was 12-years-old at the time - two years younger than Derek King is today - and yet he received a life sentence without the possibility of parole. Anyone want to argue with a straight face that Tate is ten times more culpable than King?

Yet no judge came to Tate's rescue. No mediator urged the court to put Tate in a prison where he could begin to be resocialized, as the Kings' mediator urged Thursday. No one cut Tate some slack because there were questions about whether he even could understand what was happening to him.

Derek King, who says he hit his father over the head with an aluminum baseball bat and then set his house on fire, will leave prison around the time he's 22. Alex King, who lied to the authorities and obstructed justice for nearly a year, will leave prison before he can buy himself a beer.

Both King boys will get the benefit of extensive in-prison training. Lionel Tate won't get that training. And I'd be willing to bet that Brazill isn't getting it, either, even though he will be released from prison after spending two-thirds of his life behind bars.

The King Brothers are white. Brazill and Tate are black. The Kings benefited from an overzealous prosecutor and a particularly sensitive and brave judge. Brazill and Tate enjoyed no such luck. The Kings claim to have been manipulated by Chavis - Tate and Brazill had no such third party purportedly egging them on.

The system doesn't guarantee uniformity of results; it's just supposed to guarantee a uniformity of process. But try telling all that to Brazill and Tate today; try telling it to the black men and women who are waiting to go to trial in Florida; try telling it to the lawyers and jurists who have to explain the lessons of the King, Tate and Brazill cases to their law students.

My point is not that the Kings should have received a longer sentence - maybe, maybe not - or that the King, Brazill and Tate cases were so similar that they warranted precisely similar results. And my point certainly is not that the results of all three cases were based upon race - maybe, maybe not.

My point is simply that there is something tragically wrong with a criminal justice system that can generate for whatever reasons such disparate results in such a short time to a group of young men facing essentially the same charges. Now that Florida seems to have been able to master an election without generating an avalanche of legal conflict, perhaps the state's judges and legislators ought to turn their attention to a set of laws that can be so kind to the Kings and at the same time so cruel to Brazill and Tate. That's not equal justice. That's just downright unfair.

By Andrew Cohen