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Comparison of Tanya McDowell and Felicity Huffman sentences misleading

Claims about the different treatment of two mothers were shared on Facebook in South Africa on 23 October 2019. The post shows two photos side by side. 

On the left is a photo of a black woman, handcuffed and in a gray hoodie. Text underneath the photo says: “Tanya McDowell. Lied about the school district she ‘lived’ in so her 6-year-old could go to a better school, even though she was homeless. Sentenced to 5 years in jail.”

The caption underneath the second photo, which shows a white woman, says: “Felicity Huffman. Paid $15,000 to an SAT test administrator to cheat on her daughter’s test, so her daughter could get into a better college. Sentenced to 14 days in jail.

The post has been flagged as possibly false by Facebook’s fact-checking system. What are the actual stories behind these two women from the US? 

Tanya McDowell’s previous criminal record, drug charges

Tanya McDowell’s case has been used before to illustrate the perception that  black and white US citizens are treated differently by the law. 

McDowell, from the US state of Connecticut, was arrested twice in 2011. 

In April 2011, she was arrested for effectively stealing from a school district, after she used a false address to enrol her child in a Norwalk, Connecticut school. She was allegedly homeless at the time. 

She was charged with first-degree larceny – a theft involving property or services – and conspiracy to commit larceny. 

On 10 June 2011, McDowell was arrested again. This time she was charged for the sale and possession of drugs. She also reportedly attempted to sell undercover police officers the services of a sex worker. 

At the time, McDowell already had a criminal record for robbery and for having a weapon in a vehicle.

In 2012, the Connecticut Superior Court sentenced McDowell to 12 years for two narcotic charges. This sentence was set to be suspended after she had served five years, with another five years of probation. 

McDowell was released in 2015, two years early.

The five year prison sentence was as a result of the combination of charges against McDowell. 

Felicity Huffman paid fine, was first-time offender

Felicity Huffman is an actress known for her role in the US television show Desperate Housewives. 

She was one of the famous parents prosecuted in 2019 as part of what US federal authorities called the biggest college admissions bribery scandal

Huffman paid US$15,000 for someone to correct wrong answers on her daughter’s SAT exam. 

The Scholastic Aptitude Test is a standardised test used to determine university enrollment and funding opportunities, usually written in the second-to-last year of high school.  

On 13 May 2019, Huffman pleaded guilty. She was charged on 13 September 2019 with conspiracy to commit mail fraud and honest services mail fraud. 

Huffman’s attorney pointed out that she was a nonviolent, first-time offender. 

The sentence imposed on Huffman includes 14 days in prison, one year of supervised release, during which she would face further prison-time if re-arrested, 250 hours of community service and a fine of $20,000.

Two cases not comparable

Tanya McDowell's sentence was not just for lying about her address to the school district, as the Facebook post claims. She had a criminal record, and later drug charges were added to her plea agreement. This resulted in a five year prison sentence.

Felicity Huffman was sentenced to 14 days in prison, 250 hours of community service and a fine after paying $15,000 for her daughter’s SAT score to be doctored.  

These two cases are not directly comparable. They differ in at least two decisive ways: the crimes committed and the mothers’ criminal records. – Eileen Jahn


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