Several months ago there was a particularly nasty case of white-collar larceny in the news, where the Executive Director of an AIDS charity, Valerie Tebbetts, was indicted for embezzling more than $120,000 from the organization she ran. The case was memorable for a couple of reasons. First, there’s something particularly despicable about stealing from a charity, especially one that is supposed to serve people who are sick, disabled, or otherwise among society’s vulnerable. Second, the case had an unsettling outcome, given the nature of the crime: Valerie Tebbetts changed her initial plea of “not guilty” to “guilty”, and Suffolk County Judge Carol Ball sentenced the former CEO to probation. Despite having nearly destroyed the charity she was supposed to serve, doing untold harm to the people who depended on the organization’s efforts, Ms. Tebbetts would not serve a day in jail. At the time it seemed to me that the treatment of Tebbetts was unusually and inappropriately lenient, and I wondered what Carol Ball was thinking.
Of course, some judges are lenient as a rule. Take, for example, the embattled Judge Raymond Dougan, who developed such a reputation for handing out light sentences that he earned the ire of both Suffolk County D.A. Dan Conley and the eminent finger-waggers of the Boston Globe, who did a sort of hit piece on Dougan about a year ago. Conley filed a complaint against Dougan for his lenient sentences, alleging that Dougan is biased against prosecutors and should thus be removed from the bench or face some other sort of severe penalty.
If Dougan is generally predisposed to giving defendants a second chance, even when they might not deserve it, it seems that he is at least consistent in his leniency. Everyone, no matter their race, class, or gender (or, for that matter, their level of culpability), is lucky to come before him. Unfortunately this does not seem to be the case with Carol Ball.
In several recent cases, when faced with white collar crime quite similar to that committed by Tebbetts, Ball has been pretty merciless. A black man, Nzeribe McKenzie, who pled guilty to virtually the same crime, stealing from a charity he worked for, was sentenced by Ball to 2-3 years in jail. The amount of money stolen by Nzeribe was a little more, but that hardly seems a sufficient justification for the gross disparity in sentences. There is a world of difference between five years probation, what the white woman Tebbetts got, and three behind bars, which is what Ball gave McKenzie..
It doesn’t seem like Ball is necessarily a racist. For instance, she recently sent away another ostensibly remorseful white collar criminal, Daniel Adams, a Cape Cod filmmaker who admitted to defrauding the state of tax credits. Two to three long years in prison for Adams, a white man, and father of a ten-year-old daughter.
No, the fact is that Ball just seems to have a soft spot for female defendants. Besides Tebbetts, there is the glaring case of bank robber Joanne Taylor, the wife of a Hingham police officer, who stole more than $100,000 from the Hingham Federal Credit Union where she worked. Joanne Taylor also got the kid gloves from Ball, somehow finagling a “suspended” two-year sentence plus probation. Translation: no jail time for lucky Joanne.
The fact is that I have neither the time nor the resources to fully investigate Judge Carol Ball. It is likely that she has handed down hundreds of sentences in her career. However, the evidence of some quick internet research suggests a dangerous inconsistency in her treatment of defendants. The kinds of biases that might underlie Ball’s dubious decisions are in fact more insidious than Dougan’s equal-opportunity leniency. Judge Carol Ball should be the next judge to be investigated.