Man With Mental Disability Sentenced to 100 Years for Sexual Assault

by Cara on June 15, 2009

in bigotry, courts, disability, discrimination, rape and sexual assault, stereotypes

Recently, an 18-year-old man was convicted of sexually assaulting a six-year-old boy. Terrible story, surely, but one that is unfortunately not particularly unusual.  That is, until you hear that the perpetrator has a mental disability.  And that he received a 100 year sentence.

Attorneys and advocates are questioning why an 18-year-old East Texan with profound mental disabilities was sentenced to 100 years in prison in a child sex abuse case.

They say the case of Aaron Hart was mishandled from start to finish and raises questions over how to deal with the mentally disabled when they encounter the criminal justice system.

After a neighbor found Hart fondling her 6-year-old stepson in September, the East Texas teenager pleaded guilty to five counts, The Dallas Morning News reported Wednesday.

Hart has an IQ of 47 and was diagnosed as mentally disabled as a child. He never learned to read or write and speaks unsteadily. Despite being a target of bullies, he was courteous, well-behaved and earned money by doing chores for neighbors, supporters said. His parents say he’d never acted out sexually.

“He couldn’t understand the seriousness of what he did,” said his father, Robert Hart. “I never dreamed they would think about sending him to prison. When they said 100 years — it was terror, pure terror, to me.”

Aaron Hart pleaded guilty to charges including aggravated sexual assault and indecency by contact, and his case went to a jury for punishment. Jurors had the option of probation, former attorney Ben Massar told The Associated Press on Wednesday.

But during sentencing, Lamar County Judge Eric Clifford decided to stack the sentences against Hart after jurors settled on two five-year terms and three 30-year terms in February. At the time, Hart had already been on probation on a misdemeanor theft charge and had faced a misdemeanor charge of criminal mischief, Massar said.

This is going to require a big, deep breath on my part, because as I’m sure you all know, I’m not used to advocating lesser sentences for those who have committed acts of sexual violence. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever done it before in my life. But it’s exactly what I find myself needing to do right now, despite the fact that quite a few of you may strongly disagree.

And the reason I find myself having to do this is that I do not believe, not for a single solitary moment, that Aaron Hart was sentenced so harshly because of what he did. Every fiber of me believes that he was sentenced this way because of who he is — a person with a mental disability.

Now, of course, as I hope is obvious, the fact that Hart has a disability does not diminish what he did in the eyes of the boy who he assaulted. That boy is almost certainly going to have to deal with a whole lot of trauma, just like virtually all sexual assault survivors. Chances are that the man’s identity, and whether or not he has a disability, is going to mean very little to him in that particular regard. And I think that’s both entirely understandable and entirely fair.

I also want to take pains to point out that Aaron Hart did not commit an assault because of his disability. He didn’t do it because having a mental disability makes you a dangerous person. And to argue as much is as at least as supremely ableist and stigmatizing to those living with disabilities as this sentence is.  My argument for why this sentence is outrageous is not at all based on this flawed and bigoted notion.

Further, I don’t know whether or not Aaron Hart understands what he did. I don’t know very much about his disability at all, and even if I had his medical records in front of me, I’m no expert able to make such an assessment. And while I disagree with this sentence, I can’t say what exactly the sentence should be. It’s worth noting that prison is quite frequently not a safe, reasonable or appropriate response to crimes committed by people with disabilities, and other responses are instead far better and more humane options. But whether this applies to Hart, I do not know. I don’t.

What I do know is that 100 years is absolutely ludicrous. Not because I think that the assault was “not a big deal.” Not because I think that “his disability made him do it.” I think neither of those things. I think it is absolutely ludicrous because I cannot tell you the last time I’ve seen a sentence that high for any case of sexual assault, including the “worst” kind you can think of, involving numerous perpetrators, torture, etc.

What I can tell you is that a conniving, predatory man who is believed to have raped well over 30 women got off with a mere 21 year sentence thanks to rape apologism and minimizing of what he had done. I can tell you about a man who is alleged to have brutally raped a four-year-old girl, requiring her to have surgery, who faced a maximum 20 year sentence. I can tell you of a rapist who received 3 and a half years, and only such a high sentence because the judge believed the victim was “stupid.” I can tell you of a man who raped a woman, and whose administration of a date rape drug killed her, and is serving only 5 years. While it’s not sexual violence, I can also tell you of a man who killed his first wife and stabbed and seriously injured his second wife, only to receive a total of 9 years in prison. Or of a man who murdered a sex worker and served a single day.

Obviously, all of these men should have served much, much higher sentences.  And I don’t think that we should let certain perpetrators off with lighter sentences just because mistakes with regards to sentencing have been made in the past.

But I do think that we don’t take sexual assault even remotely seriously.  I think that when it comes to sexual assault, when it comes to some of the most repulsive rapes you’ve ever heard of, we don’t take it nearly seriously enough.  I don’t believe that suddenly, people have started taking it seriously and just happened to do so when the perpetrator is a man with a disability — especially when we’re talking about a state that has executed at least 30 people with mental disabilities. In fact, we just so happen to have a history in this world of getting fed up only when the person committing the offense is a member of a group who we already oppress.

