Tag Archive for 'defendant'

New York Police Officer Allegedly Engages in Cannibalism Conspiracy

Surveys often find that lawyers are pessimistic people. This is not a surprise given that the law often regulates the lowest of society’s instincts, so each case will often seem morally worse than the previous one.  At the same time, American society places a high value on freedom. The price of freedom though is allowing morally questionable actions to pass without judgment, even if morally questionable actions come very close to crossing the line from morally questionable to legally outrageous.

Gilberto Valle puts these principles to the test in a shocking story from New York. Gilberto Valle was a member of the New York Police Department until his wife reported him to the FBI. There are many possibly embarrassing things that a wife does not want to find on her husband’s computer. Dating websites and pornographic websites can break a marriage, but conspiring to kidnap, rape, kill and eat women is certainly grounds for more than a divorce. After Valle was arrested and suspended from his duties as a police officer, the FBI searched his apartment and found a list of women Valle planned to eat. Investigators also found a list of items the conspirators needed to perform the acts, as well as plans for meal preparation. The FBI also found internet chat logs about rape and cannibalism, including discussions to sell another conspirator’s young stepdaughter as a sex slave.

court sketch gilberto valleDistrict Court Judge Gardephe found sufficient evidence to allow the case to proceed to a jury trial. The FBI, upon further investigation, discovered that Valle had become acquainted with several of the women on his list. He had lunch with one of them, and a few claimed that Valle had stalked them using his patrol car. Prospective jurors were shown shocking images of some of the websites Valle frequented, including a picture of a young woman nude, bound, and gagged on a serving plate (Warning: graphic image attached to that link). Jurors who were too disgusted by the images were excused from jury service.

As bizarre as this case is, Valle is a textbook example of an incomplete or inchoate crime. Inchoate crimes are crimes which are planned out by the suspect but are not actually performed yet. Inchoate crimes are the law’s recognition that law enforcement should not have to wait for the suspect to actually harm someone before law enforcement can arrest the suspect. The prosecution must argue that the defendant intended to carry out and would have carried out the crime but for outside intervention.

The defense attorney has to counter that the defendant was not even close to carrying out the crime or that the defendant had no intention of carrying out the crime. According to defense attorneys, inchoate crimes lead to the worst kind of criminal cases: prosecution of otherwise innocent people who have not committed any crimes.

The most significant aspect of inchoate crimes though is the law’s ability to regulate the thoughts and impulses of individuals. In this case of course, Valle’s thoughts and impulses are grotesque. The purpose of the law though is not to regulate every thought the population may have. The law should only ensure that people do not hurt each other. In a case like this, it is easy to lose perspective that Valle’s sexual fantasies are not on trial. The real issue of this case is whether Valle and his co-conspirators online actually intended to carry out their plans. The latter is about protecting society while the former would represent a significant change in the minimum standards set out by the law.

Defendant Appointed 3 Different Lawyers, Stabs Each in Court

Many people undervalue the Sixth Amendment, the right to an attorney, until they’re arrested and accused of a crime. One man, however, does not seem to appreciate the work his attorneys did on his behalf. On January 2nd, 2012, Joshua Monson killed Brian Jones over a sale of methamphetamine. Monson was subsequently arrested and charged with possession of methamphetamine and second degree murder.

Attorney Tom Cox was assigned to represent Monson before Judge David Kurtz at the Everett Courthouse in Washington State.  Monson borrowed a pencil while he waited in county jail. During the trial though, Cox was stabbed in the head by Monson with the pencil Monson had borrowed. Although Cox was not greatly wounded, Cox withdrew from the case and Judge Kurtz declared a mistrial. Gurjit Pundhar replaced Cox as Monson’s lawyer – and Monson also stabbed her in the head with a pencil. Judge Kurtz declared another mistrial and appointed a third attorney, Jesse Cantor, to represent Monson.

To ensure that the trial would proceed without another attorney stabbing, Kurtz ordered that an electrical cuff be trapped to Monson’s leg. Monson was always deprived of his weapon of choice, the county jail pencil. Although the state wanted Monson strapped down to a chair for good measure, Cantor argued against it, saying that the jury might be biased against Monson if they saw the defendant tied down to a chair like a mad man during the trial. Judge Kurtz agreed with the defense counsel.

During the prosecutor’s opening statement though, Monson obtained Cantor’s pen and stabbed Cantor in the head with the attorney’s own pen. Although Cantor wasn’t serious injured, Judge Kurtz declared that Monson had forfeited his right to an attorney and that Monson would be representing himself for the remainder of the trial – while tied down to a chair.

joshua monsonI think many readers will have one of two reactions to this story: “Monson deserves it,” and/or “well duh he’s guilty.” Although it is true that Monson’s own conduct is the reason Monson can’t have an attorney, the law in Washington State leaves it to the trial judge’s own discretion. Judge Kurtz did not have to deprive the defendant of his right to an attorney.  Although appointing Monson a new lawyer again is still an option, at this point it seems that Monson is playing games with the court. However, Judge Kurtz could have saved time by denying one of Monson’s previous attorney’s requests to withdraw from the case.

