We, like other Memphians, saw it on TV — the dispassionate announcement of a plea deal in Criminal Court, after which the confessed murderer, looking relieved, walked off calmly in the custody of his jailers. A triumph of reason and jurisprudence? No, a catastrophe — one that left the members of a bereaved family by stages stunned, then aggrieved, then anguished. Then wildly, uncontrollably — and understandably — outraged.
The victim in this case had been a civil servant — a code-enforcement officer doing his best at a thankless task entrusted to him by his fellow citizens. The accused, one Dale V. Mardis, was known to be a transgressor against the civil law and a racist who had already made explicit threats against code-enforcement officer Mickey Wright, an African-American.
The story seems clear: When Wright made one last dutiful effort in a series of would-be corrective visits to the perp's business, he ended up being killed, butchered, dismembered, then burned. We presume that was the order in which these atrocities occurred; in any case, the job of eradicating the poor man from this life was done so thoroughly that his remains were not found for years.
Unquestionably, the prosecution, the defense, and the judge himself knew all the unsavory details. Even more, you may be certain, were the circumstances of this horror indelibly fixed in the minds of the stricken and long-suffering family. Then, behold: A 15-year sentence? For second-degree murder?
The pure and simple fact is that justice was miscarried with the verdict in Judge Fred Axley's court. We have heard the explanations: that the body of the deceased was unrecoverable (the diesel fuel which Mardis admitted using had done its job well) or that evidence had gone missing or something suchlike, that the case was "falling apart," and that the plea bargain was the best the state could do. Really?
Inescapably, we find ourselves recalling the earnest ad campaign for District Attorney Bill Gibbons' office some years ago affirming that it would never, never ever — so help us, God — entertain a plea bargain in the case of a capital crime. Just what was this, then? Win or lose, the case was surely worth a better effort.
Beyond all that, however, was the injustice done to the victims left behind. Was not some form of prior consultation called for with the murdered man's survivors, who had pleaded for the cathartic dignity of a trial and were so clearly and cruelly blindsided by the arrangement?
The family's reactions to the utter inappropriateness of the sentence should have been anticipated. Judge Axley added insult to injury when he blithely defended the plea agreement as one that "does not [shock] the conscience of the court."
There are those who consider the trial's outcome to be the confirmation of a one-sided, racially discriminatory justice system. We would like to think otherwise, but on the strength of this case it is hard to counter such thinking.
The lady with the scales is supposed to be even-handed, not inattentive or insensate. If this is the best our judicial system can do, then our system, pure and simple, is in bad need of some elemental reform.