Bliss Worrell: A Token Punishment from a Broken System
Oct. 30, 2015 (Mimesis Law) – – As Martha Stewart discovered, lying to a police officer can lead to time in a federal penitentiary. Lying for a police officer, on the other hand, is a much less serious offense. Bliss Worrell was sentenced to eighteen months of probation for prosecuting the victim of a crime to protect his attacker.
Bliss Worrell was drunk at a baseball game when she got a call from her friend, Detective Thomas A. Carroll. He joked with her about how the man who had stolen his daughter’s credit card had been arrested, how he was being held in another room. Later, that night, he would call her and tell her that he had beaten the man so badly, he had broken his foot and might not be able to keep training for their marathon.
As reported in her plea agreement, she laughed about it that night with other prosecutors over drinks.
The next morning, she gleefully repeated the story to her office. Their only regret, according to the plea agreement, (and a group text message) was that a young prosecutor had overheard them laughing about it the night before, and might tell someone what had happened.
And what had happened was gruesome.
Carroll had entered the room where the man, Michael Waller was handcuffed. Then he and another officer threw Waller against the wall, threw a chair at him, and finally shoved a pistol down his throat, hard enough to chip a tooth, before deciding, ultimately, not to execute him.
Before the beating even began, Waller had screamed for help, because the officers who had transported him told him what was waiting for him when he got to the station. The officers just laughed.
That day, Bliss talked to the arresting officer, who told her that Waller had attempted to “escape” by “wiggling his body,” thus mandating the beating he had received. When Worrell later asked Detective Carroll why the arresting officer had seemed annoyed as he told her these details, the detective explained that he was “’upset because this was the first time he had to take one for the team.’ [She] took that to mean this was the first time the arresting officer had to lie and cover for a fellow officer.”
Despite having been told repeatedly by Detective Carroll that the entire account of the escape was a lie to cover a retaliatory beating, she charged Waller with resisting arrest anyway, and made sure that the judge and the defense didn’t know what she knew.
It’s not clear exactly how Worrell got caught. Maybe some conscientious prosecutor stepped in. Or maybe the whole beating was caught on camera, and even Internal Affairs felt the need to step in. But her sentence is less than a slap on the wrist.
Worrell is the face of the way that the justice system dehumanizes the people it processes. To her, Waller wasn’t a person. He wasn’t even a dog. He was someone whose beating, without consequence, was simply a hilarious reaction to the theft of a credit card. Others in her office agreed.
Waller, you see, is the sort of person that you can generally beat up. He has a long rap sheet. He’s homeless and bipolar.
And when confronted by someone who clearly represents everything that is wrong with our justice system, federal prosecutors chose to give her straight probation. Not for obstruction of justice or denial of civil rights, or even perjury, but for misprision, the old-timey crime of concealing the commission of a felony.
Maybe it’s just that Worrell knew how to play the game. She refused to cooperate with Internal Affairs or give up any information at all about Carroll until a plea was on the table. Unlike many defendants, she knew how to protect her rights.
Or maybe the leniency she received was from her very similarity to those prosecuting her. She’s the daughter of a Major League baseball player. She’s white and well-spoken. The prosecutors could sympathize with her desire to get along with police officers, to minimize the rights and downplay the humanity of the accused.
What if prosecutors had taken their role seriously here? The idea of general deterrence, that criminals respond to the consequences that befall others, generally makes little sense. But prosecutors are a group whose job it is to know the consequences of crimes. And we generally punish more harshly when a crime is easy to conceal, requires specialized skills, and abuses the public trust. There was ample reason to impose significant punishment in this case.
Whatever the reason, the sentence sends a clear message. If you lie for a police officer, and by some million to one miracle, you are actually caught for it, there is the chance that you will be prosecuted. There is the possibility that there won’t simply be a deferred prosecution agreement if you come clean about what happened. And then you may get probation and not be able to practice law any more.
Even Worrell didn’t seem too chagrined. Here she is, shortly after her conviction, grinning like an idiot as she discusses her plea.
As for Worrell’s office, The St. Louis Post Dispatch reports that her former boss claims that all the bad eggs who heard about the beating have left, calling the incident “the worst thing that’s happened to me in 20 years as a prosecutor.” But whatever malice in the air led to Waller’s treatment here, it’s unlikely to disperse with the token replacement of a few bad apples.