Indeed, the case Judge Kurtz cited in support of his decision, State v. Fualaau, had the trial judge deny an attorney’s request to withdraw from the case despite the fact the attorney had been assaulted by his own client. The Fualaau judge had ruled that there were no conflicts of interest in having a lawyer represent a client who had just attacked the lawyer. Although the law did leave the decision up to Judge Kurtz, his decision could have gone the other way.

Before Monson’s final attorney was stabbed, that attorney had argued that Monson should not be restrained to his chair since the restraints themselves might cause the jury to believe that Monson was guilty. Readers might be tempted to conclude that Monson is guilty based on his behavior in court, and that the trial is just a formality at this point. Please dispense yourselves of this belief. The legal system serves two functions, functions which are undermined by false assumptions of guilt based on behavior outside of the crimes the defendant is charged with.

The first function served by the legal system is the discovery of whether the defendant committed a specific crime. This might sound extremely obvious, but many people will look at a trial and ask “is the defendant guilty?” That question, however, is not the proper one. The real question behind a criminal trial should be “is defendant guilty of the crimes he (or she) is charged with?” Yes, Mr. Monson is very likely guilty of assault, but the actual charges are possession of meth and second-degree murder. Possession of an illegal drug and murder are separate crimes from assault; neither the jury nor the public should conclude that Monson is guilty of murder or possession of an illegal substance based on a trio of assaults.

The second, and lesser known, function of the legal system is assigning the proper punishment to the proper crime.  Punishment in order to give retribution for the victims, i.e. “an eye for an eye,” only works if the defendant loses the same amount the defendant deprived from the victims. If Monson is convicted of murder because of the assaults on the three attorneys, than the trial will not be a proper recognition of the loss of Brian Jones. The murder will be overshadowed and the victim’s sense that their loss is being corrected will be eroded. The rights of the victim are also deprived when the defendant loses his right to an attorney.  Although criminal law is about the authority of the state and the defendant’s crime, it is important that the judge’s decision reflects the interests of all parties involved.

Should People With a Traumatic Brain Injury Be Criminally Culpable?

By now you’ve probably heard about the tragic incident in Afghanistan, where an American soldier went off-base, entered private residences, and shot and killed 16 Afghan civilians, and wounded several more. He then turned himself in to U.S. forces, and is currently being held, awaiting charges. Presumably, he will be charged with murder and tried in a court martial.

There’s no question that this soldier’s actions were appalling, and this whole event is unbelievably tragic. Furthermore, it’s likely to further inflame tensions between the U.S. and Afghan governments, and almost certainly puts the lives of other U.S. troops in danger because of reprisal attacks.

I hope that the person responsible for this is tried, and if the evidence is sufficient, he’s convicted and punished to the fullest extent of the law.

Any murder trial is going to be long and complicated, even more so when there are multiple victims. However, it looks as though yet another complication has been introduced into the mix: the Pentagon has just revealed that the suspect in the shooting suffered a traumatic brain injury in 2010, but was declared fit for duty shortly afterwards.

It’s virtually certain that this is going to be an issue in the suspect’s trial, and his defense attorney is pretty much guaranteed to try and use it to his client’s advantage.

I recently blogged about how our improving understanding of traumatic brain injury may have legal implications in other areas – namely, football. We’re coming to learn that seemingly “minor” brain injuries can have very serious long-term consequences, increasing the patient’s likelihood of suffering from depression, dementia, and a host of other mental disorders.

This raises the question of whether or not a traumatic brain injury will become a basis for the insanity defense. In general, the insanity defense requires that the defendant suffers from a “mental disease or defect,” and that their mental illness prevented them from appreciating the wrongful nature of their conduct, or made them unable to conform their conduct to the law. The insanity defense is, by design, incredibly difficult to employ successfully. Only about 1% of criminal defendants even attempt to use the defense and it only succeeds about 25% of the time it’s attempted. So overall, the insanity defense is successful in around one quarter of one percent of criminal cases in the U.S.

And a verdict of not guilty by reason of insanity doesn’t mean the defendant automatically walks free. Just because someone is found to lack their mental faculties to the point that they can’t be held legally culpable for their actions, they may still be a society. Usually, if a person is found not guilty of a violent crime by reason of insanity, they are committed to a mental hospital.

