Archive for the 'Criminal Law' Category

Woman’s Suicide Attempt Leads to Murder Charge

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Equal protection of the law is a tricky aspect of our legal system, even though that protection has helped establish America’s identity in the world. However, even those protections have limits. An individual who commits a crime is subject to the same investigation and punishment as everyone else. Bei Bei Shuai’s pregnancy and attempted suicide provides yet another example of this limitation.

In 2010, Shuai, who was in her third trimester, informed the father that she was carrying his child. The father revealed that he was already married and walked out, leaving Shuai depressed enough to ingest rat poison after writing a suicide note. Shuai’s friends found and brought her to a hospital, where she delivered a premature daughter. The infant died a few days later. Shuai herself was arrested a couple of months after the death of her child for murder. This week, in May of 2012, the Supreme Court of Indiana forced the trial court to post bail for Shuai, even though bail is almost never put up for murder charges.

Shuai’s attorneys have labeled the case as a question of due process and equal rights. Suicide is not a crime in Indiana, but Shuai’s attempt is treated as such. The defense argues that such a double standard, one for pregnant women and one for everyone else, violates the equal protection of the law. Moreover, the case could have larger consequences. If Shuai is convicted, then this case could lead to a wider slippery slope in which women are prosecuted for any harmful activities which could endanger fetuses. It would certainly be idiotic not to mention insane to prosecute a woman for endangering the fetus by falling down the stairs.

State prosecutors counter that Shuai’s consumption of rat poison was directed more at her child, as a form of revenge against her former lover. Shuai’s intent was revealed in the suicide note, in which she wrote that she was taking the child to Hades (a rough translation). Although abortion is legal in Indiana, the child died after she was born. Indiana and Federal law both make the intentional killing of a fetus a crime. The courts agree that the case is viable and a trial, despite the defense’s motion for a dismissal, is expected.

Indiana’s use of Laci and Connor Law, the act making the killing of a fetus a crime, is interesting. The law was enacted after the murder of Laci Peterson and her unborn son in 2002, with the intent to protect pregnant women from violent crime. Many pro-choice groups opposed the law when it was first passed and it appears their fears are justified today.

Shuai was not psychologically well, yet is being prosecuted by a law meant to protect her. Most who attempt suicide are given psychological help, not a criminal prosecution. Pregnancy, or the capacity for pregnancy, comes directly from gender, an aspect of a person not easily changed. The prosecution is thus related to a person’s status and not a person’s actions. More importantly, criminals must be of sound mind to stand trial. Depression, as a mental state, is difficult to overcome without outside intervention. Shuai is certainly receiving the harsh side of the law.

At the same time though, the loss of a child is a hard one for society to bear. Shuai ate enough rat poison to make her child terminally ill after death. She is most likely directly responsible for that death. While there is a chance that the infant’s death might not be connected to the toxin or that she ate the rat poison without realizing what it was, those chances are unlikely. Eating rat poison was likely to kill Shuai’s child as much as Shuai herself. In essence, though I sympathize with those who oppose the prosecution of pregnant women, this is not a good test case to limit that kind of legal action. Shuai’s methods were too close to the child’s demise. Although murder might not be the correct indictment and the usage of the Laci and Conner Law might be abhorrent, Shuai does deserve some of the harshness she is receiving.

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Mother Spends Night in Jail for Unilateral Decision to Baptize Son

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Family law issues are often highly emotional and heated, but they don’t usually result in jail time. Stephanie or Stacy Miller, however, spent a night in prison after a Tennessee judge found her in contempt of court for allowing her 12 year old son, Caleb Miller, to be baptized without his father’s permission.

This seeming excess of judicial authority began two years ago, when Stacy and Stephen Miller finalized their divorce. Their divorce agreement included a promise not to make decisions about their son’s religious upbringing without the consent of the other.

In 2011, Caleb agreed to be baptized at his mother’s church. Although his father attended the ceremony, Stephen Miller insists that the baptism occurred without his authorization. Judge Swann, the judge in charge of the case, noted that Stacy Miller, the son’s mother, had failed to respond to mediation attempts prior to the ceremony and handed her a ten day jail sentence, reduced to one day after the criminal contempt of court charges were dropped, though the civil contempt charge remained. Caleb Miller watched as his mother was lead to the local jailhouse in handcuffs due to the claim made by his father.

