Tuesday, January 1, 2008
The Craig Price Murders: Was there Racism?
He was called Iron Man, a large football player who lived in the small town of Warwick, Rhode Island.
In 1987, Craig Price, then 13 years old, broke into the house of one of his neighbors, Rebecca Spencer, and stabbed her 58 times. The 27 year old mother of two was not his last victim.
Two years later, Price murdered Joan Heaton, 39 and her two daughters. One of the daughters was stabbed 62 times.
Two weeks later, Price was arrested for the murders.
Price was an outgoing 15 year old who liked to crack jokes. He seemed like a good kid to his neighbors and was always surrounded by friends. He was given away to police after lying about a cut in his finger. Also, there was a bloody sock print that matched the size of Price's feet. The knives used in the killings were found in the backyard shed.
Price confessed to the killings in an allegedly matter of fact kind of way, even imitating the sounds of his dying victims as he stabbed them to death. The detectives were outraged over the fact that Price would be released within the next few years, since he was a juvenile. They felt he should be there for life.
One of the fighters was Jeffrey Pine, the assistant district attorney who went on a campaign to change the law. "There was something fundamentally wrong with a system that allowed someone who killed four people to simply go free at 21," Pine said.
Along with members of the victims' families, Pine formed Citizens Opposed to the Release of Craig Price, or CORP. He also organized rallies and media appearances around the idea of keeping Craig Price in prison for as long as possible.
Some have argued that his campaign was politically-motivated, since it was similar to the use of another black murderer, Willie Horton, by George Bush Senior in order to get elected president.
The attorney's efforts paid off. He was eventually elected attorney general and Rhode Island law was changed to make sure that killers like Craig Price are incarcerated far beyond the penalties called for in juvenile cases. Rather than rehabilitation, Price and others like him are considered beyond rehabilitation and kept in prison far beyond their 18th birthdays.
Since the law passed could not be applied retroactively to Price, Pine used his power as Attorney General to try to bend the law to keep Price behind bars longer than his original sentence. By this time, Price had a new attorney, Robert Mann. Mann is one of the state's most respected Civil Rights Attorneys and he accused the attorney general's office of changing laws selectively to prosecute Price.
When Price and his attorney attempted to argue and explain America's history of changing laws to take advantage of the fear of young black men in society, the words fell on deaf ears. The judge sentenced Price to an additional 15 years in prison in an adult facility.
"People said we bent the system," Youngs said. "We didn't. We did our best within the rules."
For more than 10 years, the state worked to find other ways to extend Price's sentence. They used his refusal to submit to psychiatric testing (upon his attorney's advice, since he felt they were using it against him) to file a contempt charge that added another year to his sentence. He was charged with assault for prison fights. They even charged him with violation of probation while he was in prison, which critics say is a violation of Price's civil rights.
Eventually, judges, prosecutors and lawmakers around the country were questioning the manner by which the court systems in Rhode Island were engaging in their own form of vigilante justice. Given the fact that African-American males receive far worse prosecution for the same crimes and America's long history of lynching black men for crimes against white women, there were many who wondered if the system was allowing this case to further undermine its own credibility for all Americans.
In May 1997, Price appeared in front of Chief District Court Judge Albert DeRobbio after a jury convicted him of contempt of court. Typically, contempt charges lead to fines, not jail time. But that is what the prosecutors were asking for in the case of Price. As much as the judge was concerned about Price's past, he could not base his current sentence on those past crimes for which he had already paid his debt to society.
"I did not feel that I could, in conscience, sentence him to life on a contempt charge," DeRobbio said.
DeRobbio still took the extraordinary step of giving Price 25 years in prison, 10 to serve and 15 years if Price got into trouble in prison or refused treatment.
Price has continued to write letters to judges, courts and media describing his unfair treatment within the justice system. He argues that he has paid his debt to society and is not being treated fairly. Some also argue that if he had not killed white women, the charges would have been different.
"The state was effectively organized not to rehabilitate me, but to incarcerate me," Price said in court in 2004. "They were looking for anything to lock me up."
Price is currently scheduled to be released in the year 2020. By that time, he will be 46 years old.