A mong the many disturbing trends in American culture is a tendency—capitalized upon by several television networks—to treat the criminal justice system as entertainment.
Just flip through the channels sometime and you can see (real) murders packaged as though they were no more serious than the overstuffed brides on the next channel saying “yes” to their overpriced wedding dresses.
They aren’t. They’re devastating to families, sickening to societies and expensive to the jurisdictions in which they occur. That last, of course, is an aspect you won’t see portrayed neatly packaged into a television hour with six commercial breaks.
What violent crime cries out for, of course, is justice. That’s what happened last Wednesday in 20th District Court when 21-year-old Brandon Charles Cotton pleaded guilty to the 2011 shotgun slaying of Sandra Phillips of San Gabriel and accepted a life sentence without parole and without any appeals. He’s already serving it.
You can read the details of how that plea bargain was arrived at on page 1A. It was a wrenching decision for all involved and there aren’t any winners. Milam County taxpayers won’t have to foot a bill that could total $1 million for a death penalty trial but if that’s the only way justice could have been served it would have been money well spent.
Murder trials don’t come along often in rural areas of Texas but Milam County is in the midst of several. They take a great deal of skill to navigate through and this one was handled exceptionally well by our criminal justice system, notably Prosecutor Bill Torrey and 20th District Judge John Youngblood.
Last Wednesday an opportunity came to end what could have easily been a 5-to-10 year saga to the satisfaction of the most important persons in this terrible affair, the family of Mrs. Phillips.
And yes, it saved Milam County a lot of money. The case of Tanner Baker—charged with being Cotton’s accomplice in the shooting—is expected to cost no more than a quarter of what the Cotton trial would have.
And, yes, any prosecutor who didn’t consider cost as a factor in what happens under such circumstances isn’t doing their job.
But not the main factor. That’s justice. Was it served? Just remember, a life-without-parole sentence to a 21-year old is indeed a life sentence in every sense of the word.
Our county will put this behind us. But, at some deep level, the Phillips family never will.
What a sad, needless and soul-numbing affair.—M.B.