On its face, the story seems like judicial over-extension. Although family law typically tries to respect both parties in a divorce, the best interests of the children govern any case involving a child. It is difficult to agree that a child watching his mother go to jail through his father’s actions be in the child’s best interest. Stephen Miller has made remarks which display a certain amount of disdain for his ex-wife’s church. The court has no right to enforce that opinion, especially if that opinion might not be in the child’s best interest. It would be a violation of the Federal Constitution’s establishment clause, a clause forbidding the government from favoring one religion over another. Furthermore, Caleb, like all children, is a person with desires and wishes independent of his parents. If Caleb consented to the baptism, then his independent wishes should override any contractual agreement which treats him like a commodity. The child should know what is best for himself, not his parents and certainly not a judge.

There are, however, other factors to consider. Each parent belongs to a different church and wishes to see Caleb make the best possible decision between the two institutions.  Although it is true that enforcement of the father’s view based on its religious roots would be a violation of the Constitution, it would also be a violation of the same document and the same clause if the court enforced the mother’s choice.  The court enforcing Caleb’s baptism looks like an establishment of religion just as much as opposing the baptism would be. The judiciary, however, can enforce a violation of contract agreement, which is exactly what Judge Swann did. The outcome might be the same as an endorsement of the father’s views, but for completely different reasons. Ruling on the contractual aspect of the conflict is the only legal ruling. Moreover, it is the only fair ruling as the law cannot make a distinction between different churches.

As to Caleb Miller’s independent interests, it is true that he is a person separate from his parents and that the law should treat him as such. However, Caleb Miller is still a minor. Although some minors are incredibly mature for their age, society recognizes that some activities should not be undertaken until a certain age for mental maturity to develop in order for proper consent to be established.

I don’t share the Miller’s sense of religious devotion, but I will trust that a commitment to God is an important commitment and a heavy responsibility. Given this context, baptism might be comparable to marriage, a ritual which, in Tennessee, cannot be undertaken by a minor until the age of sixteen. Even at sixteen, however, parental consent is required until the age of twenty-one.

Comparing baptism to marriage might seem like a stretch, but the emphasis the Millers place on baptism makes the comparison significant if not valid. If Tennessee doesn’t permit Caleb Miller at his age to commit his life to another person, then it is doubtful that Tennessee should allow Caleb Miller to commit to a god on his own. Caleb Miller, as a minor, cannot make such important decisions on his own. His parents, his father as well as his mother, represent his best interests. Although the divorce agreement fractured the marriage of his parents, it still governs the parent’s conduct towards their child. Judge Swann may not gain any popularity for his decision regarding Caleb Miller and his parents, but it was a necessary one for an impartial representative of the law to make.

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Man Held in Jail for 5 Days Without Food or Water Sues Feds

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Well, this is embarrassing. A few weeks ago, a young man was arrested by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), and held in a jail cell for five days, with no human contact, food, water, or even a toilet. And this was after he was told that he would be released without being charged, just as soon as the authorities finished up some paperwork on his case.

But when 23-year-old UC San Diego engineering student Daniel Chong sat alone for several hours, he started to get annoyed. As the hours turned into days, he began to fear for his life. After all, going just a few days without water can cause severe health problems, which could quickly become life-threatening.

When he was finally found in his cell, Chong was delirious and weak. He was taken to the hospital, where doctors said he was close to suffering kidney failure, and was so dehydrated that he was having trouble breathing. He had to spend 3 days in intensive care, and was hospitalized for a total of 5 days. I’m no doctor (obviously), but it sounds like he wouldn’t have survived another day or two in that cell.

Indeed, the article linked above indicates that, after a few days, the solitude, hunger, thirst, and fear truly got to him, and he began to lose his mind. He even tried to take his own life by breaking his glasses and cutting his wrist with the broken glass. Thankfully, he did not succeed in this attempt.

Well, he is now suing the federal government for $20 million, to compensate him for this ordeal.

While some people may argue that this is excessive (and if the federal government is smart, it will end up settling with him), and goes well beyond simply compensating the victim for his injuries. However, it’s impossible to put an exact dollar amount on the amount of mental and physical anguish that Mr. Chong must have suffered in his ordeal. What he went through is something I would never wish on my worst enemy.

And if this lawsuit ensures that such blunders never happen again, I’d say it would be worth every penny that the government has to pay out. Because, frankly, the fact that this happened is an absolute disgrace to the federal government, and an embarrassment to all of us.

Think about it: a person (who was ultimately never charged with a crime) almost died of thirst in federal custody, because everyone involved in his arrest and detention apparently just forgot about his existence. Some might say that he was a criminal, and we shouldn’t be shedding any tears for him.

