Friday, July 29, 2005

How Easy it is to be a murderer in California

There is this case that has been mildly captivating Southern California lately of a 13 year old boy who hit his good friend's older brother with a baseball bat after the older boy either teased him or bullied him. He hit the boy once in leg and once in the head, and the older boy died. The 13 year old was just sentenced yesterday to the maximum he could get in California - serving in the California Youth Authority (CYA) until he is 25 years old.

There are 2 things of interest to me here: One is the fact that he will get the maximum penalty and serve for 12 years with the very worst youth in California (and when I say the worst, I mean it, CYA is notorious for being a vicious place to stay, a veritable incubator of later crime. I can't tell you the number of clients I've met who managed to turn from generally benign unpleasant folk, to truly terrible after a nice stint in CYA). By all accounts, this was an isolated incident in which the boy lashed out at an older and much larger kid who had been something of a bully. The defendant was otherwise a good student, teammate, and person who screwed up (royally) one time only. I think that it's clear he will never be a good person again, and that likely would not have been the case if he didn't go to CYA. The thirst for revenge, for even one isolated incident, was too great to look past what was in society's best interest. Contrast this with a case where someone takes a gun and sprays it at someone, or has a long history of gang involvement and generally anti-social behavior. This person is not like that.

What is more interesting to me, though, is the long transformation of California law to ensure that more and more people are held responsible for their actions in criminal court, and as murderers, rather than as committing lesser crimes such as voluntary or involuntary manslaughter.

By all accounts, this kid did not try to kill his friend's brother. By all accounts he was either trying to hurt him in revenge for teasing (before you yell at me, I agree, that's not allowed and should be punished), or using the bat against a larger bully in an inappropriate manner (since he first retreated and then returned with the bat). Either way, it is not like he walked up with a gun wanting to plug a few shots into him and kill him. However, in California, you don't need to intend to kill someone in order to be guilty of murder. In fact, you don't even need to have the thought anywhere in your mind that someone may die from your actions.

In California, there is a principle called "implied malice," which says that if you do an act that is inherently dangerous to human life, and someone dies as a result, then you are guilty of murder. The best example of how this should be applied is if you decide you want to go driving on the sidewalk to avoid traffic, so you do, and kill a few people. Clearly, driving your car into pedestrians will kill them, you and anyone else would have to be aware of that, so even if you didn't want to kill those people, you are still guilty of murder under the "implied malice" theory.

Of course, like all good theories that California prosecutors, judges and politicians have gotten their hands on in their zest to make as many people murderers as possible, the theory has mutated into absurdity. Just think about how far that can be taken. First, they started prosecuting multiple DUI offenders who finally killed someone with murder rather than gross vehicular manslaughter (a Watson murder). The theory, you clearly knew that driving under the influence was dangerous to human life, since you previously went to that alcohol class where they told you so. Thus, you were under notice, and now you're guilty of murder under implied malice.

Some prosecutors got upset when a drunk killed a particularly pretty or popular person, and expanded the law so that you didn't have to have gone to the class before. Watson murders have even been extended to where other traffic violations happened.

In a another famous case, 2 San Francisco lawyers were convicted of murder when their dog killed a neighbor (the judge reduced the case to a manslaughter, the Court of Appeals overturned the trial judge, expanding implied malice along the way, the Supreme Court is now going to rule on the subject). Obviously, they didn't want to kill anyone, but they were guilty of murder under the theory that they knew their dogs were dangerous, and anything that flowed from that they were liable for.

Now the Knollers (the dog bite defendants) were distasteful people, they adopted a white supremacist prison inmate and took in his dogs. But the way the law is going, prosecutors will have no problem bringing murder charges against any distasteful person for any death, because just about every death is foreseeable in some crazy way - in hindsight. Anyone can look back on a death and say "damn, I shoulda figured that was coming!" Drive 10 miles over the limit and someone dies - murder, why not? Cars sure are inherently dangerous. Throw your kid up in the air while playing with him and accidentally drop him? I know everyone does it, but hey, it's still dangerous, you're a murderer if they die. Play a prank on someone and pull a chair out from them when they sit? Alright, it's silly, and you probably shouldn't do it, but why not charge murder, after all, they could hit their head....

Think I'm being crazy? Here's a real one (again, distasteful defendants). 2 guys with a meth lab try to burn it down to avoid detection (see, I wasn't lying about distasteful), the fire spreads, the fire department comes along to put it out, they even bring along planes to drop retardant on the fire. Would you believe it, 2 planes collide, and someone dies in the crash. So these otherwise pillars of the community are now charged with murder. You see, when you start a fire, it's foreseeable that firemen will come to put it out, and it's also foreseeable that they'll send a plane, and if they'll send one, it's foreseeable that they'll send 2, and when 2 planes are in the sky, it's foreseeable that they will collide and kill someone. Therefore, these guys are guilty of murdering the pilots. I have to think that is among the more absurd cases filed. But, like I said, when you have distasteful people, the sky's the limit. The only problem, when their appeal is (invariably) denied, through some tortured reasoning like above, it affects everyone, since the next DA may decide to charge this against a real pillar of the community, or you.


Anonymous said...

Dude, this area of California law is indeed an awful mess. But even more troubling is the occasional failure of defense lawyers to utilize, as did appellate counsel for Ms. Knoller, the case law requiring the prosecution to prove that the defendant actually appreciated the risk of death his conduct presented. The standard jury instructions are vague, and prosecutors exploit that ambiguity in argument to the jury all the time. Particularly now that the Supreme Court has taken the Knoller case, defense lawyers need to request supplemental jury instructions requiring a finding that the defendant actually knew that his conduct posed a high risk of death, aim evidence at the question of what if anything the defendant actually appreciated about the risk, and object when prosecutors argue as though hindight foreseeability is what counts. I think we have a decent chance of getting the Cal Supremes to rule that Ms. Knoller's trial judge was correct -- the defendant must know that her conduct raised a high probability of death -- and the Court of Appeal was wrong in saying that appreciating some risk of injury to another is enough. But only those defendants whose lawyers raise the issue in the trial court are likely to benefit from this long-needed reexamination of the law.

Anonymous said...

So would this same murder rule apply if, say, the executives of a coal mine deferred mainenance or supplied their workers with inadequate information and got them killed? Or does it only apply to distasteful schmucks?

The Firm said...

[Britt]: Jesus Christ!

[Keehley]: Is it as easy to prove wrongful acts under CA tort law?

[Terry]: What you describe sounds like something out of the Fallstaff.

[Fish]: That was that case with the guy getting on the train that dropped the fireworks and the scale hit the lady right?

[Keehley]: *slaps his forehead and lets his hand slide down unlit it covers his face* You guys are using that for criminal law?

[Johnnie]: Christ... I'm glad I'm dead.

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