Cook: 15 years, seven shotgun shells

Cook: 15 years, seven shotgun shells

August 13th, 2013 by David Cook in Opinion Columns

David Cook

Photo by Ashlee Culverhouse/Times Free Press.

Hixson's Ed Young just made national news. The Sunday New York Times, no less.

I just hope he's able to get a copy in federal prison.

"If you want to understand all that is wrong with America's criminal justice system, take a look at the nightmare experienced by Edward Young," Nicholas Kristof wrote.

If you don't know the story of Ed Young -- first expertly reported by this paper's Todd South -- then sit back, kiss all ideas of justice and prosecutorial decency goodbye, and enter the Kafka-esque tale best summed up in one dizzying sentence:

Young will spend the next 15 years in federal prison for possessing seven shotgun shells.

"I don't even know if they were functional," said his attorney, Chris Varner.

Perhaps the place to begin is the Armed Career Criminal Act: Anyone with three prior convictions (violent felonies or serious drug offenses) caught with a firearm faces a mandatory minimum sentence of 15 years in jail.

Yes, Young, 43, is a felon.

Nearly two decades ago, he did time for burglary. His targets?

"Houses they knew to be unoccupied," said Varner. "The last thing they wanted was violence."

(Never, not once, was he ever accused, much less found guilty, of carrying a weapon. Remember that.)

Released from prison, Young turned his life around: married to wife Stacy, four beloved kids, working until rheumatoid arthritis turned him into a stay-at-home dad, and, apparently, generous neighbor.

When a neighbor's husband died, Young helped the new widow sell off some belongings, taking some furniture to a flea market but keeping behind at his home one chest of drawers.

Inside were seven shotgun shells.

Not a handgun. Not even a shotgun.

Just seven shells.

Soon, hunting for a suspect in local robberies, police came knocking. Young let them in. They searched his home, and found the shells.

"It is not against Tennessee state law for a felon to have a shotgun shell," said Varner.

But the Hamilton County district attorney didn't pick up the case. U.S. Attorney Bill Killian did.

Remember the Armed Career Criminal Act? Killian took that standard and went for the throat: 15 years in jail.

Had the case remained in county court, Young would have been sentenced to something far more realistic.

"Ten to 16 months," said Varner.

Young's 15-year-seven-shell sentence is longer than Billy Long's jail sentence, the former Hamilton County sheriff in prison for everything but the kitchen sink: extortion, money laundering, drugs, weapons.

"[Long's] sentence was almost four years shorter than Ed Young's," said Varner.

Mandatory minimum sentencing handcuffs local judges who otherwise would be able to use things like common sense and wisdom in presiding over a case like Young's. (During the trial, presiding Judge Curtis Collier even instructed the Youngs on ways to fight mandatory minimum sentences.)

Varner, citing the Eighth Amendment's prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment, hopes this fall the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals will overturn the ruling for being grossly disproportionate.

"I just ... I mean, it wasn't ... it wasn't my intent," Young told Collier in the courtroom. Soon after, Young's eldest son ran from the courtroom, weeping.

What is the intent of mandatory minimums? It is to criminalize people for life? It is to seek the meanest punishment? To fill our jails?

"With less than 5 percent of the world's population, the United States has almost one-quarter of the world's prisoners," wrote Kristof.

Including one Ed Young, 43 and disabled, a good dad spending the next 15 years in federal prison and its criminals, all thanks to prosecutorial zeal (Kristof hinted at Killian as Hugo's Inspector Javert) and seven shotgun shells.

"I need help," Young's wife, Stacy, said. "I need him home with me."

So every other weekend, she drives down to the Atlanta prison. Policy there dictates only four people per visit, so Stacy drives down Saturday morning with two children, then, she drives them back home, wakes up Sunday morning, and makes the trip again with the other two children.

It would be easier, of course, for them all to go down at once, spend the night in a motel.

But they can't afford it.

And, one of the children -- the one with the broken heart -- might wake other hotel guests.

"The little one cries himself to sleep every night," said Stacy.

Good. No mercy. Teach him a lesson. After all, isn't that what punishments are supposed to do?

Contact David Cook at dcook@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter at DavidCookTFP.