They can be held in a mental hospital as long as they’re deemed to be a threat to society, or to themselves. This means that, in theory, a person who successfully employs the insanity defense may well end up being confined in a mental institution for a longer period of time than they would have spent in prison if they’d been convicted. If you’ve ever seen a movie that depicts someone trying to use the insanity defense, these facts are probably overlooked.

Obviously, it’s far too early to comment on whether or not the suspect in this case qualifies for the insanity defense.

But, there’s no question that mental illnesses that have been linked to traumatic brain injury are going to become issues in more and more criminal cases, particularly with relation to the insanity defense.

As in most high profile cases where the insanity defense is involved, this particular case will probably lead to a public debate over whether or not the insanity defense should even exist, or what form it should take.

I personally believe that it should exist, and that our current standards are fine. If one of the essential elements of imposing criminal liability for someone’s actions is that they acted intentionally, there comes a point where someone suffers from a mental illness so severe that they can’t actually form intent, or understand what they’re doing. In those cases, I think it’s unfair to blame the defendant in the same way you’d blame a criminal who was perfectly sane.

I hope that this tragic case, whatever its ultimate outcome, does not cause us to lose sight of the fact that having an insanity defense is not mutually exclusive with protecting society from dangerous criminals.

Simple Blunder Puts Up to 1,000 California DUI Convictions at Risk

Driving under the influence of alcohol (DUI) is one of the most commonly-committed crimes in the U.S.

DUI trials are so common that they’re usually the first trials that new prosecutors and defense attorneys are assigned to, because the procedure is usually pretty much the same. In almost every case, a key piece of evidence that the driver on trial was, in fact, drunk is their blood alcohol content (BAC) at the time of their arrest. This is most often determined through the use of a device that can test a person’s BAC in the field, usually a Breathalyzer or similar device.

However, there have always been questions about how accurate and reliable these testing devices are, especially if they are improperly used or maintained. For that reason, police departments have strict rules in place regarding how these devices are stored, maintained, and used. Of course, that doesn’t mean that these rules and procedures are always followed to the letter.

Case in point: hundreds of DUI convictions in San Francisco may have to be thrown out because some officers of the San Francisco Police Department may have improperly tested and maintained the equipment that’s used to conduct BAC tests.

Without going into the details of how the technology behind these devices works (because I don’t fully understand it, either), I’ll provide a basic overview: most devices that measure BAC via a person’s breath need to be calibrated every week or so. Otherwise, they become increasingly inaccurate as time passes. This calibration is done by using canisters of air that contain a known amount of alcohol vapor, which is applied to the testing device. By doing this, you can gauge how accurate the tester’s readings are, and then make any necessary adjustments.

There’s now concern that the police department did not conduct these accuracy checks properly, which means that hundreds of people may have gotten DUI convictions based on bad evidence.

This is a very serious issue, and it’s a bit like the fiasco of the San Francisco crime lab a few years ago. In that case, the drug lab of the SFPD found out that an employee had stolen drugs for their own personal use, and the subsequent investigation revealed widespread evidence tampering.

In this present case, the calibration logs on the BAC detectors showed that they gave perfectly-accurate readings every time they were tested for re-calibration. Given that their accuracy naturally deteriorates over time without regular adjustment, it’s impossible for them to give perfect readings in these regular tests. This indicates that the tests weren’t being done, and the people responsible for testing them simply falsified their logs.

So, everyone who was tested with an inaccurate device was convicted, at least in part, based on bad evidence.

Unfortunately, this is going to be a huge headache for the court system. As many as 1,000 cases, dating back to 2006, will have to be re-opened and investigated all over again.  That’s a problem, since you can’t exactly go back in time and re-test a defendant’s BAC at the time they were arrested.

Many people will probably look at these facts and claim that many convicted criminals are getting off on “technicalities.” And in some way, they may be correct. I would bet that, in the majority of the cases that have to be reviewed, the defendant was actually guilty of driving with a BAC above the legal limit when they were arrested. But if the tests were inaccurate, there’s an excellent chance that a significant percentage of them, even if it’s not a majority, were innocent. Of course, it will largely be impossible to tell which is which. And this is the exact reason why all cases in which the irregularities in the testing devices create reasonable doubt as to a suspect’s guilt should be overturned.

There’s one thing that it’s essential to remember in cases like this: in all criminal cases, even “minor” ones like DUI, the burden of proof rests entirely with the prosecution. The defense attorney could sit at the defense table without saying a word, introducing a single piece of evidence, or calling a single witness. And if the jury found that the prosecution failed to provide enough evidence to convince them beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant is guilty, the jury has no choice but to find the defendant “not guilty.” It doesn’t matter if they believe that the defendant is “probably guilty,” if they can still entertain reasonable doubt as to that fact.

