James J. Kilpatrick

Justice never will be perfectly administered. Two cases that illustrate the truism are now pending in the Supreme Court on petitions for review. They merit a sigh of regret.

The cases are Dawson v. Newman from Indiana and Buttrick v. United States from New Hampshire. The odds are 1,000-to-1 that the high court will reject both petitions without a public murmur of reflection, but even the lost causes are not without interest. In both cases, as I read them, defendants were wrongly treated because constables blundered.

In 1990 Lance Dawson pleaded guilty to certain unstated criminal charges. The charges could not have been very serious, for they resulted only in probation and a suspended sentence of six years in prison. In 1992 his probation officer filed a notice of probation violation, but nothing much happened and Dawson remained free to get on with his life.

Then, in 2000, the state unaccountably hauled Dawson back into court, this time before Judge Thomas Newman in the Superior Court of Madison County. In June 2000 he revoked Dawson's probation and reinstated the suspended sentence. Dawson went to prison. Thirteen months later the Indiana Court of Appeals unanimously reversed that decision: There had been a "complete failure" to prove probation violations. Dawson must be freed.

Judge Newman obediently ordered Dawson's immediate release. Someone in the judge's office faxed a copy of the court's opinion to the state Department of Corrections. Nothing happened. Dawson wasn't freed. He protested. Still nothing happened. Dawson was routinely shipped from an overcrowded prison in Indiana to an available prison in Kentucky. Fourteen months passed -- 14 months! At last he got out. Naturally he sued everyone in sight. Judge Newman pleaded immunity to suit. The other defendants said nobody ever ordered them to do anything. Now the Supreme Court will decide if the succession of blunders merits review.

The case of young Dustin Buttrick presents a different picture of justice gone awry. He has been sentenced to 18 months in prison, plus five years on probation, for thinking unthinkable thoughts. That is not the federal offense, of course, but it is what the evidence boils down to. These were the facts as partly inferred, but mostly drawn, from an affirming opinion of the 1st Circuit Court of Appeals:


James J. Kilpatrick

James J. Kilpatrick has been reporter, editor, columnist, commentator, and briefly an adjunct professor of journalism.

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