“The Lord works in many ways,” declared 14 year veteran Oklahoma District Court Judge Mike Norman, 69, after sentencing a teenager in his courtroom convicted of manslaughter to ten years of church attendance instead of any time in jail.
After completing his sentence, the kid will have the charges removed from his record. It will be just as though the incident never happened.
Of course, the dead boy will still be dead.
The judge’s pastor was in the courtroom at the time.
To Hell with the law Judge Norman reckons.
Why follow the law when he can follow Jesus?
Not only had he handed down such a sentence before, but he’d required one man to bring the church program back with him when he reported to court.
This renegade judge, who has sworn a solemn oath to uphold the law and the Constitution, actually fancies himself as an unabashed instrument of the lord. “I’ve done a little bit of this kind of thing before, but never on such a serious charge,” he told reporters.
He thinks it’s his job as a judge to lead the hapless captives before him to Jesus. “I told my preacher I thought I led more people to Jesus than he had but, then again, more of my people have amnesia. They soon forget once they get out of jail.”
Sixteen-year-old Tyler Alred, after engaging in a bout of underage drinking and driving, crashed his Chevrolet pickup truck into a tree ejecting and killing his friend and passenger instantly. Later he pled guilty to first-degree manslaughter, a serious felony.
In the courtroom, an emotional scene between the victim’s family and the defendant played out after statements from the dead boy’s mother, father and two sisters were read during the sentencing hearing. The victim’s father and defendant stood up in court, turned toward each other and embraced.
“At that moment, it sure became a reality to me that I would sentence this boy to church” to help set him on the right path, Norman, a member of First Baptist Church in Muskogee, said. “There’s nothing I can do to make this up to the family.”
“Only time will tell if we’ve saved Tyler Alred’s life,” said Norman.
“It’s not going to be automatic, I guarantee you,” Norman said of the church sentence on future manslaughter charges.
That’s for sure. You can bet that if the defendant were a non-believer or someone else the judge didn’t like he’d be rotting away in prison right now.
“I usually represent outlaws and criminals,” defense attorney Donn Baker told reporters. “This is a kid that made a mistake. I think he’s worth saving.”
Others don’t make mistakes? Someone else is not worth saving?
You see, that’s just one of the many problems with a sentence like this. It’s unauthorized. It’s arbitrary. It’s unlawful. It’s unconstitutional.
A little Christian boy gets a break while others will have the full force of the law thrown at them, especially those who might not share this judge’s religious belief.
A judge is not supposed to represent the interests of the defendant, or the family of the victim, or to do what he thinks is right outside of the law. His duty is to represent the people of his jurisdiction by following the dictates of the law. That’s what the people elected him to do.
“There are a lot of people who say I can’t do what I did. They’re telling me I can’t legally sentence someone to church,” Judge Norman admits.
But what does he care about what the law and the Constitution say he can or can’t do? He’s not judging for the benefit of the law or the people.
He’s not observing his oath of office.
He’s judging for Jesus.
"One gentleman from Missouri left a message on my phone,” said Judge Norman. “He said judges can't order people to go to church. People are calling from all around the country. I live in the Bible Belt, though. The Bible is still alive down here; churches are still open. I'm sure those people are right, but they're going to have to do what they want to do."
Oh, I see. He lives in the Bible Belt. That entitles him to disregard the law.
And Norman is standing by his sentence as the right thing to do -- even if it may not have been the constitutional thing to do. He flat out admits that this sentence would not pass a legal challenge -- but he doesn't believe either side will seek an appeal.
He knows that what he has done is not legal but he just doesn’t care.
He also admits that this is something he has done in the past, especially in child support cases. He does it when he feels like it; when the spirit of the lord moves him; when he wants to impose his religion.
"Both families were satisfied with the decision," Norman said in an interview. "I talked to the district attorney before I passed sentence. I did what I felt like I needed to do."
"It's my understanding that this judge has recommended church in previous sentences, and I believe that goes too far," said Ryan Kiesel, executive director of the Oklahoma chapter of the ACLU. "This, however, actually making it a condition of a sentence, is a clear violation of the Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment."
"The Constitution is not exercised at your discretion," he added. "You take an oath to uphold it all the time, not just sometimes."
The Rev. Bruce Prescott, executive director of the Oklahoma chapter of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said he is sure the sentence doesn't pass constitutional muster, but he is equally worried about the spiritual ramifications.
"I'm a minister," Prescott said. "I want people to go to church, but it's not helpful for a judge to sentence someone to church. What will the judge do if the young man changes his affiliation in the next few years? Will he be allowed to switch to a mosque or become an atheist? Religion is not a tool of the state, and it's certainly not for the state to use as a tool of rehabilitation."
Judge Norman ought to be brought before the Oklahoma State Judicial Tenure Commission and stripped of his judicial office. He is unfit and unqualified to be a jurist. In my opinion he is just as much a criminal as any defendant he has ever sentenced to prison, or church for that matter. He should be serving time.
Let him practice religion at his church – not from the bench.