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Flawed Justice in Memphis

Our legal system caters to the rich and powerful, and provides loopholes for young offenders.

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My parents wanted me to become a lawyer.

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While lawyering is a noble profession, covering court cases and observing the inequities of the criminal justice system as a reporter is as close as I want to be to fulfilling my parents' wishes. It doesn't take a genius to realize our justice system is inherently flawed. It caters to the rich and powerful. It demeans and stereotypes those of color who also happen to compose the lowest rungs on our socio-economic ladder. It also provides loopholes for a growing youthful criminal element to take full advantage of.

Let's start with those who have the money to delay and prolong their eventual day in court. The latest example is Memphis businessman Mark Giannini. He was originally charged with raping a woman hired to clean his mansion. But, after securing the legal services of "dream team" attorneys Steve Farese and Leslie Ballin and posting more than a $100,000 bond, no one told him he couldn't leave town. Finally, a Shelby County Grand Jury indicted him on not just on the two counts of rape, but four additional counts of aggravated rape involving other women. Giannini was arrested in Florida.

We can assume he thought it necessary to take a vacation respite from his alleged hedonistic lifestyle. If it had been any of us of lesser means, we would have been buried so deep in jail after the initial charges, we'd have to have a new zip code. Some day, after years of jurisdictional motions, Giannini will presumably have to face the women he allegedly violated.

One of the most disturbing "justice" trends in Shelby County continues to be how the system fails to effectively deal with youthful offenders. My Fox-13 colleague Matt Gerien recently exposed the existence of a document called the Detention Assessment Tool (DAT). It is a points-based system available to Memphis Police officers to be used in regards to the arrests of juvenile offenders. Every officer has access to a juvenile offender's score, which can determine whether, after an arrest, they will face juvenile detention or simply be allowed to walk away. Points are accrued based on the severity of their offenses and their past record. Nineteen or more and you're headed for the slammer.

Here's the scary part. The juvenile offenders and their gang leaders know all about this as well. By keeping up with their own score, they can be sent out like little criminal guided missiles to commit crimes with the knowledge their DAT score can put them back on the streets the next day, if they're picked up. Needless to say, it's provided plenty of frustration for the Memphis Police Department and prosecutors.

One of my personal peeves is the ease by which repeat offenders can hire high-priced attorneys to represent them. Don't get me wrong; I understand everybody who faces pending criminal charges is allowed to seek the best legal representation possible. Just ask Mr. Giannini. However, the case of Robert Sanders and how he managed to also secure the retainer to hire noted defense attorney Ballin is baffling.

Sanders is facing 25 counts of attempted first-degree murder in the wake of a New Year's Eve shooting that began when he allegedly got in an argument inside a nightclub. Police say Sanders got in his car and then followed a bus-load of people to I-240 where he opened fire, wounding five people. Two of the victims remain in critical condition. The 32-year-old Sanders had previously been arrested twice on charges of cocaine and gun possession. So, why wasn't he behind bars already? Where did he get the money to hire one of the best attorneys in town to represent him in court? Now with a $5 million bond, will he pull another monetary rabbit out of the hat to get himself back on the streets?

Shelby County Criminal Court judges have the ability to ask where the source of bond money comes from, but apparently that doesn't extend to what and how the accused paid their attorneys.

It's these legal shenanigans that erode the credibility of — and faith in — our justice system. We handcuff police in their ability to make valid arrests. We allow habitual offenders to use their ill-gotten gains to grease their paths to freedom when they come before the bar of justice. We allow those with means to delay and divert cases, giving the public the impression they are above the law.

Sorry, Mom and Pop. Being a lawyer just wasn't for me.

Les Smith is a reporter for WHBQ Fox-13.

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