What Just Happened? A Weekly Roundup of Politics

In a surprise move on Thursday, the Connecticut Supreme Court ruled that family members of the children and staff killed in the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary school shooting will be able to sue gun manufacturers who created the gun used in the massacre. While many of the parents’ claims were dismissed by the court, they did rule 4-3 that the parents had a right to sue based on false claims in the company’s advertising campaigns. This opens the door for families of victims to sue gun companies if they can prove these false claims may have influenced the shooter.

“CONSIDER YOUR MAN CARD REISSUED,” was one of the slogans used to sell the Bushmaster AR-15, the gun used in the Sandy Hook shooting by 20-year-old Adam Lanza. While it seems that the fight will continue as this ruling will likely be appealed to the US Supreme Court, it’s a big win for those in favor of stricter gun laws. In 2005, however, Congress passed the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act which does not allow people to sue firearm companies that produce weapons and retailers who sell them if the gun is used in mass shootings. No doubt that if this case does, in fact, reach the Supreme Court 2nd Amendment rights advocates will be out in full force. The NRA has been funneling money into this case as one of the co-defendants, Remington, is facing bankruptcy.

Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign chairman, was sentenced this week to a combined total of 7½ years in federal prison. The charges range from witness tampering, conspiracy, bank and tax fraud. He will get credit for time served (about 9 months) of which he spent in solitary confinement due to witness tampering and the court’s belief he would continue this behavior. He hasn’t been, what one would call, a cooperating witness. Those 9 months in solitary, though, have taken a toll on Manafort, and the previously wealthy (and healthy) man was presented in court in a wheelchair due to gout while wearing a green prison jumpsuit. He pleaded for leniency after failing to claim millions of dollars which he had earned as a consultant to Ukraine, none of which was taxed.

Moments after his sentence was revealed the NY District Attorney Cyrus Vance announced a whole new slew of charges against him at the state level, of which include 16 felony counts (mostly) for mortgage fraud. While Trump may choose to pardon Manafort for his federal crimes, he is unable to pardon him at the state level. This move by the southern district of New York and his comparatively low sentence hints that Manafort may have had to cooperate with the Mueller investigation knowing that a pardon from the President would not be his get-out-of-jail-free card.

While 7½ years in prison is a long time for anyone, it should be noted that the recommended sentencing guideline for prison time concurrent with his actions is 29-34 years. He’s serving roughly a quarter of the time that he “should” be. Compare that with Detroit’s former mayor Kwame Kilpatrick who was charged with similar crimes (the guideline for his case was 30 years of which he is currently serving a 28-year sentence). Kilpatrick is a black man, which opens up a broader discussion of white privilege in our criminal justice system.

A 2012 report by the federal government found that black men, on average, receive sentences roughly 19% longer than white men guilty of similar crimes. While it’s difficult to measure the overall social impact of white collar crimes like Manafort’s, as a nation we must recognize that sentencing is still largely imbalanced when it comes to race. On the surface, the Manafort sentencing seems loaded with privilege, but I guess we’ll have to wait and see what comes of the Mueller report to see if Manafort actually cooperated.

Speaking of cooperating witnesses and privilege, a Canadian man named Morrie Tobin charged with securities fraud gave a tip regarding a college bribery scandal to acquire leniency in his own case. At the center of the scandal is William Rick Singer, a college admissions “consultant” who coordinated dozens of successful admissions for students whose parents paid massive amounts of money to get them in. In addition to financial fraud, many of the involved cases pretended that the students were successful athletes, even going to the lengths of photoshopping their faces on other athletes while siphoning money to soccer, crew, tennis, water polo, and volleyball coaches. The scandal also includes falsifying SAT scores with compromised test proctors who either looked the other way as students cheated or took the tests themselves. Many of these students were placed in special test locations that were meant for students with disabilities.

The scandal and the Manafort case bring to light what many Americans have been grappling with for a long time: privilege. Privilege of the wealthy and white Americans give them unfair advantages to get ahead in the world. While we all know it’s a broken system, scandals like these help to crack the door open a bit further in a shift toward equity. There will be new laws written to prevent this in the future, and who knows, maybe the judge will actually throw the book at the players involved instead of giving them a Manafort — or a pass in layperson’s terms.  

Ann Lewis is an artist, activist, and writer based in Detroit. Her artwork reflects upon social and environmental justice issues.

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