On Sentencing Antiquities Looters

Last week a number of folks drew my attention to the news that in Greece two men have been sentenced to life in prison for dealing in antiquities. The objects they looted and handled were worth an estimated €12 million. Two more men were jailed for 20 and 16 years. Based on the very brief AP report, it seems the men were digging near Thessaloniki close to an ancient cemetery.

I have seen a few remark that these very stiff sentences should be applauded and even are a sign that the Greek government takes archaeological looting seriously. I don’t know the specifics of this case, and it is not clear if these four sentences will be appealed and what kinds of parole options the violators will have. So we are dealing with a number of unknowns. And as a result I’d like to make a humble plea for a little sobriety when sentences of this nature are handed down. Too many archaeologists and other advocates hop up and down and either rejoice at these strong sentences—or criticize probation and fines which are at the other end of this spectrum. I think having a vigorous debate about what role prosecutions, and custodial sentences may play in reducing looting is a welcome development, but one should not make the mistake of jumping into sentencing policy without at least some cursory introduction very complicated field.

The deterrent power of criminal sanctions is very much an open question about even the ‘big’ crimes the justice system is supposed to prevent, things like murder and armed robbery. In the United States and in many other nations the criminal justice system is an imperfect mechanism which too often is asked to accomplish things it cannot. To expect this flawed institution to come riding in and solve the problems of heritage management, looting, and theft is terribly unrealistic. As many have pointed out, there is no magic bullet for heritage crime. Police and prosecutors have a role to play, but the stakeholders need to step up as well. Nations of origin, auction houses, buyers, and museums should not expect a flawed institution to fix what they are unable or unwilling to fix themselves.

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Looting and Criminal Sentencing in the Four Corners

The Butler Wash Ruins near Blanding, UT

More and more of the Four Corners antiquities cases are entering the sentencing phase, and I want to highlight two profoundly different reactions.

First, Kimberly Alderman (an Assistant Clinical Professor at the University of Wisconsin Law School) argues:

It’s readily apparent that federal prosecutors overcharged the cases in an attempt to justify the immense resources that went into the investigation. One has to wonder if that contributed to the suicide death of Dr. James Redd, who in his medical practice served less advantaged communities in Utah. . . . Illicit excavation is only one misuse of “sacred artifacts.” Another is to use them to justify a witchhunt that serves only government propaganda.

Taking a very different view, Cindy Ho of SAFE argues instead that:

Receiving probation of three- and two- years and a fine of $2,000 and $300 respectively, Jeanne and Jericca Redd joined a number of other defendants who receive a mere slap on the wrist for their contribution to the destruction of cultural heritage and human remains.

In response, SAFE sent a letter (see full text below) to Judge Waddoups expressing our disappointment that the sentencing guidelines were not appropriately followed. Most importantly, that “the leniency shown to the Redds sends the message that such laws are unimportant or do not apply to the Four Corners region, and will encourage rather than deter looters.” We did not receive a response from the Judge.

Stronger sentencing and custodial prison terms are poor measures for how seriously judges and the legal system take the looting of ancient sites. And placing the blame squarely on the shoulders of the sentencing Judge here misses the point I think. If you are really upset at the sentences (and I’m not sure you should be) blame should also be placed on the Federal Prosecutors. An axiom of criminal law every law student learns very early is that when defendants plead guilty, they will always receive a decreased sentence. Circumstances such as the personal circumstances of a defendant, their contriteness, and the violent or serious nature of the crime are also considered. One would be hard pressed to imagine a more sympathetic pair of defendants—a Mother and Daughter whose Father and Husband had committed suicide in the wake of the indictment. The U.S. Attorney’s in this case pursued a strategy of seeking guilty pleas for many of the defendants, particularly as their witness (and two of the defendants) committed suicide.

These sentences are about the best that could be hoped for. These are not the first prosecutions in the area, but unquestionably these are exceedingly difficult crimes to prosecute and investigate for two reasons. First, the sites are remote and catching the looters in the criminal acts will always be a difficult and expensive proposition. Second, there is noting about the antiquities market which encourages giving the history of objects. Without a consistent way to adequately differentiate licit from illicit objects, the black market will continue to be profitable. Archaeologists and heritage advocates need to ask themselves a hard question: is prohibition working? We can point fingers at collectors and dealers, but this ‘superindictment‘ in the Four Corners region is what enforcement will look like for the foreseeable future.

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com