When The Winds of Empathy Shift

It’s been argued with passion that prisons have become the mental health facilities of last resort, contending that many, if not most, criminal defendants are not evil but mentally ill. This sets off calls for empathy, treatment and alternatives for these people, since they shouldn’t be held criminally culpable for conduct over which they neither had control nor malicious intent. No matter how horrible the conduct may be, if its cause was mental illness, how can you blame them criminally rather than treat their illness? What’s accomplished by locking them away forever rather than addressing the cause of their behavior?

It’s a strong argument.

Shortly after 3:30 p.m. that day, Ms. Poole Franklin was driving on Creston Avenue in Des Moines when she saw two young people who she thought were Middle Eastern or African, according to a federal agreement under which she pleaded guilty to hate crime charges in April. She drove the Jeep “over the curb, onto the sidewalk, toward both minors” and struck one of them, it said. The child, a 12-year-old Black boy, suffered pain, cuts, bruising and swelling, according to the plea agreement.

Then, Ms. Poole Franklin drove away.

Less than an hour later in the city of Clive, just west of Des Moines, Ms. Poole Franklin was driving near a junior high school. There, she saw a 14-year-old girl walking on the sidewalk who she believed to be Mexican. She drove her Jeep “over the curb, over the sidewalk” and struck the child, according to the plea agreement and law enforcement officials. The girl suffered pain, cuts, bruising, swelling and a concussion.

Poole Franklin was arrested soon after the second assault, horrific both in terms of what she did and why, at least in her mind, she did it. And for it, she was first prosecuted for the attempted murder in state court. After that was done, she was prosecuted for the “hate crime,” the civil rights violation, in federal court.

The woman, Nicole Poole Franklin, 43 of Des Moines, Iowa, had already been sentenced in May to 25 years in prison on state charges of attempted murder in the attacks. The federal sentence will be served concurrently* with the state term, which means, in effect, that she will spend more time in prison, according to Richard D. Westphal, acting U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Iowa.

In the federal sentencing memo, her attorney, Joseph Herrold, argued that this was the product of mental illness.

In a sentencing memo pleading for leniency, Mr. Herrold said that Ms. Poole Franklin had a long history of mental illness, and had received diagnoses of schizoaffective disorder, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. “As she entered adulthood, struggling with mental illness, substance use problems, unstable housing, and poverty, Ms. Poole Franklin began having problems with the law,” he wrote.

The prosecution did not exhibit much empathy for the defendant’s well-being.

“Nothing can be more devastating to the American dream of equal rights” than what Ms. Poole Franklin did when she drove her car into the young victims, Mr. Westphal wrote in a sentencing memo. “Her actions temporarily shattered, but did not permanently defeat, this dream.”

Westphal’s hyperbole aside, this case had the makings of a cause célèbre, but which way? Here you have a severely mentally ill woman. You have a person twice prosecuted for the same conduct, receiving a very significant sentence of 25 years with another sentence 25 years to boot. But then this was a white woman whose crime was trying to kill minority children. Does that mean all arguments spin around in the opposite direction?

While it isn’t technically double jeopardy, it is two prosecutions for the same conduct, decried as needless piling on.

While many will see a 25 (or maybe 50) year sentence as reasonable for such a horrific crime, the same sentence imposed for murder will regularly be attacked as unduly harsh and excessive.

And while mental illness has been properly raised in mitigation of many crimes, some banal and some horrific, this defendant’s actions suggest that she suffered from severe mental illness, rendering her incapable of forming the rational intent required of a criminal defendant. It might not be sufficient for a verdict of an insanity verdict, but it is argued strenuously in mitigation of punishment.

Or, in the alternative, do these arguments disappear into thin air when the defendant commits the wrong crime against the wrong victim? Are the handy “excuses” for some no longer quite so handy for others? Or is it that the unduly passionate simply prefer to spend their time and attention on those they deem more worthy of empathy?

No “decent” person will argue that what Poole Franklin did wasn’t outrageously awful and, if she was capable of forming a rational intent, truly evil on many levels. But that doesn’t address the principles underlying the cases, which shouldn’t change based on the characteristics of perp versus victim.

But of all the issues raised by this case that failed to spark even a single protest march in favor of the defendant, her mental illness is the most curious. It’s gone from being something stigmatizing, subjecting a person to ridicule and derision, to a badge of honor among the unduly passionate. People twit with peculiar honor about how they suffer from mental illness, not to mention substance abuse, and not only are they not stigmatized for it, but they gain some odd hero status for their bravery.

Was Poole Franklin “brave” when she tried to kill children whom she “believed were Middle Eastern, African or Mexican”? Hardly. But she was mentally ill, and it is highly likely that but for severe mental illness, no one would do such a terrible thing. But Poole Franklin got no “likes” on social media, no thoughts and prayers for her illness. Instead she got 25, if not 50, years in prison. Will anyone protest this outcome?

*Concurrent sentences means they are both served at the same time, which ordinarily means the defendant spends the same time in prison for both, perhaps with some distinction as to parole eligibility in state court and federal good time credit and supervised release. Or these are consecutive sentences, meaning the second sentence isn’t served until the first is completed, and they used the wrong word. Who knows?

13 thoughts on “When The Winds of Empathy Shift

  1. Jim Majkowski

    What’s accomplished by locking them away forever rather than addressing the cause of their behavior? Retribution. Catharsis. Demonstration of superior virtue. I suspect the insanity defense will eventually be virtually eliminated by “guilty but mentally ill” verdicts. BTW, in Michigan, the birthplace (1975) of that artifice, the actual difference between verdicts of GBMI and guilty is zero.

  2. Lee Keller King

    Clearly this woman’s horrendous acts were the result of systemic racism and white privilege. Therefore, as a white woman and a member of the oppressing class, she actually deserved death plus cancer. A mere 25-year sentence (assuming the two sentences are to be served concurrently and not consecutively), was actually actually a lenient one. And based on the long history of systemic racism in this country, a white woman can no more claim an Insanity defense that a black perpetrator can be held to be racist.

    Or at least, that appears to be the view of the overly passionate on the left. (Not to be confused with traditional liberals – like our host – who are now considered apostate traders by the unduly passionate).


  3. John Barleycorn

    Looks like the Justice Department could use a few more applications to tighten up their applicant pool as well.

    Very good benefit package from what I hear…

      1. Alex Sarmiento

        I can’t really judge. My response to “I am principled in principle, but… it has to be easy, not hard!” usually is “Understandable. I feel your pain. Have a great day”.

  4. Richard Parker

    So much for double jeopardy. Retry people at multiple levels until you get the desired result. Yes, it’s legal, bit it’s wrong. Hate crimes enhancements create Apartheid justice.

  5. F. Lee Billy

    The lesson here is to never drive the Jeep over the curb onto the sidewalk, irregardless of who might be walking there. Sidewalks are for pedestrians; roadways are for motor vehicles, motorcycles and bicycles?
    As a famous comedian once said: Do you ever wonder why we drive on the parkway, but park on the driveway. Only in Amerika!?!

    Funny that this happens in Des Moines and not, say, Oshkosh by gosh or Jackson, Miss. I mean, we thought Iowa was a northern (liberal) state, not known for rampant outbreaks of mental illness or related forms of social aberrations.

      1. F. Lee Billy

        My arm is still sore. Seems to be working however. We are covid-free, knock on wood?
        For the record, we did Iowa for four years. Not a bad place really. That’s why we find these incidents so bizarre. So uncornhuskerish, Chuck Grassley-breath. Mental Defects R not US.

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