Tag Archive for 'homicide'

A Murdered Wife’s Letter is Not Harmless to a Jury Verdict

Late last year, a Wisconsin murder trial made its way up to the state Supreme Court over a single piece of evidence. Mark Jensen was on trial for the murder of his wife Julie and the jury returned a verdict finding him guilty and charging him with framing the murder as a suicide. During the trial, the court allowed the prosecution to enter into evidence a handwritten letter by Julie dated just two weeks prior to her death. In that letter, Julie states she would never take her own life and if she were to be found dead, her husband would be the main culprit. The Jensens

Wisconsin Court of Appeals: Admitting Letter was a Harmless Error

The case moved up to the Wisconsin Court of Appeals to determine whether that evidence should have been admitted at all. Jensen argued the evidence violated his constitutional right to confrontation, which grants all accused the right to face adverse witnesses. In this case, Julie’s letter was admitted into evidence but Mark clearly could not face her in court and have her cross-examined. Although the Court of Appeals agreed that the letter should not have been admitted into evidence, it maintained that the letter was a “harmless error” because the verdict would have come back as guilty regardless of whether the letter was admitted or not. The Court of Appeals stated because there was enough evidence admitted by the prosecution to return a guilty verdict, allowing the letter as admissible evidence was a “harmless error” in retrospect.

Wisconsin Supreme Court: Court of Appeals has it all Wrong

The State Supreme Court felt differently and held the Court of Appeals was unreasonable in their application of the “harmless error” standard. The Supreme Court stated the lower court had applied the standard completely wrong and that it should not have been looking to whether the prosecution had admitted sufficient evidence beyond the letter to return a guilty verdict regardless. Rather, the harmless error standard considers whether the letter had a substantial and prejudicial effect on the jury verdict. The Supreme Court held in this case, it clearly could have.

Whether Julie’s letter was true or false, the contents without a doubt influence the jury to believe that Mark was her murderer because of its decisive tone and the fact it was written by the victim herself. However, there’s also a chance the contents were a lie written in anger and impulse, or even a really bad joke. Regardless of whether the statement was true or false at the time it was written, the fact of the matter is Julie could not be around to testify as to the contents and Mark could not have asked her questions about the nature of the letter as he would with any other adverse witness during cross-examination. Therefore, the jury was naturally tipped toward returning a guilty verdict for Mark and Mark could not fully defend himself as to that particular piece of evidence.

Because of these issues, the Wisconsin Supreme Court held allowing the letter as evidence was in fact not “harmless” at all and reversed the Court of Appeals’ decision.

Six Officers Charged in the Murder of Freddie Gray

Baltimore Police Freddie Gray Case

The death of Freddie Gray was officially ruled as a homicide by Baltimore’s attorney, Marilyn Mosby. All six officers involved in the case will face criminal charges. They were quickly taken into custody following the announcement by the attorney’s prosecutor.

Even though the officers had reasonable suspicion to stop and question Gray, they did not have probable cause to arrest him. The officers made an illegal arrest.

Footage that caught the arrest on tape showed the cops using profound force on Gray while leading him to the van. But the investigation revealed Gray was not injured until the ride started.

While in the van, Gray’s head struck a bolt that was sticking out of the wall. He hit the bolt so hard it broke his neck, causing the massive spinal injury. A law enforcement official reported that his injuries were like that of a car accident victim. The investigation also revealed the van made a stop at an undisclosed and unreported location before arriving at the jail.

Lt. Brian Rice, the officer who first made contact with Gray, was hospitalized in April 2012 concerning his mental health. He reportedly stated that he “could not continue to go on like this” and threatened to commit an act which has not been made public.

Each officer is facing specific charges depending on their involvement in the case. Here’s a breakdown of the charges that have been released:

Officer Caesar R. Goodson Jr.

