Toriano Porter

‘This court can’t get people to act right’: One Missouri judge’s plea for gun control

Jackson County Circuit Court Judge John Torrence sounded a discouraging note of defeat last week as he sentenced an admitted murderer to prison while acknowledging that the punishment wouldn’t deter violent crime.

The brief hint of helplessness was jarring coming from a judge in open court. With gun violence spinning out of control in Kansas City, we look to our elected leaders, law enforcement officials, prosecutors and judges to show strength, not resignation.

Congressman Emanuel Cleaver said as much recently during a Facebook Live chat with The Kansas City Star Editorial Board.

“We can really, really mess up things by falling into this malaise that everything is awful, and we can’t do anything about it,” said Cleaver, who has called on his colleagues in Congress to enact gun control measures. “We can do something about it.”

Torrence, though, was giving voice to the frustration that so many of us feel as some of our leaders offer little more than lip service when it comes to curtailing senseless gun violence. The judge clearly is losing patience with state and federal lawmakers who have been reluctant to tackle the issue head-on.

Torrence sentenced Deandre Jackson to 26 years in prison for the November 2016 murder of 25-year-old MarYanna “Pretty” Pennington, the mother of Jackson’s niece.

Another 26 years were tacked on for the nine additional felony charges related to the brazen shooting that severely injured Pennington’s sister, Marsehanna Clark, and friends Myesha Miller and Chloe Donald, all of whom survived. The sentences are to run concurrently.

Jackson, 27, pleaded guilty in June. Jackson County prosecutors asked for 28 years in prison in exchange for the plea.

Pennington’s mother, Marvella Clark, told public radio station KCUR that Jackson should be in prison for the rest of his life. But Torrence was bound by an agreement between prosecutors and defense attorneys.

Defense attorney Dan Ross asked the judge to sentence Jackson to 16 years in prison. Jackson County Chief Deputy Prosecutor Daniel Nelson countered, asking Torrence for the max to send a message that senseless violence will not be tolerated on Kansas City streets.

The judge was unmoved by either counsel.

“This court can’t get people to act right,” he said.

Torrence then lit into lawmakers.

“State and local government has encouraged gun use by everyone, everywhere,” Torrence said, alluding to Missouri’s lax gun laws that allow anyone over the age of 18 to carry a concealed weapon. “When you couple that with anger, fights, domestic strife, what can only be described as insignificant conflict, it sadly ends up with shell casings.”

In an interview, Torrence again put the onus on elected officials to take action: Federal and state lawmakers must curb the sale of guns by enacting reasonable legislation, he said.

“We here in these urban areas of the state of Missouri are struggling with violence that is caused by a proliferation of firearms that are being carried around by young people everywhere, every day, every night,” he said.

Jackson admitted shooting Pennington to death with an AK-47-style assault rifle as she sat with Miller and Donald in a disabled car near 21st and Cleveland streets. First, he unloaded on Clark with a .45-caliber pistol, hitting the woman three times in the back after she got out of the vehicle.

Clark is paralyzed from the waist down.

Jackson then retrieved an assault-style rifle and sprayed Clark’s vehicle with 24 bullets.

“The open, unrestricted ability to purchase these type of weapons is causing a bloodbath,” Torrence said. “Had the assault rifle not been available in this case, I suspect (Pennington) would not have been killed and the other two women severely injured would not have been injured.”

Reducing gun violence is a complex problem with no simple solution. While Torrence is right that the court alone can’t get people to act right, we all have a role to play in this effort, including writing and calling and emailing lawmakers in an effort to apply intense pressure on them to actually do something.

Until then, weapons will continue to flood our streets. And gruesome cases that tear families apart and upend lives like Deandre Jackson’s will make their way to Torrence’s courtroom.

“It’s frustrating,” he said. “But this is the world we live in now.”