Is it time for historical accuracy in sentencing?

Greg Bean



Just when you start to think Monmouth County has a lock on criminal behavior among high-profile hooligans, something unexpected comes along to rock your world.

And news last week that Richard Walling — a former East Brunswick Township official, teacher and son of local political legend Jean Walling — had been charged with stealing more than $40,000 from the nonprofit Friends of Monmouth Battlefield was enough to send me into a funk.

It’s not that Walling hasn’t been in trouble before. Last November, he pleaded guilty to harassing a 17-year-old female student at the Middlesex County Vocational and Technical High School in East Brunswick, where Walling was a teacher. As part of his plea agreement, he received a fine and gave up his teaching license.

But stealing thousands of dollars from a group dedicated to preserving the land upon which so much colonial blood was shed at a brutal battle most historians credit as the real turning point in America’s war of independence?

That’s as low as stealing a man’s horse. And where I come from, horse thieving is as low as it gets.

According to Middlesex County Assistant Prosecutor Ronald Abramowitz, Walling — then chief executive officer of the Friends — diverted money from the nonprofit’s donation accounts to pay personal bills between August 2003 and February.

Charged with third-degree theft and third-degree forgery, Walling faces a maximum prison term of five years and a $15,000 fine on each of the two counts. A not-guilty plea was entered on his behalf last week.

If you’re familiar with the Monmouth Battlefield (located in portions of Freehold Township and Manalapan), as I have become driving past it every morning on the way to work, you know it’s one of the most beautiful pieces of real estate in New Jersey. And you also know that the hard work of the Friends is one of the main reasons it stays that way.

I’ve spent many pleasurable hours at the Battlefield at various re-enactments over the years. And as a kind of re-enactor and history buff myself, I’ve been impressed by the Friends’ insistence upon preserving the historical accuracy of the area and the figures who fought across its hills and valleys during the Revolutionary War.

That’s why it seems a little unsatisfying that the maximum penalty Walling could receive if convicted is only a $30,000 fine and 10 years in the slam.

I think it might be appropriate, in this instance, to consider a more historically accurate punishment, if Walling is convicted.

What might Walling have faced if convicted of a similar crime in 1778?

Well, there’s:

Hanging . By 1776, most colonies imposed the penalty of death by hanging for a variety of crimes that included arson, piracy, treason, murder, burglary, robbery, horse stealing and counterfeiting. As a decent barrister of the period, I think I might have made the argument that the theft Walling is charged with falls under the category of robbery, although it would have been easier a few years later when forgery was added to the list of capital crimes.

And if we’re a little squeamish for that, there’s always:

Pillory. This is the famous framework that had holes for the criminal’s head and hands to stick through while the crook remained standing. Rain or shine, the convict had to stand there while fellow townsfolk pelted him or her with insults and rotten fruits and vegetables.

Or how about:

Stocks. Same principle as the pillory, except the rounder’s legs went through the holes instead of his feet and arms. That left his arms free to fend off rotten fruit and vegetables, but he couldn’t run away. Sometimes, they made the people sitting in the stocks wear a big letter on their clothing that signified their crime. Adulterers would wear a big letter A, counterfeiters a C, thieves a T, and so forth. Sometimes, they were actually branded with those letters and had their ears clipped.

And of course, there’s always:

Ducking stools . A chair that criminals are tied to and dunked under water as punishment. They’re sort of like the dunking booths at the fair, except they don’t let you up right away to breathe.

And the ever popular:

Whipping posts. These are large, wooden posts where a criminal is tied while he or she is whipped with a cat-o’-nine-tails before the whole town. Doing research for this column, I came across the case of a con man named Tom Bell, who engaged in a long career of fraud, stealing, debt-jumping and impostering before he was convicted of defrauding an honest man and sentenced to “19 lashes at a cart’s tail, and … drawn through the principal streets of the city.” After the whipping was meted out, the convict was sometimes chained to a dog, as an added bonus.

It is important to understand that all of these punishments were carried out in the most public of places, often the town square, on the theory that would shame the criminal and serve as a graphic deterrent to potential ne’er-do-wells in the crowd contemplating similar outrages.

All right, I know what you’re probably thinking.

You’re thinking that, as a society, we’ve evolved a great deal from the days when we believed that imposing such brutal punishment for common crime was an appropriate response.

And, in general, I agree. I don’t really believe we should whip anybody or hang them, even if they’re convicted of horse theft.

But considering where the money came from, it sure would be satisfying to require Walling to re-enact one of those punishments — perhaps as an adjunct of one of the annual Battle of Monmouth re-creations where everybody comes in period clothing — as part of his sentence if he is convicted of this crime.

We wouldn’t chain him to a dog, however. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals would frown on something like that.

Gregory Bean is executive editor of Greater Media Newspapers.