The Death Penalty for Marijuana Possession


TJIC alerts us to the tremendously disturbing story of Jonathan Magbie, a 27-year-old quadriplegic sentenced to ten days in jail for his first offense — possession of marijuana, a misdemeanor. Because the Washington D.C. jail was incompetent to meet his special medical needs, including his dependence on a ventilator, that was a death sentence — Magbie was dead within four days.

The law makes Judge Judith Retchin absolutely immune for sending Magbie to his foreseeable — in fact, probable — death. But she is morally culpable. I submit that it is not an exaggeration to say that Judge Judith Retchin murdered Jonathan Magbie. As one might say in a twisted real-life game of Clue, it was Judith Retchin, in the courtroom, with a brutally indifferent and incompetent prison system.

Shaw said “the worst sin towards our fellow creatures is not to hate them, but to be indifferent to them; that’s the essence of inhumanity.” Indifference and pretended helplessness, more than direct coercion, are the tools of bureaucratic tyranny both petty and grand. Indifference and learned incompetence kills people in government custody all of the time, or at least stands by as they are brutalized. Each person responsible for putting or keeping or caring for the prisoner there can shrug and hold up their hands and plausibly say “What can I do? I didn’t make the system, and I can’t do anything about it. I just do my job and go home at the end of the day.” This, they believe, absolves them of moral culpability for shoving someone into a disordered system.

Hence Judge Judith E. Retchin can sentence a first-time marijuana offender to jail despite knowing that the jail is completely unable to meet his needs, and despite the fact that the prosecutor doesn’t want him in jail for that reason; she can tell herself she’s simply a gear grinding away in a larger machine she does not control. There can be no doubt of Retchin’s knowledge of the situation:

Retchin understood the implications when she decided to incarcerate someone who used a wheelchair and needed a ventilator to breathe while sleeping. Months before his sentencing, Retchin called Magbie to a status hearing. He attended in a motorized wheelchair that he operated with his mouth.

“Mr. Magbie,” asked Retchin, “are you able to raise your right hand to take an oath?”

“No,” he said.

Retchin was reminded three times by the prosecutor that Magbie was a quadriplegic and that the prosecution didn’t want to try him or send him to jail.

· Malek Malekghasemi, associate medical director at the city’s Correctional Treatment Facility when Magbie entered the D.C. jail, called Retchin’s office and asked that she order that Magbie be sent to a hospital because the jail’s medical facilities could not meet his needs.

“Minutes later [Retchin’s clerk] called me and said [the] judge will not issue such an order,” Malekghasemi said.

He next called the Corrections Department’s counsel and spoke with an assistant. “I asked if they could possibly help me to convince the judge that I need to move this gentleman out of CTF to Greater Southeast Hospital. . . . I did not get a call back,” he said.

The judge did not listen or care about Magbie’s circumstances in court, and did not respond to calls from the jail officials best able to evaluate whether they could care for him. The resulting chain of events, as I said, was closer to probable than possible, as anyone with even a nodding acquaintance with the jail system would know.

The effective death sentence was not the first time Judge Retchin showed indifference to Magbie’s condition. Pneumonia is a deadly threat to quadriplegics. But what does Retchin care about that?

Judge: Good morning. Where is Mr. Magbie?

Lawyer: Your Honor, I wonder if the court would consider waiving his presence; he was hospitalized. He’s not hospitalized right now, but he was released earlier in the week having had a bout of pneumonia.

Judge: No, I would not waive his presence. He needs to be here.

Lawyer: I’ll see if I can get him here later in the day, your honor. But, could we waive his presence just for purposes of scheduling matters and then I’ll have him. . . .

Judge: I’ll issue a warrant for his arrest. It will be no bond as to Mr. Magbie. “

Colbert King of the Washington Post has been widely and justifiably praised for following this story and asking hard questions:

These questions need answering.

Why on earth should Jonathan, a first-time offender who had lived most of his life in a wheelchair as a quadriplegic and who required virtually round-the-clock nursing, have been sent to jail for simple possession of marijuana?

Why is it that even after the Corrections Department learned on Monday that inmate Jonathan Magbie needed a medical device the jail did not have and would not provide, and even after an associate medical director determined on Tuesday that Jonathan’s medical condition weighed against jail incarceration — why is it that he nonetheless languished in jail until Friday, the day he died?

Our friend TJIC is fond of the rhetorical flourish of saying “rope!” after reporting government misconduct, suggesting that the world would be a better place if many of the people who abuse their state authority wound up dangling from a lamppost. I usually pass that without comment, thinking it excessive — in no small part because I used to be a government official.

Not this time. Rope.

Follow-up 12/13: Today Patrick has a variation on the same theme that is, believe it or not, even more appalling –a story of how incompetent and indifferent federal stooges let a man die of penile cancer.

5 replies »

  1. I rarely comment and shrug off most things but this story is truly unbelievable for the heartlessness and appalling indifference to someone who on a daily basis struggles more than that judge has her whole life. Our country is in a bad bad state when we have someone doling out “justice” that can’t show compassion for someone with such huge disabilities. It was for freaking first time marijuana! I just can’t get over this! This young man’s death is forever on this woman’s hands. I hope she at some point understands this. True justice would see her becoming a quadriplegic at some point in her life. RIP Jonathan!

  2. Dishonorable Judge Judith Retchin has always been a racist judge. It’s well known. Now she’s a murderer – she’s gone beyond locking up blacks for a tremendous amount of years – for very minor offenses.

  3. With the not unlikely assumption that most of these commentators are atheist what’s all the fuss? A hunk of atoms shaped human wise (mereological nihilism) ceased all life functions. Whats the big deal? It’s not like someone with an immortal soul with an eternal destiny died or anything.

  4. “When one gives up Christian belief one thereby deprives oneself of the right to Christian morality. For the latter is absolutely not self-evident: one must make this point clear again and again, in spite of English shallow-pates.”

    “A man who held a newborn child in his hands approached a holy man. “What shall I do with this child?” he asked; “It is wretched, misshapen, and does not have life enough to die,” “Kill it!” shouted the holy man with a terrible voice; “and then hold it in your arms for three days and three nights to create a memory for yourself: never again will you beget a child this way when it is not time for you to beget.” — When the man had heard this, he walked away, disappointed, and many people reproached the holy man because he had counseled cruelty; for he had counseled the man to kill the child. “But is it not crueler to let it live?” asked the holy man.”

    “To speak of right and wrong per se makes no sense at all. No act of violence, rape,
    exploitation, destruction, is intrinsically “unjust,” since life itself is violent,
    rapacious, exploitative, and destructive and cannot be conceived as otherwise.”

    “The biblical prohibition “Thou shalt not kill” is a piece of naïveté compared with the seriousness of Life’s own “Thou shalt not” issued to decadence: “Thou shalt not procreate!”—Life itself recognizes no solidarity, no “equal right,” between the healthy and the degenerate parts of an organism. . . . Sympathy for the decadents, equal rights for the ill-constituted—that would be the profoundest immorality, that would be anti-nature itself as morality!”

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