It appears that parents, police and prosecutors in Harlan, Kentucky have a poor sense of humor and an even worse sense of criminal justice. A recent controversy began with a bad joke by politician and former gubernatorial candidate Otis “Bullman” Hensley at a grocery store. The joke to a mother and her two daughters would land Hensley in jail for three days and facing 10 years in jail.
Hensley is known as a jokester and not a particularly good one. Hensley said that his wife sent him to a local grocery store to buy ground beef. At the checkout counter, Hensley was next to a woman with her two nieces, ages 11 and 13. Hensley jokes that he would offer her a “fattening hog” for the two girls. It is a fairly standard joke — though the fattening hog part would be lost in most urban settings.
The father of the girls, who appears to have had both his judgment and humor surgically removed on a prior occasion, went to the local prosecutor to seek a criminal charge. One would think that any responsible prosecutor would tell the father that he needed to work on his sense of humor and toss him out of the office. Instead, because of an archaic legal system allowing citizens to swear out warrants without investigation, the local prosecutor issued a warrant for arrest and the police executed the warrant.
Hensley was confused. “Jay Leno makes jokes every night and makes millions, I make one joke and go to jail.” Well, I would not call his Leno material, but the point has some value. Hensely was charged with the absurd crime of attempted unlawful transaction with a minor.
It was only dismissed after Hensley was held for three days in jail and made a public apology to the family. The father then agreed in open court to forgive him and the prosecutor, who should never have brought the charge, declared it a success.
Prosecutor J.D. Smith told the Court “He absolutely meant no harm. It was a joke to him.” It would be a joke to most of mankind. The question is whether the police and prosecutors in the good hamlet of Harlan are jokes. The only apology in the courtroom should have been from Smith and the police for allowing a crank to convince them to bring a Class B felony charge and impose three days of jail for an obvious joke. Likewise, where was the judge in the courtroom? At a minimum, a bench admonition of the father was in order to tell him not to misuse the legal process because he is intellectually or socially incapable of understanding a joke.
In my view, this is a serious act of abuse, but officials are fortunate that Mr. Hensley has a very good sense of humor.
Part of the problem is that in Kentucky (besides having some obviously humor-challenged citizens), any citizen can obtain an arrest warrant by simply filing out a complaint with a local prosecutor. How much sense does that make? This case shows that Kentucky needs to enter the twenty-first century with a system that requires a modicum of investigation before a warrant is issued for arrest. However, there remains the problem of Smith and the police allowing Hensley, 52, to be arrested and jailed for three days. Hensley says that he repeatedly tried to apologize and tried to explain to Smith that it was just a joke, here. Smith still allowed him to be arrested and charged. Hensley’s wife Mae now says “He won’t say it anymore, I can tell you that.” Really, I know some civil libertarians who would love to take him into the same grocery store and have him make the same joke. It is clear that the prosecutor and police of Harlan could use some instruction on both criminal cases and obvious comedy.
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