In most DUI cases, a malfunctioning BAC tester, even if it’s only off by a little bit, could introduce reasonable doubt as to the defendant’s guilt, even if it’s not the only piece of evidence that led to their conviction. In those cases, the only appropriate course of action is to overturn the defendant’s conviction.

And if this means that some people convicted of DUI will escape the consequences of their crime, so be it. That may sound harsh, but the principle that everyone is presumed innocent until proven guilty is one of the basic cornerstones of our legal system. If we abandon this principle, absolutely nothing good can come of it.

Is the “Low Sodium Defense” The New Twinkie Defense?

No. And, come to think of it, the “Twinkie Defense” isn’t really a real thing, either (more on that later).

Anyway, a man in Michigan is currently facing trial for the murder of his own mother. His lawyer has told the media that he plans to claim that a sodium imbalance caused him to become delusional, and that he should be found not guilty by reason of temporary insanity (also reported here).

I predict that this case is going to lead to a lot of outcry about our “broken justice system,” with pundits decrying how easy it is to squirm away from justice with an insanity defense. This makes for good television. Between the 24-hour news cycle and indignation apparently becoming our national pastime, we’re always looking for new things to get mad about. However, perhaps we should find things that are actually worth getting mad about, because the insanity defense most definitely does not fit the bill.

For reasons that still aren’t clear to me, the insanity defense has gotten a really bad rap in recent decades. I’m really not sure why. After all, in our criminal justice system, most crimes have an element of intent: in order to convict a defendant, the prosecution must show that they acted with mens rea (“guilty mind”), in addition to proving that they actually engaged in the unlawful conduct they’re accused of. This mens rea typically takes the form of intent (i.e., in addition to showing that the defendant engaged in the unlawful conduct they’re accused of, it must be shown that they intended to engage in that conduct).

If a person’s mind is so warped that they are unable to act with any form of intent, or to understand the nature of their actions, and they’re able to prove this, they cannot, by definition, commit murder. This is because there is no intent to kill when they act. Such a person is obviously not as morally culpable for their actions, no matter how serious the harm is.

That’s not to say that you can’t take legal action against such people. If a person is found not guilty by reason of insanity, they are typically committed to a mental institution. This is not to punish them, but simply to protect society from any future violent conduct they might engage in. A person committed in this way can remain in the mental institution until they are deemed to no longer pose any threat to themselves or others. In some cases, this might never happen, which means that the patient can be institutionalized indefinitely, perhaps for a longer period than the prison sentence they would serve if convicted.

So, being found not guilty by reason of insanity is definitely not the ticket to freedom that some people seem to think it is. Furthermore, the insanity defense is successful in a tiny, tiny minority of cases. The insanity defense is only raised in less than 1% of all criminal trials in the United States. And, when the defense is employed, it’s only successful 25% of the time. This means that criminal defendants are found not guilty by reason of insanity in less than one quarter of one percent of all cases.  This is party because the insanity defense is extremely difficult to prove. As with all affirmative defenses, the burden of proving the facts necessary to establish an insanity defense rests entirely on the defendant.

An insanity defense requires far more than a simple showing that the defendant suffers from a mental illness. However, mental illness is a necessary (but not sufficient) element.

In order to succeed in an insanity defense, it must be shown that the defendant suffers from a “mental disease or defect” – basically a mental illness. It must further be shown that the mental illness is so severe that it either renders a person incapable of conforming their conduct to the law, or of understanding the nature and consequences of their actions. This is a very high hurdle.

However, it seems that, whenever there’s a case that involves an insanity defense, and has even slightly unusual facts, people jump on it, and wildly misconstrue the facts. In this case, I have no doubt that this man’s sodium imbalance will morph into “a low-sodium diet” once it’s been filtered through the blogosphere, and made its way into the ultimate den of anti-factualism: chain emails.

It’s not as if there isn’t precedent for this. Remember the “Twinkie Defense?” When John White killed San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk, and mayor George Moscone, he was convicted of manslaughter, rather than murder, on the basis of “diminished capacity” (similar, but not identical, to the insanity defense). And some of the evidence that supported this defense involved White’s consumption of junk food.

If you ask just about anyone about this case, they’ll probably tell you that Dan White got off because he claimed that eating a bunch of junk food made him go crazy. Of course, that’s not what happened at all. The defense pointed out that Dan White was something of a health nut, but a few months before the killing he began eating nothing but junk food, and neglected his health in other ways. This was simply one piece of evidence to show that he suffered from severe depression. But nobody ever claimed that it was a cause.

I have no doubt that, if this case gets some real media attention, the same thing will happen. I don’t know what causes such hostility to the insanity defense, but I really wish people would drop it.