Years ago an editor at another newspaper who thought I was worrying a story to death told me, "The French have a saying that to understand everything is to forgive everything. Remember, Schutze, we are not French."
No kidding. But I don't think it forgives anybody to try to understand history and context. I am thinking of the tough sentences handed down over the last two weeks by a U.S. District judge in the Dallas City Hall corruption trial.
The acts for which the defendants were sentenced were crimes—not mistakes, not failures to communicate, but crimes—like walking into a beer store and sticking a gun in the clerk's face or cheating widows and orphans out of their homes in a Wall Street scam. But the context in which the City Hall crimes took place is worth considering, especially if it's still a factor.
The money line in this entire sordid saga came from Judge Barbara Lynn. In imposing an 18-year prison term for bribery and extortion on former Dallas City Council Member Don Hill, Lynn told him: "I'm not sure you get it." She told Hill, "I don't think you have internalized the wrong that you have done."
Nor had his lawyers. I read their pre-sentencing motion telling Lynn why Hill didn't deserve prison time. It said, "Mr. Hill has been a hard-working member of society his entire life. Mr. Hill's law-abiding life and low risk for recidivism indicates that he would not be a risk if sentenced below the guideline. It is very difficult to imagine Mr. Hill getting into trouble with the law ever again."
The man had just been convicted in Lynn's court last October 5 of seven counts of bribery and extortion. Who goes to the judge who presided over the trial and tells her with a straight face that the felon convicted in her own court is a law-abiding citizen?
Who says that? Someone who believes it. Obviously Hill did. In a stunning display of not getting it, Hill spoke to the judge before she announced his sentence at the February 26 sentencing hearing. He told her, in effect, that he knew that she knew that he was really innocent. His speech to Lynn was reported by Jason Trahan on The Dallas Morning News crime blog.
Trahan quotes Hill as telling the judge: "When the verdict was read October 5, I could be wrong your Honor, but I just sensed a degree of hurt or pain you even experienced in reading the verdict."
Hill goes on to offer one last time the same theory of defense his attorneys argued stubbornly in their failed trial strategy: Hill couldn't have been breaking the law, because he was so easy to catch.
Hill tells Lynn: "You didn't really have to have wiretaps on me to be able to press the case against me. Everything I was doing, advocating for, I was doing it openly and transparently."
I've gotten myself into trouble already by saying on our blog, Unfair Park, that I didn't think Hill and his confederates understood they were breaking the law. Commenters offered the worthwhile observation that Hill is a lawyer. At some point in law school, the professors do have to point out, I suppose, that extorting bribes is against the law. That is why, in fact, they call them bribes.
But here is where I go a little French on you. I say you have to answer another question. Whose law?
May I tell you a story at this point? I heard this two years ago from a distinguished business leader in the black community, who was talking to me about the then-upcoming City Hall federal corruption trial and about traditional attitudes toward the law in South Dallas.
He said a few years earlier he had taken his adolescent grandson to a popular South Dallas barbershop. The grandson's father, who lived in an affluent suburb, was strict about the young man's attitude concerning the law. He was to be taught respect and obedience to the law, no matter what. All law, all day long.
While the grandfather was getting a shave and haircut, two nattily dressed men, working their way slowly down the line of chairs, arrived at his side. They quizzed him about his suit, shirt and shoe sizes. The grandfather knew them well, knew what they did for a living and knew them to be respected as professionals. In South Dallas.
When he and his grandson stepped out into the parking lot, the two men waved them over to the opened trunk of a car. There, as neatly displayed as if on a table at Neiman Marcus, were suits, shirts, ties and shoes—exactly the kind the grandfather wore—at amazingly low prices.
But here was the point of the story: Normally, if the grandson had not been standing next to him gape-mouthed, the grandfather might have said, "Yeah, I'll take the blue and the gray." Instead, he had to castigate the men sternly as common thieves and warn them never to insult him again by proposing that he traffic in stolen property.