» Government Rants » A People In Whom The Desire To Punish Is Strong

A People In Whom The Desire To Punish Is Strong

There are great posts today over at both Simple Justice and A Public Defender about the press’s generally abominable coverage of criminal justice issues and the public’s highly skewed view of the system. It seems people just can’t let go of the idea that criminals everywhere are running rampant despite our increasing willingness to dole out ever-harsher punishments and live with an ever-growing prison population. I’m reminded of a case that’s been all over the news here in Arizona.

A few years ago, stories about the supposed “honor killing” of a young woman by her father in the suburb of Peoria were everywhere. The daughter of Iraqi immigrants, her father had apparently became enraged by her lifestyle, which by all accounts seemed to be typical of American girls her age. He ran her over with his SUV in a shopping mall parking lot, and the he fled. Authorities eventually caught him in London. Based on the theory that it was a premeditated murder to preserve family honor, prosecutors charged him with first degree murder. He went to trial and was convicted not of the most serious charge, but of the lesser-included offense of second degree murder in addition to counts involving aggravated assault and leaving the scene of the accident. The verdict minute entry is here.

This is where the case ties in with the posts mentioned above. You see, on April 15, 2011, the judge sentenced him to 16 years on the second degree murder count consecutive to 15 years on the aggravated assault count and 3.5 years on the two leaving the scene of an accident counts. The total sentence was 34.5 years according to the sentencing minute entry, which is here, and he was 50 years old at the time of sentencing. Arizona isn’t like other states where a sentence ends up being a lot less than it might seem. Second degree murder requires flat time. The other counts likely require that he serve 85% at the very least. His exact release date, according the Arizona Department of Corrections, will be June 13, 2041. He will be over 80 years old. Given the typical impact imprisonment has on longevity, he is effectively serving a life sentence.

An article from Nancy Gertner at Cognoscenti, which both Scott and Gideon cited in the posts above, explains as follows:

There is a canned, formulaic newspaper story about any criminal case. It can be repeated in every prosecution, no matter what the crime, no matter who the defendant.

Here’s how it goes: Judge X sentenced defendant Y to five years (or whatever the number). The prosecutor argued for 10 (or higher than the number the judge gave). The victim’s family is appalled. When interviewed, they stridently proclaim their outrage at the judge. The press then echoes that sentiment.

All concerned assume that the right sentence is the one the prosecutor wanted or the victim demanded. So when the judge sentences the defendant to less, they cry foul. Another lenient judge! Another liberal! Another blow against the “tough on crime” mentality!

That’s pretty much how it went down with that case here in Arizona. Even though the defendant got what amounts to life in prison, the state didn’t get exactly what it wanted. Here’s the investigating officer’s take on the guilty verdict, from this story at 48 Hours Mystery:

“I was disappointed. Very disappointed,” Det. Chris Boughey told Roberts. “You know, the jury didn’t agree with us. …I wasn’t happy. Still not. Never will be.”

“You thought he should have been convicted — of first-degree…”

“Of first-degree murder. That’s what he did. It was premeditated. He thought about it. He had ample time to reflect upon not doing it. And decided to do it anyway,” said Boughey.

You might think he was just worried about the judge being lenient at sentencing. You might think that a sentence likely to ensure the defendant dies in prison might cheer the detective up a little. You’d be wrong. Here is the reaction from the same cop and also the prosecutor to the 34.5-year more-or-less-life sentence the judge imposed:

“He got off easy, as far as I’m concerned,” said Boughey.

“It was horrible……makes us feel like we let Noor down,” prosecutor Laura Reckart said. “…And you know, that just breaks your heart. And this broke my heart.”

There you go. A man will likely never again set foot outside the walls of a prison, and to a cop presumably familiar with the criminal justice system, that’s getting off easy. Hopefully he and the prosecutor don’t start reading blogs, or else Scott’s rhetorical question about how long it’ll be before the state actually starts requesting sentences of life plus cancer might get answered real soon.

In a comment to Scott’s post, Gideon asks, “How do I make a difference?” Unfortunately, my answer would probably be that he can’t. He can make a difference for each of his clients as individuals, as I’m sure he does, but I’m not sure that anything can be done to change the public’s flawed perception or the state’s desire to punish. As I’ve said here before, I can’t even convince the majority of criminal defendants I meet that we shouldn’t zealously prosecute everyone else and throw the book at them.

People seem willing to tolerate anything from the state but nothing from other people. Out of control spending, absurd prison statistics, clogged courts, and the perpetual criminalization of new things coupled with an increase in punishments across the board have done next to nothing to open the general public’s eyes. What chance does a defense lawyer have of fighting back the swelling tide of public sadism?

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7 Responses to "A People In Whom The Desire To Punish Is Strong"

  1. Mark Kernich says:

    “All it takes for evil to triumph in the world is for the good people to do nothing.” Call it assie stoicism, but it’s little sayings like this that keep me going when it seems the dream of changing the world is over a receding horizon. With each step, the journey begins.

    If we keep the sadists at bay just one more time, we make a difference in how many lives? That’s how you change the world by being a defence lawyer.

  2. […] about this very thing. First, the Greenfield has this post and second, Matt Brown follows up with this one. Share […]

  3. shg says:

    You end on a note of futility, as did Gid. To what end? We write about it, talk about it, do it. Maybe we persuade no one, but maybe we persuade someone. Maybe it’s only one person a day, or a week or a month, but that’s one more person than before.

    Who said you got a guarantee of changing society? That doesn’t mean you don’t try. Give up and you persuade no one. Try and at least you have a chance. Give up and I guarantee you change nothing.

    1. Matt Brown says:

      I think it’s actually pretty important for a lawyer to be aware of the futility of trying to change public opinion. It’s not a defeatist thing at all. In fact, I worry about the lawyers who think they’ll change the whole world, not realizing they’re primarily just supposed to be helping individuals. Setting impossible goals, like striving to create a major change in the way people in this country think, can put a person on the fast track to burnout or make them lose sight of the real job. It’s also not like I’m going to quit writing about it or talking about it just because I’m not going to convince everyone everywhere that I’m right. Seeing the futility can actually have a focusing effect.

      1. shg says:

        In our job as lawyers, we represent an individual. In our life, we do what we need to do. It’s not futile. Things change, and you never know when, how or why. Chances are damn good it won’t be because of something either of us do, but then again, maybe we add to the mix of influences that mold a young mind today that ends up attached to the body of a Supreme Court justice 30 years from now.

        If thinking it’s futile works for you, that’s fine. Most people can’t see much point in engaging in futile activity. My efforts may accomplish nothing, but I never think of them as futile.

    2. Andrew (the other one) says:

      You sound like the people who try to convince me to vote.

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