Drop by the H. Carl Moultrie building on Indiana Avenue NW on any given day and watch as Superior Court judges mete out justice to people in orange prison jumpsuits who have failed to do right by their fellow citizens. But how about when the criminal justice system renders an injustice itself -- one so egregious that it results in a tragic death and an irrevocable shattering of lives of family and friends? What happens when the upright does wrong?
Make no mistake about it, Superior Court Judge Judith Retchin knew what she had on her hands when she sentenced 27-year-old quadriplegic Jonathan Magbie on Sept. 20 to 10 days in jail for simple possession of marijuana. Why she decided to incarcerate Magbie, totally dependent, unable to breathe reliably on his own -- and a first-time offender -- remains an unanswered question that court officials would just as soon see go away. It won't. It can't. The power of government took Jonathan Magbie off the streets. The power of government put him behind bars. And Magbie was in the government's custody when he died.
Magbie's disability was no mystery to Retchin.
Three months before he was sentenced, Magbie was called by Retchin to a status hearing at which he was expected to plead guilty. Retchin said she wanted truthful answers. To make certain Magbie could be prosecuted for any false statement, she told him she was going to ask the court clerk to place him under oath. "Do you understand, Mr. Magbie?" Retchin asked. "Yes," Magbie said.
"Mr. Magbie," asked Retchin, "are you able to raise your right hand to take an oath?"
"No," he said. Retchin then told Magbie, "Listen to what the court clerk is saying. I understand because of your physical limitations you won't be able to raise your right hand, but you still will be under oath if you agree after she gives you the oath." Magbie, five feet tall, his growth stunted since the accident that left him paralyzed at age 4, seated in the motorized wheelchair that he operated with his chin, swore to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.
After that there was no way Magbie's condition could have slipped Retchin's mind. Three times, Charles Stimson, the assistant U.S. attorney prosecuting the Magbie case, saw fit to give the judge a reminder.
"Before I go forward," Stimson told Retchin in open court, "I would like the record to be clear that Mr. Magbie is in a wheelchair. As I understand it from numerous discussions with [Magbie's lawyer], he's a quadriplegic. And that should be very clear on the record at this point before I go forward and the court makes further inquiry."
Retchin merely thanked Stimson and moved on to accept Magbie's guilty plea.
Stimson kept trying to get it through Retchin's head that Magbie was no threat. During a confidential bench conference, Stimson cited Magbie's condition as a reason why the government did not want to take the case to trial or to send him to jail. Stimson told Retchin that "the jury appeal to a person in a wheelchair . . . is very high because he can't do anything for himself." Moments later, Stimson explained: "We felt that if we took this to trial, the jury would acquit Magbie because he can't really do much."
But nothing could stop Retchin from treating Magbie as a danger to society.
Well, you might ask, didn't the police find Magbie and his co-defendant, Bernard Beckett, seated in a Hummer, a $50,000 to $70,000 vehicle, in a Southeast D.C. neighborhood? And didn't the police search Magbie and find $1,502 at the time of his arrest? Wasn't a gun in the car?
True, but that's not the whole truth. What the police may have suspected was a case of drug dealers in a luxury vehicle purchased through ill-gotten gains was anything but.
Beckett was Magbie's cousin and driver as well as a resident in Magbie's home. The Hummer was in the name of Magbie's brother. The gun was placed on Magbie by Beckett, at Magbie's request when the cops pulled them over. Magbie's lawyer, Boniface Cobbina, told Retchin that the gun was in the car for protection because Magbie and his family lived in a community with a high number of vehicle thefts.