A decade before Bob Dylan immortalized Ruben “Hurricane” Carter, he sang about another boxer named Davey Moore. Moore was a world champion fighter in the 1950s and early 1960s who died after sustaining brain injuries in what became his final fight.
In 1964, the year after Moore’s death, Bob Dylan released a song pointedly titled, “Who Killed Davey Moore?” The verses walk through everyone involved in the fight business, from the fans to the managers to the boxers themselves, and tells how each group disclaimed responsibility for Moore’s brutal death.
In Dylan’s telling, the referee says he can’t be blamed even though he could have stopped the fight in an earlier round because the fans would have booed him. And on and on it goes: the fans just wanted to see a good fight; the managers didn’t know Moore was not feeling well; the gamblers never laid a glove on Moore; and the boxer who knocked him out said he was just doing his job. In between each denial of responsibility, Dylan wails: “Who killed Davey Moore? Why and what’s the reason for?”
This is art-as-social commentary at its best, using song to shine a light on injustice. The plausible rationale Dylan puts in the mouth of each group does not change the underlying question of how it came to be that a 29-year-old athlete with a young family could be killed in front of a cheering public.
Dylan’s song has not left my head since shortly after I learned about the shocking prison sentence handed to Michelle Taylor last month in Elko County. Last November, a jury found the 34-year-old Ms. Taylor guilty of forcing a 13-year-old boy to touch her breast through her clothing and asking the boy to have sex. That was the entirety of her crime. No sex took place, but her actions met the state law’s definition of lewdness with a minor under 14.
So, on April 15th, Ms. Taylor was sentenced to the penalty set forth under state law: mandatory life in prison. The sentence is the toughest penalty ever issued to a woman for a sex-related offense in Nevada. If Ms. Taylor lives to the age of average life expectancy, she will spend the next 46 years in jail and then die there. And Nevada’s taxpayers will spend more than $1 million to house, feed and provide medical care for her.
Why did Ms. Taylor, a first-time sex offender, receive a sentence usually reserved for murderers and repeat violent offenders? It turns out the answer is as elusive as figuring out who killed Davey Moore.
District Court Judge Michael Memeo, who issued the sentence openly, questioned why Ms. Taylor had not been offered a deal to plead guilty for less time. Alas, without such a deal, the judge said, he had no choice but to impose a life sentence (with parole eligibility after 10 years).
Were the prosecutors responsible for the absurdly harsh sentence? After all, they had discretion to charge her with any number of crimes that carried different penalties, but they chose to prosecute her under this law. The prosecutors also could have offered Ms. Taylor a plea deal.
No, no, it’s not our fault, said Elko County District Attorney Gary Woodbury. He pointed to the Nevada Legislature, noting that in 2007, the legislature amended the state’s lewdness statute by imposing a blanket mandatory life sentence for all offenders. “I don’t agree that the Nevada … legislature should have made this a mandatory sentence,” DA Woodbury told http://KOLOTV.com">KOLOTV.com. “I think it’s dumb. But they didn’t ask me about that.”
I can’t imagine Nevada’s lawmakers are going to accept responsibility for Michelle Taylor’s ridiculous sentence, either. The legislature is out of session but I can just hear the members saying how necessary it was to make the life sentence mandatory because the people of Nevada want tough penalties for child predators and those wishy-washy judges simply cannot be trusted.
Unlike Davey Moore, Michelle Taylor committed a crime for which she deserves punishment. What she did to that 13-year-old boy was wrong and only she is to blame. But her sentence created a second injustice, a punishment worse than the crime itself. Mandatory minimum sentences, one-size-fits-all penalties that prevent a judge from considering the unique factors in a given case, often produce unjust results because not every crime and not every offender is the same.
Bob Dylan knew who killed Davey Moore. It was no one; it was everyone. It was a society whose choice of entertainment resulted in a needless death. Michelle Taylor was not killed like Davey Moore, but her life was taken away. And because the mandatory sentencing laws that failed her are passed purportedly for our benefit, we all share responsibility. We can demand change, and so we must.
Kevin Ring is a freelance writer in Kensington, Md., who writes for nonprofit criminal justice reform groups.