A Blasphemy Conviction in Kansas
Taking a bold stand against a non-existent threat, Kansas Governor Sam Brownback signed a measure that would ban judges in that state from making rulings derived from “Islamic Shariah law.” Presumably this would protect residents of the Jayhawk State from the prospect of being punished for committing blasphemy against Mohammed. However, the measure leaves judges free to inflict draconian punishments for other forms of public impiety. Witness the case of Michael Gaines.
In July 2008, Mr. Gaines – who looks and sounds like practically every character ever played by Samuel L. Jackson — was sentenced to thirteen years in prison. This was ostensibly for “Battery of a Law Enforcement Officer” during what was described as a “scuffle” in the Sedgwick County Jail.
At the time, Gaines was awaiting trial for the actual crime of robbery. His alleged act of battery did not involve punching, kicking, or otherwise striking a jail guard, nor did it involve a weapon of any kind. Instead, the deputies claimed that he had spit on them – and that because Gaines was HIV-positive, this act made them fear for their lives.
HIV cannot be transmitted through spitting, a fact acknowledged by the prosecutor and by Rebecca Pilshaw, who at the time was a District Judge. Furthermore, the only “evidence” presented against Gaines consisted of the accusations by the supposed victims, who – as law enforcement officers – were trained to lie and belong to a professional cohort that is given official permission to do so.
Gaines was convicted of battery because his accusers were state-licensed practitioners of aggressive violence – a fact he pointed out during his sentencing hearing before Pilshaw.
“You’re not respecting my authority,” lectured Pilshaw.
“You’re not respecting me,” Gaines replied without losing his composure. “Respect goes both ways. You’re just a woman with a robe on – just a woman, a human being just like I am.”
At that point, Gaines’s decorum slipped, giving Pilshaw the opportunity to reproach him for daring to “cuss” in such supposedly hallowed surroundings.
How dare the infidel defile a room consecrated to the administration of State coercion!
Gaines compounded his blasphemy by uttering a barnyard expletive when Pilshaw insisted that “All the evidence” demonstrated that he “deliberately” assaulted the deputies when he “hocked up saliva.”
“I didn’t hock up no saliva … and you’re going to believe those lies,” Gaines said, his voice heavy with weary disgust. “You’re going to believe their lies, because they’re wearing uniforms.”
As Pilshaw taunted him from the bench, Gaines referred to an actual act of felonious assault – the beating, on the previous February 15, of an inmate named Richards, who was so severely injured that he was left on life support in a nearby hospital.
As Gaines looked contemptuously in the direction of an officer he described as a “rogue-ass deputy,” Pilshaw snapped at him: “Here! Look at me! I’m part of this!”
“You ain’t got to scream at me, b*tch!” Gaines retorted, causing the judge to gasp in offended surprise.
I must confess that this gratuitous act of verbal abuse provoked a similar reaction from me. No matter what injustice had been done to Michael Gaines, there was no reason to insult an innocent canine by comparing her to Rebecca Pilshaw.
Actually, Gaines was trying to make a point:
“You gonna raise your voice at me? I’m gonna raise my voice at you. You’re just a b*tch in a robe.”
At that point Assistant D.A. Kevin O’Connor – who was at least as deserving of the epithet as Pilshaw – decided to join in the fun.
“I appreciate Mr. Gaines making my point for me,” whined O’Connor from the sidelines in a transparent effort to goad the detainee. This had the predictable effect of provoking Gaines into a foul-mouthed tirade.
As the shackled detainee was flanked by armed deputies and dragged off to a cell, O’Connor – displaying the giddy viciousness of a playground bully tormenting a helpless and outnumbered kid – indulged in some risk-free tough guy posturing.
“Anytime, Mr. Gaines,” sneered O’Connor to the handcuffed prisoner’s back as he was led out of the room.
“I couldn’t believe it,” commented Pilshaw in her personal blog the following day. “Here he was being accused of disrespecting authority and he starts in with the cussing and the insults.”
This statement can be considered a confession against interest: Although Pilshaw insisted that the 13-year prison sentence was justified by the “severity” of Gaines’s supposed attack on the detention deputies, she characterized his offense as “disrespecting authority.”
Whatever actual crimes Michael Haines may have committed, he never stole thirteen years from the life of another human being.
A few months after Pilshaw sent Gaines to prison, Sedgwick County voters wisely threw her off the bench. By the time her career came to an inglorious end, Pilshaw had been given three reprimands for ethics violations and judicial misconduct. She had also earned a reputation as an ill-tempered, self-dramatizing, frequently abusive figure. As one profile observed, Pilshaw wielded a “heavy gavel…. [S]he was known for pushing sentencing guidelines to their limits to give the most prison time to the toughest offenders.”
When dealing with offenders in uniform, Pilshaw wielded a gavel made of balsa wood.
During her years as a judge, Pilshaw – like most people in that disreputable profession – displayed a tribal attachment to prosecutors, police, and others who are part of the government’s punitive apparatus. Ten years ago, she presided over a suppression hearing dealing with the Wichita PD’s disagreeably named SCAT (Special Community Action Team) unit, which carried out federally subsidized narcotics operations.
In 1999, SCAT operators arrested a local man named Terry Marck on drug charges after conducting an illegal search of his home. Merck’s defense attorney was able to obtain a Wichita PD internal affairs memo documenting that SCAT had engaged in what was called “a pattern of unlawful searches, arrests, intimidation, and other abusive practices.”
On August 16, 2002, Pilshaw – acknowledging that at least half of the SCAT-produced cases she examined involved constitutional violations and serious misconduct — grudgingly threw out Marck’s conviction. As she did so, however, she lauded the offending officers, praising one for his “fine police instinct” and describing another as “a rising star” within the department.
Even though SCAT was an armed menace to the community, Pilshaw praised it for “getting the baddest of the bad guys off the street” – meaning, in this instance, “bad guys” who acted without government sanction.
In announcing her decision, Pilshaw insisted that she and the police were “on the same team” and that regardless of the crimes the police commit under the color of their supposed authority, “Mr. Marck is the bad guy here.”
During her disgraceful 15-year career on the bench, cases tried in Rebecca Pilshaw’s court were frequently reversed on appeal. One particularly egregious example was provided by the 2008 case of Luther Kemble, who was convicted of sexual assault on a minor and given a sentence of 25 years to life.
In September 2010, the Kansas State Supreme Court overturned the conviction, ruling that during the alleged victim’s testimony, Pilshaw had coached and guided the witness. The trial transcript disclosed several instances in which the girl, when questioned by the prosecution, had explicitly recanted the accusation, or said that she “couldn’t remember” details of the alleged abuse.
Clearly regarding those answers to be unsuitable, Pilshaw – in the words of the State Supreme Court – acted as “an advocate for the prosecution,” overtly encouraging the girl to change her testimony. At one point she obliquely threatened the witness with a perjury charge.
After extracting the desired accusation that Kemble had improperly touched the teenager, Pilshaw commended her – in nauseatingly condescending terms — for conforming to the desired script: “I’m glad that you finally decided to answer like a big girl and I appreciate it very much.”
Kemble was set free. Michael Gaines disappeared into the labyrinthine prison system.
Gaines wasn’t sentenced to more than a decade in a cage because he had stolen something from another person, or committed a legitimate act of assault. He was given a sentence worthy of a Shariah law court (at least as such tribunals are commonly perceived in this country) because of his defiant refusal to play the assigned role of penitent in a State-scripted ritual. His tongue had peeled away the pretense that Rebecca Pilshaw was anything other than an officious, self-absorbed woman in a cheap robe, or that the deputies who testified against him were anything other than armed men in unsightly costumes.