Awaiting their turns to see the judge, seven prisoners, shackled and wearing orange jumpsuits, sat in the jury box Monday morning in the Cape Girardeau County courthouse in Jackson.
They were accused of the usual assortment of low-level misdeeds. Without even looking at the charges, I could guess that booze or drugs were involved in most of the offenses.
Sure enough. One of the two women prisoners shuffled her way in front of the bench. Drunk driving. Blood alcohol level of .176. The drunk driving was a felony, which meant she had at least two priors.
Judge William Syler asked her what she had been drinking. Beer, she said. He asked how many. She said she didn’t know.
What motivated her to do that? The judge didn’t ask. He sentenced her to 120 days shock time in prison. If she completes the appropriate program, she’ll be put on four years’ probation.
Then one of the men was called forward. He’d been caught trying to steal copper wire. Was he going to use the money for drugs? The judge didn’t ask. He gave the man 60 days in the county jail.
Finally, it was time for the defendant I had come to see. Her name is Mercedes Ayers. She is 17. She was arrested in July for burglary and third-degree assault. She spent 29 days in jail until her $10,000 bond was cut in half, and her parents came up with the necessary 10 percent — $500 — to get her out.
So she was not in the jury box with the other defendants. She was sitting in the audience.
That was not the only thing that separated her from the other defendants. She was charged not just with what she had done, but with why she had done it. She was charged with a hate crime.
According to the state, she and several other young people, including her 13-year-old sister and her 11- year-old brother, went to the home of 41-year-old Jeana Terry, rang the doorbell, pulled Terry out of the house and then assaulted her.
According to the state, they did this because Terry is gay. The attackers allegedly called Terry names, including “yag,” which is “gay” spelled backward.
The burglary charge — Ayers allegedly entered the house to pull the victim outside — was eventually dropped. Third-degree assault is a misdemeanor, but because it was classified as a hate crime, the charge was elevated to a felony.
I am ambivalent about hate crimes. Should it matter why a person does something? Besides, doesn’t the very act of assault suggest at least a strong dislike?
On the other hand, the line between a misdemeanor assault and a felony assault is blurry, too. It is the difference between “physical injury” and “serious physical injury.”
In this instance, Terry’s injuries sounded serious to me. Her voice broke as she read a statement in which she said she suffered a fracture on the right side of her face. She said she suffered dizzy spells and couldn’t sleep. She said she suffered an injury to her eye. She said she had headaches and trouble with her memory. She is just now regaining her confidence, she said.
Prosecutor Morley Swingle was asking the judge to put Ayers on probation for five years. He was also asking for a suspended imposition of sentence, which means that if Ayers successfully completes probation, she will have no record. Swingle cited Ayers’ age. She was 16 at the time of the offense.
That was a generous offer, and Ayers took it. The judge agreed with Swingle that only Ayers’ age was keeping her out of prison. But there will be zero tolerance while she’s on probation, he said.
In her statement, Terry said she wasn’t sure how she felt about a sentence that included no jail time. She told Ayers she hoped the teenager would use the chance to become a better person.
Ayers, in turn, apologized and tearfully said she was going to change her ways. Public defender Jennifer Slone said it was “not a likelihood, but a certainty” that this represented a turning point for Ayers.
Certainly, Ayers’ apologetic attitude represented a sea change. Two months ago, against the advice of her attorney, Ayers and her parents spoke with Scott Moyers, a reporter for the Southeast Missourian. Ayers denied that she had started the fight with Terry. She said she was only standing up for herself. Her parents suggested there were racial overtones to the case. They are black.
There were no such suggestions Monday. Ayers seemed remorseful, and, at the same time, hopeful. She said she intended to finish high school and go to college.
The shackled prisoners watched it all impassively from the jury box.