WE ARE PLEASED to note that Virginia Gov. Mills Godwin granted a pardon to David Alan Etheridge the other day. Mr. Etheridge, as you may recall, was a victim of that wave of hysteria over drug usage that swept the country in the early 1970s. His crimes were selling small amounts of "soft" drugs - less than a half ounce of marijuana, less than one-eighth ounce of phenobarbital and 49 tablets of LSD - to an undercover policeman. His punishment, as decreed by a Virginia jury, was 120 years in prison. The trial judge cut that sentence to 40 years - still more time than you get in Virginia for second-degree murder - and the pardon by Gov. Godwin has now reduced it to the almost five years Mr. Etheridge has already served.
Attitudes in this country toward marijuana and similar drugs have changed sharply since 1972 when Mr. Etheridge went to jail. Then, the tie between hard drugs like heroin and the lesser ones was believed by many to be significant. As a result, the all-out campaign against trafficking in heroin that the federal government was waging influenced the way in which many citizens regarded those who handled even small amounts of marijuana. Members of the jury that sentenced Mr. Etheridge thought they were making an example of him that would discourage the use of all drugs. Now, however, it is becoming clear that the tie between hard drugs and others, like marijuana, is not significant, and even the federal government is urging relaxation of punishment for the use of marijuana while maintaining its vigilance against heroin. In this context, the sentence imposed on Mr. Etheridge appears to have provided not only an unneeded and useless example but to have been a senseless abuse of power.
Besides reflecting this changed attitude toward certain drugs, this case underlines the need for change in the old Virginia practice of having juries impose sentences in criminal cases.The five other young people arrested with Mr. Etheridge pleaded guilty and were sentenced by a judge; none of them received more than five years in prison. Mr. Etheridge, however, insisted upon his constitutional right to a jury trial and was rewarded with that 120-year sentence. While this is a gross example of what happens under Virginia's jury-sentencing practice, it is not at all unusual. The effect of that practice is to discourage defendants from exercising their right to be tried by a jury out of fear that the jury will be inflamed by some aspect of their case - as the jury was in this case by community hysteria - and impose a sentence of absurd proportions. Mr. Etheridge may be able to find some solace in the fact that the injustice imposed on him by the State of Virginia might influence some lawmakers to reconsider the whole jury-sentencing procedure.