Aaron Hart obsesses over blue Kool-Aid, WWF wrestling and puppies. He speaks in halting, incomprehensible stutters. And when his family says goodbye to him through a Plexiglas window at the Lamar County Jail, the 19-year-old with mental disabilities waves frantically and bleats, “Dad, why I gotta be in here, Dad?”
It’s a question Aaron’s family — and Texas’ entire disability rights community — has been asking for two years, ever since Aaron was arrested in his northeast Texas hometown of Paris and sentenced to 100 years in prison for performing sexual acts on a 6-year-old neighbor. An appeals court overturned the conviction this spring, ruling that Aaron pleaded guilty only because an attorney told him he would be eligible for probation. (He wasn’t.) Now Aaron sits in jail facing the same charges a second time, and his family is praying for a different outcome.
“This boy has never done anything bad in his entire life. They give a special kid like Aaron 100 years?” his 71-year-old father Robert Hart shouts, his entire body shaking. “I’ve been through a lot in my life, but never anything as hard as this.”
Aaron was diagnosed with mental retardation as a child. With an IQ of 47, the mental capacity of a kindergartner and a severe speech impediment, he was placed in special education classes but never learned to read or write. After high school graduation, he rode his bike, played video games with neighborhood kids and did odd jobs to make money. He kept a string in his pocket as a pet.
On the day he was arrested, Aaron mowed a neighbor’s lawn to make a few dollars to spend at a fair that was coming to town. The neighbor found him in the back yard with his pants down; he’d been fondling her stepson’s genitals. When the police arrived, they read Aaron his Miranda rights — later he’d ask his dad, “Who’s Miranda?” — and transported him to jail, while he continued to ask if he’d get paid for mowing the lawn.
Aaron had no previous offenses and no history of violence. At the police station, without an attorney present, he confessed to the sexual acts. Gary Young, Lamar County's district and county attorney, charged Aaron with five felony counts of sexual assault and indecency with a child, calling the incident, which Aaron’s appellate attorney says lasted just a few minutes, a “violent sexual crime.”
Aaron’s original, court-appointed attorney did little to impede the conviction. When the court’s usual psychologist found Aaron competent to stand trial, the attorney did not seek a second opinion. That took the option of institutional care settings, rather than jail, off the table. According to court records, the attorney believed Aaron would get probation — which was not legally possible considering the severity of the charges against him — and advised him to plead guilty. He signed his five-count plea in wobbly block letters.
Jurors sentenced Aaron to three 30-year prison terms and two five-year terms, one for each class of offense. They assumed Aaron would serve them concurrently. Instead, Lamar County Judge Eric Clifford stacked the sentences into one 100-year term, saying he saw no other option to protect public safety. Clifford may preside over Aaron’s upcoming proceedings, too.
It’s not the first time in recent years that the justice system in Paris has come under scrutiny. Questions of racial discrimination flared in 2006, when a 14-year-old black girl was sentenced to seven years in a youth prison for shoving a high school hall monitor. Three months earlier, the same judge sentenced a 14-year-old white girl to probation for arson. Tensions resurfaced in 2008, when a 24-year-old black man, Brandon McClelland, was dragged beneath the pickup truck of two white men until he was nearly dismembered. A local prosecutor dropped the charges, citing lack of evidence. This year, a Paris white supremacist was sentenced to 38 years in prison for targeting blacks in hate crime robberies. The man was a member of the Aryan Circle gang.
Aaron is not black. But his seemingly outrageous sentence has renewed questions about justice in the East Texas town, where the highways are dotted with “tough on crime” billboards featuring the county sheriff. Young, the district and county attorney, declined to comment for this article. Clifford, the judge who stacked Aaron’s original sentence, said he couldn’t say much because he may hear the retrial — but that the case had not created a “big stir in the community.”
“If I do [hear the case], we’ll start over with a blank slate, and if I don’t, give me a call later, and I’ll give you the exact reason why I stacked his sentences,” Clifford said. “Of course, let’s remember, Aaron is not a small child.”
For Aaron, the experience has been confounding and terrifying. His father says a seasoned offender raped Aaron in jail. Aaron was moved even farther from his family to a state prison unit, and then to an isolated facility for offenders with disabilities. Even in the face of a 100-year sentence — harsher than what's commonly given to many repeat child molesters and rapists — he kept telling his parents he would “be out on probation soon.”
His parents have depleted what little money they had on visits to see Aaron and payments to his commissary account. They’re living off of Social Security and money from their daughter’s job in the cafeteria of a local elementary school. They could get Aaron out on bond now that his conviction has been overturned, but they can’t afford it.
Meanwhile, their health has failed. Aaron’s father hardly moves from the reclining chair where he chain-smokes cigarettes, the ashes tumbling to the shag carpeting. He recently had an infected toe amputated. Aaron’s mother — also clutching her cigarettes — sits propped in a wheelchair in a darkened living room framed with childhood photos of Aaron; one of her legs has been amputated as well. They are heartbroken, lonely and, most of all, angry. Despite their health problems, they say that if Aaron gets out, they’ll monitor him every hour of the day and night to ensure nothing like this ever happens to him again.
“For a father to hear something like this happening to their son — why, it makes you want to kill someone,” Robert Hart said. “When it’s all said and done, I know he’s going to be found innocent.”
David Pearson, Aaron’s appellate attorney, is hopeful he’ll be able to settle the case without taking it to trial. He wants Aaron to end up in a facility where he can be supervised around the clock — “where staff knows what he’s capable of, and not capable of, where he can get treatment, and the services he needs.” He said he’s confident Young, the district and county attorney, will listen to reason.
“The original case was tried no differently at all than if Aaron was just a kid with normal intellectual functioning,” Pearson said. “There was no regard whatsoever to his limitations.”
For the time being, Aaron sits in a cell in the Lamar County lock-up, a nondescript building adjacent to a grain mill and the town’s railroad tracks. It’s the busiest spot in Paris during visiting hours on a sweltering, 108-degree Tuesday afternoon. In a 20-minute visit with his father and sister, Amber, through a Plexiglas window, Aaron, in an ill-fitting orange jumpsuit, presses his mouth up against a phone receiver and answers their pleasantries with persistent requests to come home.
“Are you getting some exercise, Aaron? Playing ball at all?” Amber asks.
“I don’t want to play on today. I want to come home on today,” Aaron says.
“It’s been a long time since you’ve been home,” his dad says, “and you know we miss you.”
“I hope I do,” Aaron replies. “I love you and I love you too and I love momma too and I love the dogs, too.”