There is no such thing as institutional racism in America, and certainly not in the American justice system. Not in this century. Certainly not in this decade.
That’s the argument against Critical Race Theory. You’ve probably heard it before – that there’s zero evidence that race is a decisive factor in judicial outcomes today. And while, sure, such racism existed in the Jim Crow days of the American South, those days are well behind us and nothing like that happens today.
That’s the rhetoric.
The reality, however, is Wesley Phelps and LaKeith Smith.
One name you’ve probably heard a lot about over the last week. The other name is probably less well known, having popped up only on a couple of social media pages. But let me tell you a bit about both of them.
Both Smith and Phelps did illegal things. There’s no denying that.
Smith, who was 15 at the time of his illegal acts, went with some friends – mostly older friends – to rob unoccupied houses in Millbrook. Smith was a willing participant. He chose to commit that crime.
The cops were called. Smith and his friends ran. Police say one of them fired a gun at police. One cop returned fire, striking Smith’s friend and killing him.
Smith was charged with murder, under Alabama’s felony murder statute, and sentenced initially to 65 years in prison. That 15-year-old would have been 80 when he next spent a day as a free man, despite never even firing a gun. And, you know, being an actual minor child.
Judge Sibley Reynolds imposed that sentence. The Elmore County District Attorney’s Office pushed for it and spoke gleefully of the “justice” it provided.
On the same day that Smith was hit with essentially a life sentence for his first offense, Phelps was also before Sibley Reynolds.
He too had caused a death during the commission of a crime. Except his circumstances are a tad different.
Phelps, who was 28 years old at the time, had an extensive criminal record and had already served time. He was out on parole – if you’re wondering how he managed that, he’s white – but had several new warrants out for his arrest when cops in Alexander City spotted him and his girlfriend in a stolen vehicle.
A chase began. It ended in Elmore County, where Phelps, who was also high at the time, crashed the car, killing his girlfriend.
After he recovered in the hospital, Phelps entered a plea deal with the Elmore County DA’s Office – the same office that was proud of its work in locking up a 15-year-old for the next 65 years – that didn’t include felony murder and wiped away several of the other charges.
On his plea agreement documents, the DA’s Office notes that Phelps has “a strong positive support system in the community or has exhibited a positive employment history.” He also admits to EIGHT previous felony convictions.
Sibley Reynolds sentenced him to serve THREE YEARS. And gave him credit for his time served.
Just over a year later, Phelps, out of prison already, was picked up for four more felonies.
And it doesn’t stop there.
Because somehow, Wesley Phelps, with now 14 felony convictions, including causing the death of his girlfriend, was granted parole by Alabama’s notoriously stingy Pardons and Paroles Board on July 19, 2022.
He was one of just three people to be granted parole that day – out of 36. All three were white that day.
It took Phelps roughly two months to find his way back to prison. He was arrested in early October 2022, on four more charges, including resisting arrest. He’s currently in Kilby Correctional with a minimum release date of December 2024.
That’s roughly 25 years before LaKeith Smith will get out.
Now, there will be those who dive into the cases and attempt long, explanatory emails to me laying out all of the tiny details that could have led to such a sentence discrepancy. Save them.
Because a system that allows a judge to reduce the sentence for killing an innocent passenger in a getaway car to just over a year has a lot of built in leeway – leeway that should have given the same judge some discretion in sentencing a minor to spend the rest of his life behind bars. Discretion that the DA’s Office could have sought instead of pushing forward on a felony murder charge.
Instead, the sentence that was handed to Smith was so harsh that the Alabama Criminal Appeals Court had to send the case back to Reynolds – who is technically retired but made an exception for this particular case – to appropriately apply sentencing laws. Reynolds had the discretion last week to let Smith out with the eight years he’s served – a sentence that was more than enough.
But no, Reynolds still imposed the maximum allowed. After the sentencing, DA C.J. Robinson said he was pleased and that Smith hadn’t shown enough remorse. (Smith gave a lengthy statement apologizing for his actions and taking responsibility. There was also plenty of evidence submitted to the court that he’s been nothing short of a model prisoner. Didn’t matter.)
So, the same judge in the same courtroom where Wesley Phelps and his eight previous felonies danced away with less than half the time that Smith has already served, Smith was taught a real lesson.
One in which your appearance seems to play a major role in whether a judge and a DA view you as a hopeless criminal, despite very little evidence to suggest such, or a temporarily misguided, redeemable soul, despite all the evidence in the world suggesting otherwise.
That’s a lesson we all should learn. It’s a lesson we should teach in school.