Tuesday, August 01, 2006

People v. Vance (Cal. Ct. App. - July 31, 2006)

Two quick things about this case.

First, what a bummer for Mom. Imagine having your 23-year old son, who's been in treatment for mental illness since he was 17, attacking you with a meat cleaver while screaming "You're a clone, you're not my mother!" Which is what happens to Mrs. Vance here. Downer.

Second, I'm not especially impressed with the quality of justice in Shasta County, at least if this case is any indication. Twenty years after Vance went after his mother with the cleaver, California wanted to put Vance back in the hospital on the grounds that he was a danger to himself or others. At trial, the bailiff put Vance in shackles, which were clearly visible to -- indeed, were commented upon -- by the jurors. Remember: The whole point of the trial is to determine whether the defendant is dangerous to others. When the first thing the jury notices is that the defendant has to be shackled at trial, do you think that might result in, oh, a tiny bit of prejudice as to the ultimate conclusion?

When the defendant's counsel says, "Uh, about this shackle thing, could we please have them taken off?", Judge Halpin responds: "That's not my call. The bailiff determines that. And I'm sure he'll want to keep them on." To which I can only say: "What?!" Judges must have some pretty good stuff to smoke up there in Shasta. Because last I checked, the judge was responsible for ensuring a fair trial, not the bailiff. Plus, there are a dozen cases or so that squarely hold that the judge can't delegate the decision whether to shackle a defendant in front of the jury to someone else. Which is precisely what Judge Halpin did here.

What's perhaps most amazing about this case is that the Attorney General's Office -- led by Paul O’Connor (a Boalt graduate, no less) and Stephen Herndon (from Loyola) -- not only don't confess error, but instead throw up a half-dozen arguments that assert that what transpired was entirely fine. Fortunately, Justice Cantil-Sakauye sees these contentions for what they are, and rightly slaps them down.

You can't shackle someone in front of a jury without a judicial finding that they're dangerous. And you can't abjure your responsibility to ensure a fair trial to the guy sitting beside you just because he carries a gun. He probably didn't go to law school. You did. Which doesn't give you a big advantage in a street fight. But which nonetheless gives you a pretty huge advantage in deciding how best to effectuate justice at trial.