Mimesis Law
16 December 2017

Dylan Schumaker: Reasonable Lenity or White Privilege?

February 28, 2017 (Fault Lines) — Fault Lines contributors have previously discussed the need for criminal defendants to develop a rapport with the trier of fact at sentencing. That doesn’t always mean flaunting that you and the judge have a lot in common. At least, it didn’t work for Dylan Schumaker, who hoped that being blond and white might stop the judge from giving him the maximum legal sentence after beating a toddler to death.

Dylan Schumaker was the babysitter of choice for his girlfriend Ashlee Smith one evening in March of last year while Smith went to work. At 8 PM on March 19, 2013, Schumaker called law enforcement, claiming the nearly one-year-old Austin Smith was unresponsive. It took Springfield, NY cops a few moments of investigation to figure out that something was rotten about Schumaker’s claims.

Erie County Sheriff Tim Howard says deputies arriving on scene immediately noticed the substantial bruising all over Austin’s body, and especially around his face.

“The mother’s 16-year-old boyfriend struck the child repeatedly about the face and the cause of death was determined to be blunt force trauma about the head,” Sheriff Howard said. 

Schumaker was charged with second-degree murder and tried accordingly. This was not a problem, as far as he was concerned. Murdering a one-year-old is small potatoes to a court when you’re white, like the judge, and have the ability to put on a sad face at will.

“I’m a 16-year-old blond,” [Judge M. William] Boller read to Schumaker in a now-viral video. “Probably all I have to do is cry, and they’re going to feel sorry for me,” Schumaker told [his mother,] referring to the jury.”

At the sentencing hearing, Schumaker put on his sad face and cried just as he planned. It didn’t work very well. Justice Boller sentenced Dylan Schumaker to 25 to life for his involvement in the death of Austin Smith.

Naturally, people took to social media and proclaimed this a victory for truth, justice, and the American way. They denounced Schumaker for his “white privilege” and his attempt to use it to influence a sentencing hearing. In every respect, Schumaker’s detractors were right.

Unfortunately for those who would celebrate this as a “victory” for justice, the New York Appellate Division later imposed a lesser sentence on Schumaker for his wrongdoings. They didn’t absolve him of guilt. They just felt 25 to life was too harsh a sentence, given his history of mental illness, so they knocked the total incarceration time down to 18 years before Schumaker would be eligible for parole.

We agree with defendant, however, that the sentence imposed is unduly harsh and severe in light of defendant’s youth and lack of parental guidance, his lack of prior criminal convictions, and his mental health issues. Thus, we modify the judgment by reducing the sentence, as a matter of discretion in the interest of justice (see CPL 470.156[b]), to an indeterminate term of incarceration of 18 years to life.

Maybe the Appellate division saw Schumaker’s flippant remarks as an indicator of mental health problems. It’s possible they felt a touch of empathy towards Dylan, though that’s highly unlikely since they denied all his other claims for post-conviction relief. The most plausible reason for the New York Appellate Division’s leniency is that they realized a kid did something stupid when talking to his mom on a recorded jail telephone line and so they exercised a bit of discretion.

Once all the social media outlets get wind of Dylan Schumaker’s sentence reduction, the predictable response will be calls for greater incarceration, stronger sentences, and an increase in penalties for those who hurt children. It’s understandable, because most people don’t deal with the moral ambiguity of criminal law on a daily basis. It’s far easier to see people like Dylan Schumaker as the enemy, and make them a target for longer sentences, harsher penalties, and comprehensive “tough on crime” legislation.

There’s another lesson we can take from Schumaker’s sentence, and its subsequent reduction. Ken White offers up that alternative viewpoint, and it’s one to remember every time a clickbait articles crosses your Facebook feed.

We see [results like this] as a grim reminder of the brokenness of the system.  We recognize it as what makes the system impossible for many of our clients to trust or respect.  And we know that when there’s a backlash against mercy and lenient sentences – when cases like this or the “affluenza” kid inspire public appetite for longer sentences – it’s not the rich who pay the price.  It’s the ones who never saw much mercy to begin with.

Dylan Schumaker received mercy when none was necessary. That’s not an indicator of “white privilege” or “affluenza.” If his treatment was exceptional, it’s only because many defendants will never see mercy to begin with.

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