Harsh Sentences

Teenagers ask a judge for an explanation and instead get smacked with a scolding

Considering that state District Judge Mary Bacon deals with scores of hardened criminals who pass through her court on the way to prison each year, you'd think she would be unfazed by a few angry yet heartfelt words in a handful of letters sent to her by high school students.

Think again.
Last week the Press published a letter to the editor from Judge Bacon in which she claimed to have received an outpouring of "hate mail" from students prompted by a story in this newspaper on the outcome of the murder trial of Stanley Nicholas [News, "A Bad Place to be Tried," October 27].

As it turns out, the so-called hate mail was the product of a project by an English class at River Oaks Academy, a private "alternative" school for students who have difficulty fitting in elsewhere -- kids perhaps not that much different from Robbie Bayley, the troubled 18-year-old Nicholas was accused of killing. The students were shocked by the fact that a jury had found Nicholas guilty of negligent homicide, a misdemeanor that carries a maximum penalty of just one year in jail. Nicholas was given the maximum sentence but was freed the day after his conviction because he had been incarcerated for the previous ten months and had two months' worth of "good time."

"Some of these kids are going to be [Robbie Bayley] if they're not careful," says Gailee Walker, the English teacher who came up with the letter-writing idea. "By doing this assignment, I hoped that they would be able to get the judge to respond to them and be able to show her their concerns, because they do care."

Thirteen of Walker's students sent letters to Bacon. Some mistakenly blamed the judge for letting Nicholas go free. Other letters contained mildly profane language. One student, for example, concluded his letter by writing, "I think if someone can kill somebody and get off like that, this world is pretty shitty."

It's hard to argue with that sentiment and, indeed, most of the letters were sincere, a few downright poignant. "Do you feel that murder deserves a harsh punishment?" wrote one student. "Is taking a life an everyday thing that should be overlooked? Did Stanley Nicholas' punishment really fit the crime? Whatever the answers may be, do you have any? We want some answers, and I just hope we get some answers before the whole human race is killed off."

In addition to prompting Bacon's letter to the Press clarifying the legal constraints she was under in the Nicholas trial, the correspondence also led the judge to contact River Oaks Academy requesting to speak to Walker's class -- just as the students and their teacher had hoped.

"The kids were real excited about her coming," says Walker. "They were surprised that she cared enough to come."

However, the message Bacon brought with her to the southwest Houston school was not quite what Walker or her students expected. The judge began her remarks by noting that while teenagers had been drawn to Bayley's corpse as a sort of ghoulish sideshow attraction while it rotted in the woods near Bear Creek Park, it took a 10-year-old boy to finally notify authorities about the re-mains. What changes, Bacon wondered, do children undergo between the ages of 10 and 17 to make them so indifferent that they could know of a murder and not bother to report it to the police?

She also explained that her hands had been tied in meting out punishment to Bayley's killer.

Then she turned her attention to the letters the students had written to her.

"I got from you all the most ignorant, insulting letters I have ever gotten in my life," said Bacon. "My first response was to throw the letters in the trash can. Because this is not the kind of letter you write to a public figure." The judge went on the tell the students they would have gotten off to a better start with her if they had written "nice" letters.

According to Walker, Bacon left many of the students angry and confused. The teacher believes the judge mistakenly focused on the tone of the letters instead of the students' concerns.

"There was an opportunity there for authority and age and wisdom to meet youth with pain and questions, and have something wonderful happen," says Walker. "And it didn't happen. These letters were not a personal attack on her. They were letters from children who, after reading the article, had an emotional reaction and had all these questions. They made a tiny little step by writing the letters and they were smacked down."

But according to Bacon, what happened is exactly what she intended.
"I came in aggressively," she explains, "because I wanted them to understand that if you write questioning something, and you don't use words like 'shitty', you can get a better response. That was my main purpose. That was my point. Don't take that tone with me or with any other public figure. And if they don't like it, that's fine. I came out of there thinking I'm going to see some of those kids in this court, and they won't be visiting."

Meanwhile, Walker says she will continue to employ an active, hands-on approach in trying to reach hard-to-reach students. She will also encourage her students to get involved in the governmental process. And, yes, they will continue to write letters. Only next time, says Walker, they will be "nice" letters.

 
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