  • Second-degree depraved-heart murder 30 years
  • Involuntary manslaughter 10 years
  • Second-degree assault 10 years
  • Manslaughter by vehicle (gross negligence) 10 years
  • Manslaughter by vehicle (criminal negligence) 3 years
  • Misconduct in office

Officer William G. Porter

  • Involuntary manslaughter 10 years
  • Second-degree assault 10 years
  • Misconduct in office

Lt. Brian W. Rice

  • Involuntary manslaughter 10 years
  • Two counts of second-degree assault Each has a maximum penalty of 10 years
  • Two counts of misconduct in office
  • False imprisonment

Officer Edward M. Nero

  • Two counts of second-degree assault Each has a maximum penalty of 10 years
  • Two counts of misconduct in office
  • False imprisonment

Officer Garrett E. Miller

  • Two counts of second-degree assault Each has a maximum penalty of 10 years
  • Two counts of misconduct in office
  • False imprisonment

Sgt. Alicia D. White

  • Involuntary manslaughter 10 years
  • Second-degree assault 10 years
  • Misconduct in office

Gunman Murders a Passenger on a Crowded Train – And Nobody Notices

If you were on your cell phone, would you notice a homicidal maniac waving a .45 caliber pistol in the air? Dozens of passengers on a San Francisco train did not. Video cameras revealed that almost all the passengers had their eyes glued to the glowing screens in the hands and had headsets on their ears.sfpd_homicidesuspect

Video cameras revealed that, in their midst, a thirty-year-old man was playing with a gun. The man was repeatedly drawing his gun and pointing it down the aisle. After half a dozen times of this, the man put a bullet into a younger man exiting the bus. The killer then exited the vehicle himself.

The next day, police arrested Nikhom Thephakaysone as the alleged suspect. They also identified the victim as Justin Valdez. Prosecutors are lucky the entire incident was caught on camera, since it is questionable whether any of the passengers on board the bus could be called witnesses. In order to serve as a witness, a person must have personal knowledge of the event and be able to recall that knowledge. Thephakaysone’s attorney could bar almost all of the passengers from testifying in court since the only thing the passengers witnessed was a loud “bang” and Valdez’s body.

The fact that humans can only focus on one task or event at a time is well documented. There is a YouTube video which explains the problem of human awareness in an entertaining manner. If you haven’t seen it yet, you should.

The goal of the test is to spot the moon walking bear even though you’re focused on the ball being passed. It is the same problem in real life. You’re totally focused on the YouTube video in your hand that you don’t see the car changing into your lane. As a result, most states have passed laws restricting the use of phones while driving. However, the danger from distracted driving isn’t that the driver is trying to multitask and failing; the danger is that the drivers are not paying attention to what is taking place around them.

Failure to pay attention to our surroundings is hardly restricted to driving. A 2008 study revealed that pedestrian cell phone users were more likely to miss traffic signs. In 2010, statistics came out that about 1,500 pedestrians were injured because they were too focused on their phones rather than the world around them. The pedestrian accidents reported in 2010 ranged from the expected, such as being hit by a car, to the Saturday morning cartoon, such as falling into an open manhole or falling into a fountain.

At first glance, the legal implications of inattentive citizens were limited to personal injury accidents. Cell phones created more automobile and pedestrian accidents, as described above, but they also barred those same accident victims from winning court battles. Contributory negligence and comparative negligence limit the amount of money these accident victims could collect since it is extremely easy for the other side to point out that the “victims” were negligent themselves. It is difficult to win a negligence lawsuit if you ignored all the warning signs on your way towards the open manhole.

Until this year, few experts would have believed that the problem of distracted people would apply to criminal law as well. It does though, and it appears that the problem of distracted people applies in the worst way imaginable.

Prosecutors were lucky that there was a video camera available. If this murder had taken place in a location without video cameras, such as a busy street, it is doubtful that the prosecution would have enough evidence to even identify the killer. The lesson here is clear: Don’t be so focused on your smartphone that you can’t see Freddy Krueger until he stabs you in the chest. Everyone around you will be too busy with their cell phones to notice.

13 Charged in Deadly Hazing Incident

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.

“Caylee’s Law” Gaining Steam in State Legislatures

If you haven’t been living under a rock for the last several months, you’re probably aware that Casey Anthony was just acquitted of all charges (except a few relatively minor ones related to lying to the police) in the death of her two-year-old daughter, Caylee. Of course, she was convicted in the court of public opinion long ago. Many people passionately believe that Casey Anthony got away with murder.