To that I have two responses: first, he was never actually charged with a crime, let alone convicted of one. Second, even if he had been convicted of a major drug-related crime, it would in no way excuse what was done to this man. After all, in this country we generally pride ourselves on the fact that we don’t engage in cruel and unusual punishment. And if starving/dehydrating somebody half to death doesn’t constitute “cruel and unusual” punishment, I’d love to know what does.

Incidents like this harm the legitimacy of law enforcement in the public’s eyes, as well as the legitimacy of government in general. And we seem to be going through a phase where the public’s faith in the government’s ability to (or interest in) doing its job is at a historic low. And these types of incidents certainly don’t help matters.

Now, I don’t think the individual DEA agents involved in this incident left the victim in the jail cell on purpose. It probably was an honest (albeit very serious) mistake. Chances are, they were overworked, and lacked some of the administrative and logistical support they needed in order to keep track of the people in their custody. Such a scenario, in this era of government austerity and across-the-board budget cuts, is easy to imagine.

I think this incident, and similar ones, are partially a symptom of our broken drug laws. The United States imprisons more people than any other country on Earth. A large plurality of the people in federal and state custody in the U.S. were convicted of drug charges – casualties of the “war on drugs” that the government initiated in the 1980s. The fact is, American drug policy has resulted in the incarceration of more people than the system was designed to handle, leading to overcrowding of prisons, skyrocketing costs, and, occasionally, tragic incidents like the one discussed in this article.

While I don’t pretend to have a perfect solution to the overlapping problems of drug abuse and over-incarceration, I think a few simple reforms could reduce these problems significantly. For example, it’s glaringly obvious that our mass-incarceration approach to the drug problem has failed. It has overcrowded the prisons, led to skyrocketing law enforcement costs, and it does not appear to have done much to curb illegal drug use.

A good first step would be to stop relying on prisons as the primary method for dealing with the illegal drug problem, and focusing instead on treatment and rehabilitation programs, which can cost far less than prison, and be far more effective in reducing drug use. Furthermore, I’d like to see possession of small amounts of recreational drugs such as marijuana decriminalized.

Of course, I’m not saying that reforming our drug laws would solve the very separate problem of government incompetence, but by arresting fewer people, the burden on a large number of government employees (such as DEA agents, for example) would be reduced, which would almost certainly reduce the occurrence of incidents like this one.

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9/11 Terrorist Defense Attorney Wears Islamic Hijab in Court to Respect Clients

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Attorneys are expected to zealously defend their clients. Cheryl Bormann, however, has taken this expectation to realms previously unheard of.

Bormann represents Walid bin Attash, personal bodyguard and errand boy of the late Osama Bin Laden. Bormann appeared at a hearing last week wearing a traditional Islamic hijab, clothing which conceals all parts of her, with the exception of her face, despite the fact that she isn’t a Muslim. When the judge inquired Bormann why she wore the hijab, she explained it was to show respect to her client’s faith. Bormann then made a motion for other women in the court to dress similarly, as it would distract her client from the hearing and the subsequent trial.

This motion, combined with her client’s erratic behavior, dragged a hearing which should have lasted a couple of hours at most into a thirteen hour ordeal. Attash, who refused to answer the judge’s questions, rejected the translation headphones and launched into periodic prayers, stated that he had been treated poorly in Guantanamo Bay where he has been incarnated since his capture.

This story raises questions about the limits of respect and tolerance. Bormann has the right to dress as she wishes, provided that, as an attorney, her taste in clothing doesn’t interfere with her ability to represent her client. If she believes that wearing a hijab will enable her to communicate with her client more effectively, than I don’t see why she should be forced not to wear it. Bormann’s request that other women dress as she has, however, is another matter all together.

It would be delusional, at best, to believe that the women on the prosecution should comply with Bormann’s suggestion. First, if Bormann has the right to dress as she chooses, then so do other women. As long as all members of the court dress professionally, as defined by the judge, then they should be allowed to wear what they want. Second, the argument that mini-skirts would distract the defendant from focusing on the matters of life and death is flawed. It sounds like the reason Attash can’t control his lust is because of the way women look. This line of reasoning insults men by making men look like pigs unable to control their urges and pins the blame for male irresponsibility on women.

But even if we grant that Attash comes from a culture with a higher threshold for clothing decency, it is obvious from the defendant’s behavior that the prosecution’s clothing isn’t influencing Bormann’s motion. Attash was disinterested in the hearing the whole time. Blaming women’s clothing was a tactic to throw the judge and the rest of the court, not a real concern of the client’s.