I also know that when it comes to sexual violence committed against those with disabilities, which is actually a much more common occurrence, sentences look absolutely nothing like this.  Certainly including those cases of abuse committed against young children.  If you want evidence, just go read through the FRIDA blog.  Or take a look at this one example I wrote about recently: a man who raped his daughter from the time she was ten years old, and received a mere ten years in prison for his 35 counts of assault. A man who was then let out of prison and raped his other daughter, who has a mental disability, and who will now be out again as soon as 2012.

The state has an interest in protecting its citizens, particularly those youngest and most vulnerable citizens.  And then have every right, no, a responsibility, to determine if Aaron Hart poses an ongoing threat, and to ensure that he cannot act on it if he does.

But there are ways to do that without giving a man with a significant mental disability a 100 year sentence.  There are ways to do that without furthering the lie that people with mental disabilities are somehow more dangerous than the rest of us, especially those who have a proven record of actually being far more dangerous.  There are ways to do it without exploiting a member of society who is differently vulnerable.  There are ways to do it that don’t involve a method of sentencing that is rarely used for sexual offenders who do not have disabilities.

There are ways to do it, simply, without being ableist.

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{ 13 comments }

1 SarahMC June 15, 2009 at 2:19 pm

Wow. I have to say I completely agree with you. Upon reading “100 years” I wondered – what else is at play here? Because sexual abusers and rapists are never given such harsh sentences.
I think the victim’s sex has something to do with it as well.

2 Michael Hussey June 15, 2009 at 2:19 pm

This is the Texas justice system. How else can someone get 100 years for pleading guilty. If that was the plea bargain deal than who knows what would happen if the defense attorney fought. The time for the convictions may be running concurrent. Meaning he want do 100 years. Time starts for each conviction the moment Hart steps into jail. That is how it works in Florida. Not sure about Texas.

Hart had to have a very bad public defender. A real lawyer would have grinded this through the system and forced prosecutors to offer a better plea deal. States don’t want to get backlogged on every case.

Without knowing all the legal details, I say Hart had a really bad public defender that just wanted one less case.

3 jaol June 15, 2009 at 3:19 pm

Ummm…I’m glad he got a 100 years. Did you miss the fact that he was already on probation for at least 2 felonies? How many more chances do you want to give him? Are you going to sit there and wait till he kidnaps and tortures a little girl before you finally lock him away?

Just because other sexual sadists/torturers/murderers got off on light sentences doesnt mean we should extend the favor to this asshole. This isnt a first time offense, its a clear pattern of criminal conduct.

Fuck him.

4 Cara June 15, 2009 at 3:31 pm

Yeah, two non-violent charges. Which means that it is a first time offense, with regards to what he’s been sentenced for. Stealing something does not make you a serial sexual offender.

And you can disagree with me all you want. As I stated above, I expected it. But how about dropping the personal attacks? I have no ability to lock him away or not lock him away. I have no say over what his sentence is, whether it’s in prison, whether it’s in some sort of other facility, how long it is, etc. And I quite clearly have no desire to see a little girl kidnapped or tortured, and am disturbed at the implication I’m seeing that I might feel a lot more strongly in favor of this sentence if his victim had been a girl instead of a boy.

Lastly, if you’re going to argue against what I’ve said here, that’s totally fine. But it’d also serve you well to incorporate some kind of disability analysis into your argument, seeing as how that’s what this post largely rested on. Completely ignoring that is somewhat obnoxious, and also quite glaring.

5 preying mantis June 15, 2009 at 3:57 pm

“Did you miss the fact that he was already on probation for at least 2 felonies?”

…the article identifies the crime he was on probation for as misdemeanor theft. He also faced, but had not yet received a judgment on, a charge of misdemeanor criminal mischief. Not that what he did previously was necessarily small potatoes–things get pled down often enough–but it’s just as easily shoplifting and petty vandalism.

Also, I don’t see anyone calling for his immediate and unsupervised release so much as pointing out how epicly problematic it is to hand out sentences based not on what the assailant did to the victim but on what demographics they belong to respectively.

6 Cara June 15, 2009 at 4:06 pm

And exactly what Preying Mantis said. Thank you.

7 GringaSalsera June 15, 2009 at 9:03 pm

My first thought was, EVERY sexual assault perpetrator should get AT LEAST that kind of sentence! why aren’t they!?!?!

and this : “I think that when it comes to sexual assault, when it comes to some of the most repulsive rapes you’ve ever heard of, we don’t take it nearly seriously enough. I don’t believe that suddenly, people have started taking it seriously and just happened to do so when the perpetrator is a man with a disability”

is so, so right on.

8 joytulip June 16, 2009 at 10:36 am

Note that the victim of the assault was male. Cara’s examples of the much shorter sentences all involved female victims. Coincidence?

