Monday, April 19, 2021

The Problem With Overcharging

      Despite -- or perhaps because of -- seventy-plus years of crime drama on television and even longer in other media, most people still don't quite grasp that the severity of charges in a criminal case stemming from someone being killed do not reflect how outraged the crime makes us feel.

     Nope, sorry; the perpetrator of even the most horrific of deaths resulting from negligence or accident is still probably going be charged with manslaughter.  And the person who mercy-kills their pain-wracked, terminally-ill spouse, having laid careful plans to do so long in advance, will likely be in court on first-degree murder.

     An idealist will tell you the charges are chosen that best fit the alleged crime.  A pragmatist will point out that a careful prosecutor picks the charges most likely to result in conviction.

     Politicians and grandstanding attorneys play on our emotions.  When a police officer shoots a suspect by (apparent) mistake, conviction is hard to come by: between qualified immunity and given the deference courts usually show officers, police are sometimes acquitted in circumstances where an average citizen is more likely to be found guilty.

     Overcharging only makes acquittal more likely.  It may be impressive to go on TV and ask, thunderously, why the policewoman who shot a man she intended to tase hasn't been charged with first-degree murder, but in the real world, doing so means she'll go free if only one juror is to be convinced she acted wrongly but without intent.

     The type or degree of murder charges are not an indication of how seriously the justice system takes the crime: someone is dead; the penalties are real.  The charges don't show community feeling or the horror of the crime.  Manslaughter or murder charges, in all their confusing gradations, are picked to be the most accurate, most convictable legal definition of the actual crime alleged to have been committed.  They're chosen as the charges twelve of our fellow citizens are most likely to agree are supported by the evidence and arguments -- nothing more, and nothing less.


RandyGC said...

And just to add to the confusion, the definitions of what constitutes murder or manslaughter vary from state to state.

What those that have their JD via watching every season of their favorite crime drama often fail to understand is that the laws researched (that is, if any research is done)by the writers/producers are based on what the law is in NY or CA where most of the media production is concentrated.

Mike V said...

Qualified immunity only applies in civil lawsuits, not criminal cases. Criminal cases are viewed through the prism of Graham v Connor.

Matt said...

Unfortunately those who don't recognize the distinctions are going to be the ones rioting, or aiming the rioters at things. What's left is dealing with it all, and everyone I work with in LE in MN is very tired of it all.