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7/23/1998

Jim Hightower > Jim Hightower

Crime and punishment in conflict

 

When F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote that the rich "are different from you and me," he could have had in mind the special privileges being granted in Fauquier County, Virginia, to Susan Cummings.

Until recently, the 35-year-old heiress to an arms manufacturing fortune lived on her 350-acre Virginia estate with her lover. But then she got into trouble: She shot and killed her lover.

One reason the rich are different is that they generally get more and better lawyers than the rest of us can afford. Cummings was charged with first-degree murder, but pleaded self-defense and was convicted of voluntary manslaughter. Her sentence: 60 days in jail.

The rich are different, too, because the system handles them with kid-gloves, even when they go to jail. The women’s cellblock in Fauquier County Jail has six bunk beds in a 20-foot-by-18-foot room. To make Susan Cummings’ 60-day stay more pleasant, though, five women prisoners were transferred out of the cellblock so the heiress could serve her time in private. It costs county taxpayers $200-a-day to store the five other inmates elsewhere.

The sheriff’s department says the transfer is necessary to protect Cummings’ life from the other women who might resent her 60-day sentence, since they are serving far longer for things like forgery. The sheriff’s spokesman said, "A lot of these people are not in the polite realm of our society." But, as one of "these people" who got shipped-out put it: "She’s the one serving time for killing someone, not any of us."

Meanwhile, inmate Cummings gets to bring food in from the outside, and gets to have all the visitors she wants, for as long as she wants -- while other prisoners are limited to three visitors a week for a total of only 30 minutes.

As another county official said: "When somebody gets 60 days for shooting someone and five years for writing bad checks, it makes you wonder about the influence wealth has on our judicial system."

The moral is clear: If you commit a crime, be sure you’re rich.

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