9 karak June 16, 2009 at 6:26 pm

100 years? Really? I have NEVER HEARD of anyone except serial killer murderers getting life sentences for sex crimes. Does this man probably deserve 100 years? Possibly. But it does make one mighty suspicious that he gets a life sentence and all these others guys get a pat on the head.

10 Theologian June 17, 2009 at 8:27 am

Wow, IQ of 47 is nowhere near functional enough to survive in a traditional prison for men. IQ of 77 or below should be the cut off for incarceration in traditional prisons.

Now to the individual case involved, I’m all for 100 years for violent, repeat sex offenders who have slim to no chance at recovery/rehabilitation (think, Fiztl), but this case is sex panic (oh, my goodness, disabled people have sexuality that needs to be addressed…this was assault, by no means am I saying that this was an innocent event, but I think that often the whole, mentally disabled people are little children meme tries to erase the fact that they are actually adults when adults, sexually speaking). Sex panic, plus the prosecutors/defense working in tandem to make an example of how tough on sex crimes they are, without actually doing the difficult work of prosecuting a gang-bang at a Frat House where they call the victim slut and show how great these “boys who will be boys are” and maybe they got carried away, but she’s the dirty slut who wanted it, kind of case. SO, perfect way to seem as though they care about victims, but really just reinforce the patriarchal status quo.

Ugh

11 Jenn June 18, 2009 at 1:59 pm

I think you’re right that it’s a case of his mental disability. An IQ of 47 is shockingly low, to the point where most individuals would require significant care to function in a manner that is happy and healthy for them. Although, I don’t know about his mental disability not mitigating the hurt of the victim. I can’t speak for the actual victim, but I know that I might be a little less hurt following my incidents of harassment and attempted rape if I knew that the assholes that did that to me had, at least, some sort of reason for having an impaired respect for or notion of a woman’s bodily autonomy. That the people who victimized me were so smart and successful academically stung because of their pure callousness and unwillingness to seriously contemplate the absurd and corrupt value system that the operated with that allowed them to hurt me and, to this day, deny that they did anything wrong.

But that is just my feeling about my experiences, and not representative of the actual victim. My point is merely that I feel that I would have been less psychologically (if not physically) impacted if the perpetrator wasn’t highly intelligent.

I also totally agree with joytulip. If this was a case of a mentally impaired male assaulting a female, we’d have a very different story on our hands. I can surmise that she’d be questioned for “leading him on” and somehow making him to do, or provoking him to do it, because of how predatory and triggering that pesky female sexuality is for men, especially a poor mentally impaired man. That the victim was male, and the sentence so high, reeks of gay panic. This guy is thought of as such a danger to society not only because he does not have a good functioning understanding of sexual boundaries (which probably led to the crime itself) but because he focused that on another man, which, of course, is horrible and gay and all kinds of gross. Whereas, if he had assaulted a girl it probably would have been totally her fault, or at least acceptable because everyone knows it’s totally women’s job to be the objects of a man’s sex aggressive and criminal behavior.

This sentencing is all kinds of fail. Ablism fail, homophobia fail, and missing the point of rape fail. What a mess.

12 Michael Lake June 23, 2009 at 2:08 am

I believe the Texas court can be sued under the federal Americans with Disabilities Act for failing to provide an interpreter to Aaron Hart. It requires a worthwhile and honest advocate to use these handicap laws as intended.

Our federal government may chicken out of enforcing this federal law the way it is written because I have gotten the written excuse myself from the U.S. Department of Justice that they enforce handicap laws against courts rarely.

The truth is that this situation is more about politics, power, and greed than law or protecting the public. Based on how some people think we should jail, or perhaps hang, every person in the nation because we may all be criminals.

I am an autistic savant, with problems like the character in the Rain Man movie, but I also learned to use my savant skills to attempt to hide or even overcome the issues which handicap me. Considering how powerful authorities commonly order people to their death with apparently little compassion, I consider myself a less dangerous person than the majority of people.

My savant skills are always sucking up information and I get overwhelmed with the dysfunctions of your society. I say your society because it is embarrassing to me to hear people claim how great our nation is. It makes me angry to be told things can not be made better or that I should give up and not care.

Like Aaron Hart I have been accused of breaking the law as shown on my WhyHope.com website. In my case I did not know that I had the symptoms of autism and those symptoms upset local VIPs who slandered my name with claims that I would go postal and kill plus other sick ideas. Unfortunately it was the slander of the VIPs which provoked me into complaining, creating a cycle.

Today I know the truth about how delusional and dysfunctional society can act.

Mike Lake – WhyHope.com

13 cassandra June 24, 2009 at 9:24 pm

This is a truly tricky issue. But an important one.

And, it brings to mind a paragraph from the Mental Disability Advocacy Center (http://www.mdac.info/en/the-need).

“The World Health Organization estimates that one in four of us will have a mental health disability at some time and many more have intellectual disabilities. With many States having ageing populations these figures are set to rise. Yet despite these very high numbers of people concerned, they remain at the margins of society, their human rights frequently ignored.”

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