There is a deeply disturbing ruling out of Mississippi where the state supreme court affirmed the sentence of Willie Nash for having a cellphone in the Newton County Jail. He received an absurd 12-year sentence. The decision not only shows how our criminal justice system continues to disproportionate sentencing but also how the Eighth Amendment has been effectively gutted as a tool to address such cases.
Willie Nash was booked in the Newton County Jail for a misdemeanor charge and he clearly did not understand that it was a crime to have the phone since he asked a jailer to charge his smartphone. The phone was confiscated and turned over to the sheriff. While Nash first denied ownership, the phone was unlocked when Nash gave the sheriff deputy his code. It found photos from the jail.
Mississippi Code Section 47-5-193, prohibits inmates from possessing “any weapon, deadly weapon, unauthorized electronic device, contraband item, or cell phone or any of its components or accessories to include, but not limited to, Subscriber Information Module (SIM) cards or chargers.” Even on the low end, the crime is severely punished at three years. It could result in as much as 15 years. The trial judge bizarrely gave Nash 12 years. It was a failure of both prosecutorial and judicial discretion, but it was still within the range of discretion. Thus, the Mississippi Supreme Court upheld the sentence.
The Court could have distinguished under 47-5-193 between deadly weapons and phones in the range of sentencing. However, it is not expressly required. In other words, it is a matter of discretion. Presiding Justice Leslie D. King wrote that he felt locked into the language but that the the case “seems to demonstrate a failure of our criminal justice system on multiple levels.”
“Cases like Nash’s are exactly why prosecutors and judges are given wide discretion. Nash served his time for his previous convictions and stayed out of trouble with the law for many years. He has a wife and three children who rely on him. His crime was victimless, and the facts of the case lend themselves to an interpretation that his crime was accidental and likely caused by a failure in booking procedures. Nash did not do anything nefarious with his phone, and he certainly did not hide his phone from law enforcement. While I do not think this Court can find under the law that the trial court abused its discretion in sentencing, it is a case in which, in my opinion, both the prosecutor and the trial court should have taken a more rehabilitative, rather than punitive, stance.”
That is an understatement where an inmate voluntarily hands over his phone and then agrees to unlock it. While he had a record, King noted that Nash showed signs of rehabilitation and has a wife and children.
The case is an outrage caused by a trial judge who failed to exercise a modicum of judgment or proportionality in sentencing. The result is a travesty of justice.
Nash’s tentative release date is Feb. 2, 2029.
Here is the opinion: Nash v. State of Mississippi