Personally, if I were forced to make a guess, I’d say that she probably had something to do with her daughter’s death. However, proving that “she probably had something to do with Calyee’s death” is a far cry from proving beyond a reasonable doubt that she killed her daughter. Therefore, given the evidence that the prosecutor was able to produce, the jury was right to find her not guilty, even if they strongly suspect that she was guilty. We have a high standard of proof in criminal cases for the specific reason of making convictions difficult to obtain. This is supposed to make it highly unlikely that an innocent person will be convicted. Of course, it necessarily means that some guilty people go free. But most people agree that it’s far better for a guilty person to go free than for an innocent person to be punished (Ben Franklin said “It is better one hundred guilty persons should escape than one innocent person should suffer.”).

Anyway, not letting a good public outcry go to waste, state legislatures are scrambling to pass legislation that they’re referring to as “Caylee’s Law.” Most of the proposals are in response to the fact that Casey Anthony waited over a month after her daughter’s disappearance before reporting her missing. These laws would make it a crime for parents or legal guardians to fail to report the disappearance or death of a child within a certain period of time. For example, one proposal would require parents to report the death of their child within 1 hour of the death being discovered, and the disappearance of a child within 24 hours.

These all seem like things that the vast majority of parents would do anyway, if they were faced with the tragedy of a dead or missing child. It’s not likely that laws like this would prevent parents who are inclined to harm their children from doing so. Though, I suppose that if such a law existed at the time of Caylee Anthony’s disappearance, Casey Anthony could, if nothing else, have been convicted under it, even if she were still acquitted of murder. That might have been some comfort to the armchair pundits who are still screaming for blood, but meeting the expectations of the masses with respect to a high-profile case is not exactly the primary goal of the criminal justice system.

Furthermore, the article linked above mentions a petition to pass a federal version of this law. Besides being just as ineffective as similar state laws are likely to be, there’s another problem with the federal law: it’s almost certainly unconstitutional.

There’s simply no way that the Constitution gives the federal government the power to regulate such basic, personal conduct. Remember, the constitution created a federal government of enumerated powers. This means that the government cannot do anything which the Constitution does not explicitly grant it to do.

Now, if Congress were to pass such a law, it would have to rely on the Commerce Clause of the Constitution to support it. The Constitution gives Congress the power to regulate interstate commerce. Over the last several decades, the Supreme Court has interpreted this provision to regulate virtually any economic activity that has an impact on interstate commerce. This has given the federal government the broad regulatory power it enjoys today. This allows the federal government to regulate individual economic acts which, by themselves, do not affect interstate commerce, but which can have a significant impact in the aggregate.

However, the Supreme Court has drawn the line at non-economic activity. It is much harder for the federal government to regulate non-economic activity under the Commerce Clause. Generally, to regulate non-economic activity under the Commerce Clause, single instances of the activity must have an impact on interstate commerce. Aggregate effects of non-economic activity cannot be considered. Obviously, the “act” (really, it’s an omission) of not reporting a missing child is a non-economic activity, and it’s highly unlikely that a single instance would have any impact whatsoever on interstate commerce.

Of course, the writers of the petition probably didn’t consider the constitutional implications of the law they’re proposing. Also, they probably also didn’t consider the fact that it would likely be much easier to get individual states to pass these laws, rather than the federal government.

Even though they wouldn’t raise any constitutional issues, passing these laws at the state level seems ill-advised. As I mentioned earlier, they aren’t likely to deter somebody who is already inclined to harm their children. Likewise, enforcing them would be difficult, and could lead to some unfair results.

While such situations are rare, what would happen if a child is kidnapped for ransom, and the kidnapper tells the parents that he’ll kill the child if the parents notify the police? Suppose the parents panic, and wait longer than the maximum period of time before going to the police. Would they be held criminally liable? While most agree that, if someone is kidnapped, calling the police is the first thing you should do, no matter what the kidnapper says, could you really blame the parents for panicking in such a situation?

Really, this just goes to show, once again, that people need to think before legislating. The entire Caylee Anthony ordeal is extremely tragic. And the ensuing media circus did nothing in the service of that girl’s memory. Let’s not do her a further disservice by naming asinine laws after her.