However, the most loathsome aspect of the hearing was the fact that family members of 9/11 victims were watching the whole circus unfold. Imagine having lost a parent or a sibling or a child a decade ago to these men’s’ insanity and having to watch, today, an American defense attorney demand respect for the faith of those wrongdoers. A faith which, according to these men, pushed them to commit murder on a grand scale. Many victims would find it respectful if the terrorists were punished without this sideshow.

More importantly though, this hearing was a preview of President Obama’s decision to move terrorists out of military tribunals and into domestic courts for trial. If a hearing like this is being turned into a farce, then the American public can’t expect much from an actual trial. Why should we show respect for these men if they can’t respect us enough to participate in their own trial?

The terrorists of 9/11 are hypocrites of the worst kind, killing over 3000 innocents as a good deed but being afraid of hell for looking at a woman’s legs. Yet we as a country need not sink to their level of hypocrisy. Attash and his fellow terrorists shame Islam with their actions, but Americans honor the Constitution and its values by allowing Attash to be heard in our legal system, as our own principles dictate. That Attash and men like him have a voice full of hypocrisy and venom is not a surprise. The fact Americans allow him to use that vile voice is what separates us from him.

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13 Charged in Deadly Hazing Incident

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Most of us have heard of hazing. Some see it as an essential element of being admitted into a new social group, which could be anything from a college fraternity to a bridge club.

Some might claim that hazing – any type of ritual that involves putting a new initiate to a social group through some type of physical and/or psychological ordeal – is deeply ingrained into human psychology, and that we often engage in it at a subconscious level, without even being aware of it.

Indeed, most of the time, rituals or behaviors that could reasonably be classified as “hazing” are pretty harmless.

However, there are cases where hazing rituals, particularly when alcohol and testosterone are involved, can go way beyond simple pranks, and can become dangerous or even deadly. In one tragic case, a drum major in a marching band at a Florida university died during a hazing gone awry. 13 of his former band-mates are now being charged in his death, with crimes including both felony and misdemeanor hazing.

The exact details of the victim’s death are not entirely clear. It’s known that he collapsed on a bus while returning from a football game in Orlando, and that the coroner ruled his death a homicide. He died of internal bleeding caused by blunt-force trauma. The coroner also found that he had suffered multiple severe blows. From what it sounds like, he was essentially beaten to death.

Whatever the exact details of the incident might be, it’s clear that something went very, very wrong.

Hopefully, as more information leading up to the trial comes to light, we’ll learn more about exactly what happened.

Over the last decade or so, a few high-profile incidents of hazing involving high school and college students have brought the issue to national attention, and led to many states passing laws specifically targeting the practice.

While the general criminal law of almost every state would cover the conduct that can occur in the most extreme hazing incidents (including torture, battery, and sexual assault), anti-hazing laws are more targeted, and are designed to eliminate all violent hazing, and preventing instances where the conduct in a hazing ritual was clearly deplorable, but did not quite rise to the level of criminal conduct under a state’s existing criminal laws.

Additionally, these laws send a message that hazing of any type, even “harmless” hazing, is not something that society should tolerate anymore. After all, many hazing incidents that ended in death or serious injury probably did not start out with that as the intended result. But when you get a bunch of (usually) young men together, and mix in alcohol, machismo, and an atmosphere that at least tacitly encourages the group to violently gang up on an individual, you’ve got a recipe for disaster.

This type of conduct goes far beyond “boys being boys.” Some might say that hazing is simply part of human nature, and that attempting to suppress it is pointless. It may be true that conduct such as hazing is a manifestation of the darkest, basest aspects of human nature, but part of it nonetheless. But the same can be said for crimes like rape and murder, and nobody will seriously argue that the law shouldn’t try to curb such behavior.

After all, one of the main reasons for the existence of a legal system is to elevate society above the baser impulses of its individual members. Laws against hazing, I think, are an example of one of the positive steps we can take to that end.

Obviously, these laws need to be sensible, and should probably only apply when a hazing incident actually results in somebody being harmed. I’m not advocating a “zero-tolerance” policy, in the traditional sense of the term. After all, we’ve all heard stories where laws that are intended to “get tough” on a given problem, whether it’s illegal drugs, weapons in schools, sex crime, etc. have been stretched to absurd lengths, sometimes ruining the lives of people that the laws could not possibly have been intended to affect.

I don’t want to see a situation where people are going to jail for drawing things on the face of a passed-out fraternity pledge, for example. But, if anti-hazing laws make it a little bit easier to prosecute the people involved in incidents that result in death or serious injury, I think they’re a good idea, on balance.

States that have not done so already should begin adopting anti-hazing laws as soon as possible.

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