The crimes that East Texans Jason Robert Bourque and Daniel George McAllister were convicted of last month were disgusting indeed. The two young men, sometimes working together and other times apart, admitted to torching ten rural churches across Smith, Henderson and Van Zandt counties.
Their unholy firebug spree began on New Year's Day 2010 and ended 39 days later, when McAllister, then 21, was apprehended and implicated both himself and Bourque, his then 19-year-old accomplice. Nobody was injured in any of the fires.
Faced with overwhelming evidence, the two men waived their rights of appeal and entered guilty pleas. They essentially threw themselves on the mercy of Tyler State District Judge Christi Kennedy.
And Judge Kennedy showed them none.
For their roles in the Smith County fires, Bourque got life plus 20 years; McAllister got straight life. You don't mess with God in deep East Texas.
It mattered little that Bourque had very recently been a teenager with much promise -- an Eagle Scout and high school debate champion. Nor did McAllister's hardscrabble upbringing play on Judge Kennedy's heartstrings -- in contrast to his buddy, McAllister was raised by a single mother who home-schooled him and has since died. It mattered not at all that neither man had a criminal record, nor that Bourque's family tried to lay the blame for his actions on a cocktail of Prozac and Chantix, a smoking-cessation drug that can cause some people to have psychotic episodes.
Life, and life plus 20.
"That's a lot of damn time to get by pleading guilty," notes local defense attorney Mark Bennett in an e-mail exchange with Hair Balls and another attorney.
While he is reluctant to critique another defense attorney, former prosecutor (and current defense attorney) Murray Newman believes that allowing the judge to set sentencing was a huge blunder. "Pleading guilty to a judge rather than a jury is rather kamikaze, if you ask me," he writes. "At least with a jury, you have the hopes that one (or more) of the twelve members will drive the amount of time down. Maybe they have a loved one in prison. Maybe they don't think the crime itself is all that serious."
There's no downside for a Deep East Texas judge in throwing the book at a couple of punk church-burners, Murray points out. "A life sentence satisfied the 'tough on crime' conservatives, certainly," he writes. "But the burning of churches brings to mind images of the Civil Rights Era in Mississippi and Alabama. You aren't going to find too many hard-core Liberals grumbling about the sentence, either." (There was no mention of their spree being racially motivated, but Newman's point stands.)
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"I can guarantee you that the sentencing judge won't lose a single vote over this sentence," Newman continues. "I can also guarantee you that the judge knew that when she sentenced them."
But there are some who are not satisfied with the sentences: the district attorneys in both Henderson and Van Zandt counties. Despite these economically straitened times and the maximum sentences received by the culprits, they plan to prosecute the two young men all over again. And once more for good measure.
"Fiscally irresponsible political pandering," Bennett terms it in cases like this, where there is no right of appeal.
Sure looks that way to us, too. And while it seems likely that even Jesus Christ would want these boys to do some serious hard time, it's hard to imagine Him sentencing these two punks to life.