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Looking for a Lesson

You’ve probably heard about what happened with Michael Marin. It’s not every day that a Mormon grandfather and amateur pilot, a former Wall Street trader, Japanese business executive, and graduate of Yale Law School who also climbed Mount Everest and collected works by Picasso, supposedly kills himself in court with a poisoned pill after being convicted of arson for burning down his mansion and narrowly escaping in a scuba suit. You can find more background here if you’re interested. On top of its general bizarreness, the whole thing brings up some fascinating issues.

Michael Marin presumably killed himself because of the verdict. Had the jury found him not guilty, he would have probably gone out to celebrate. Although I have not looked into the specifics of his case, arson is a class 2 felony, and it was probably alleged to have been a dangerous offense. The county attorney pretty much always tries to prove aggravating factors, so he probably faced a mandatory prison range of 7 to 21 years with a presumptive sentence of 10.5 years. Not too long ago, he was climbing the worlds tallest mountain, and he was out of custody pending trial. The guilty verdict meant he would have been held without bond before being sentenced to spend a significant amount of time in custody. He would have had to have served 85% of whatever sentence he received in the 7-to-21-year range, and although he would have gotten credit for any time he previously served, he would at most have gotten another 90 days shaved off his sentence. Arizona isn’t the kind of place where people get sentenced to 21 years and find themselves free in only a few years. I bet those facts played a major role in his decision to end his life.

One former client of mine committed suicide. Several others have died of various natural and unnatural causes. Luckily, none of them died as a direct result of what happened in his or her case. I would feel awful. I would wonder if I could’ve done anything better. I would dwell on every interaction we ever had and wonder if I was somehow responsible. Could I have prevented it? What can I do to make sure it never happens again? I wonder those types of things when minor things happen to my clients, when they overreact to things that aren’t even a big deal. I suspect my obsessing might become crippling if my client’s ultimate loss was his life and my representation might have had some kind of impact on that. I can imagine how Michael Marin’s public defenders feel, but I don’t know how they actually feel. They were on his side, though, and I imagine they did a great job. The case appears to have been hard-fought looking at its history.

I wonder how the jury feels. He was the sole occupant of the house when it caught fire, and it looks like he had no prior felony convictions. At most, it was a financial crime, not a situation where he tried to kill someone in the blaze. Did they think he was going to get probation? Even if they figured he’d be doing some time, I’m sure they didn’t think for one second that he’d kill himself out of fear or shame or whatever it was that made him do it. They were doing their job, and it’s one of the most important jobs out there. It’s in the Bill of Rights, after all. I really don’t know how the jury should feel, and it’s even tougher to imagine how the prosecutor feels. I was confused his appearance in the video, rotating side to side in his chair with a strange look on his face as Michael Marin convulses nearby. Did he think it was all a show? When my clients have had serious medical problems, prosecutors have routinely told me things that make me wish I believed in hell so there would be someplace I could daydream about them going. “It’s probably the delirium tremens. Damn alcoholic.” “I guess all those drugs are finally catching up to him.” “Does he really think faking is going to save him from the consequences of his actions?” Some prosecutors have really said those kinds of things to me. I can’t imagine the depravity of what doesn’t make it through some prosecutors’ filters.

Of course, I have no idea what that prosecutor in that case actually thought. I can say with a reasonable degree of certainty that the prosecutor did not make Michael Marin a probation offer though. I can say for sure that he was going to demand Michael Marin be handcuffed on the spot had he not died instead. I can also say for sure that he was going to later demand a sentence in the 7-to-21-year range, almost certainly something above 10.5 years. Does the prosecutor feel bad? Should he feel bad? I’m reminded of a certain deadpan defense lawyer with a very dark sense of humor who was talking to a prosecutor about a case they had together but that got transferred to a different county attorney. “Hey, you remember that teenage kid with Asperger’s and no priors who you insisted would have to plead to a felony?” he asked. “Yeah,” the prosecutor said, “What happened with that?” With a straight face, the defense lawyer explained, “He killed himself.” The prosecutor shouted, “Oh my God! Really?” “Nope,” the defense lawyer said, “Just kidding. He took your insensitive offer because it was an ugly case and he was facing a bunch more time at trial.” I hear the prosecutor he was talking to thought it was hilarious, albeit terrible, but the others who overheard it were horrified and quite upset.

The best prosecutors are the ones who appreciate the seriousness of their job and the fact they are dealing with human lives. There are a lot of reasons why I couldn’t ever be a prosecutor, and what happened with Michael Marin is representative of a big one. There are no easy answers when lives are at stake. The psychology of it all is incredibly complex, and that should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the system. The reality is that many people caught up in the system are mentally unstable. The littlest things can seem like the end of the world. Was Michael Marin’s apparent suicide an over-reaction? Almost certainly. Was it foreseeable? Probably not. The direct consequence of a prosecutor’s actions strip a defendant of his or her will to live far more often than most people would expect, however, and although few people actually take the drastic step that Michael Marin seems to have taken, it does happen. If that defense lawyer’s macabre joke caused horror based on shame or guilt or whatever inspired that reaction from the eavesdroppers, was the felony offer was too harsh? Is the real possibility that a defendant might choose to end his life because of draconian sentencing laws something that prosecutors should consider? Should the county attorney’s office have shown a little mercy in Michael Marin’s case? Is there a lesson to be learned in this at all?

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2 Responses to "Looking for a Lesson"

  1. […] mused before about prosecutors with blood on their hands. I should muse more often because it’s important. […]

  2. Alice Harris says:

    I was to assist the lead attorney at a capital sexual battery trial. In Florida, conviction would mean a mandatory life sentence with no possibility of release. Client out on bond failed to appear on the morning of trial and was found dead in his car in a public parking lot an hour later. Obvious suicide. I’m not sure he made the wrong decision. Lead lawyer said there was overwhelming evidence of guilt. (I was drafted at the last moment and would serve as a note-taker and flunky at trial, so I didn’t know the client. I was grateful for that.) Client had asked the day before if he had any chance of release pending appeal if convicted. There was none. His decision seemed reasonable–at least to him.

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