By Howard Witt,
Justice SystemTrials and ArbitrationJails and PrisonsJuvenile DelinquencyCrime
HOUSTON — The crime Aaron Hart confessed to was undeniably repellent.
Last September, the 18-year-old man was charged with sexually assaulting a 6-year-old neighbor boy behind a tool shed in the small east Texas town of Paris. A relative of the victim said she walked outside and saw Hart with his pants pulled down, standing next to the boy.
Police read Hart his Miranda rights and he quickly admitted his guilt. On Feb. 11, Hart’s court-appointed attorney entered guilty pleas to each of five related felony counts, a jury recommended multiple sentences and a judge then ruled that the prison terms be served consecutively, for a total of 100 years.
That might have been the end of Cause No. 22924 in the 6th Judicial District Court of Lamar County, Texas—just another dismal criminal case on the docket of an obscure town.
Except that now, less than two months after Hart was sentenced, every court official who had a hand in the case seems to agree that he doesn’t really belong in prison for what amounts to the rest of his life.
That’s because Hart is profoundly mentally retarded. He has an IQ of 47, and his parents say he functions at the level of a 9-year-old. The boy he confessed to molesting is mentally retarded as well.
What’s more, the judge and the jury never heard any expert testimony about Hart’s diminished mental functioning, his capacity to understand his Miranda rights or his ability to assist in his own defense, because his defense attorney never subpoenaed any experts.
And since he has been in jail, Hart himself has been repeatedly raped, according to his parents. The first assault, allegedly by an inmate who is serving a far shorter sentence of just 8 years for sexual indecency with a child, so disturbed the alleged rapist’s mother that she called Hart’s parents to apologize.
“I have nightmares thinking about Aaron in prison and how he is going to survive in there,” said Robert Hart, Aaron’s 70-year-old father. “He’s the type of kid who his whole life people beat him up, took stuff from him, and he wouldn’t defend himself. He can’t read or write. He can’t hardly talk.”
Hart’s complex case is threatening to once again bring unwelcome outside scrutiny to the functioning of the criminal justice system in Paris.
The town of 26,000 drew national civil rights protests in 2007 following a Tribune report contrasting the judicial treatment of a 14-year-old black girl, who was sentenced to up to 7 years in youth prison for shoving a hall monitor at her high school, with the treatment of a 14-year-old white girl, who was given probation for the more serious crime of arson. More racial tensions erupted last year after the slaying of a 24-year-old black man, allegedly at the hands of two whites.
This time, though the issues are not racial—both Hart and his victim are white—black civil rights leaders in Paris are still advocating on Hart’s behalf, because of their concerns that he was not treated fairly by the local justice system.
A spokesman for the local prosecutor, Gary Young, acknowledged that more serious sexual offenders have received much shorter sentences.
“You don’t want to send [Hart] to prison for life, but you cannot put him back on the street and worry about what he may do to some other kid,” Allan Hubbard, victim’s advocate for the district attorney, told the local newspaper, the Paris News. “Speaking for myself and not for the district attorney’s office, this illustrates the need for some system between probation and life in prison for someone like this.”
Hart’s court-appointed defense attorney, Ben Massar, said he had recommended that Hart plead guilty only because he thought his client would be sentenced to probation.
“To me, this was a punishment case,” Massar said. “And usually, in order to gain the benefit of more lenient punishment, like the probation we were hoping for, juries and judges like it when people plead guilty and take responsibility for their actions.”
The judge who stacked Hart’s prison terms to run consecutively for 100 years, Eric Clifford, said he’s still agonizing over his decision, which was driven by his concern that Hart poses a danger to society.
“It was a sad situation. I was about to cry. The jury was crying,” Clifford said. “Everybody looked at everybody like, ‘What the hell do we do?’ The only option we were presented was prison. We don’t have any facilities in the state of Texas for any type of care for somebody like that. That’s the problem. It’s a terrible problem. I don’t know what you do with him other than what we did.”
On Tuesday, Hart’s newly appointed appellate attorney is scheduled to go before Clifford with a motion seeking a new trial on the grounds that Hart could not have understood any of the legal proceedings for his arrest, guilty plea and sentencing.
Clifford sounded like he’s inclined to grant the motion. “I approved [the appellate attorney] to hire all the experts he wanted on competency,” he said. “I said, ‘Whatever you need moneywise, I will sign the order.’ If they can work something out on that appeal, I’m not going to be hard on them.”