Thursday, August 03, 2006

Stark v. Hickman (9th Cir. - Aug. 1, 2006)

Today was a boring day in the Ninth Circuit and California appellate courts. One published opinion from the Ninth Circuit, nothing at all from the California Court of Appeal, and one opinion from the California Supreme Court (which reached a result that I thought was entirely correct). So a sleepy Thursday.

This does give me an opportunity, however, to go back and talk about another case from a couple of days ago, a case that's fairly unremarkable for its legal doctrine -- at least in my view -- but nonetheless evoked in me an emotional response. It's a habeas case involving a second degree murder conviction. (In truth, the defendant was convicted by the jury of first degree murder, but the trial judge found the evidence insufficient to support a first degree murder conviction, so reduced it to second degree.)

Here's what happens. Thomas Stark and Marilyn Stark are married in 1972. They have two kids. After 23 years of marriage, in 1995, Marilyn starts having an affair with Steven Johnson. Which happens. The affair apparently goes on for a while, since in the summer of 1996, Marilyn tells Thomas about the affair, and shortly thereafter, Marilyn moves in with Steven.

Needless to say, these events bum out Thomas. Severely. He lost weight, couldn't sleep, became depressed, wept frequently, and often spoke of committing suicide. Shortly after Marilyn moved in with Steven, Thomas had a couple of confrontations with Steven, and threatened him each time. Obviously, Thomas wants to have his wife back, and can't get over the fact that she's not with him. Irrational, of course. But it happens.

Things go on like this for a while, though apparently without any more confrontations between the two men. Then, in February 1997, Marilyn and Thomas have dinner, apparently to discuss possible reconciliation. But Marilyn decides that's not what she wants at this point, and tells Thomas at the restaurant that she's not going to move back in with him. But when they leave the restaurant, they notice that Steven is following them in his car. Steven somewhat freaks out when Thomas and Marilyn return to the former marital abode, and while he and Marilyn are talking in Thomas' front yard, Thomas comes out of the house with a gun, telling Steve "Leave, little worm." Steve, by contrast, tells Thomas to put the gun down and "fight like a man". But when Thomas will do no such thing, Steve returns to his truck and leaves. (Parenthetically, I think it profoundly unwise to tell someone with a gun to "fight like a man". It's not likely to persuade them, and such a comment may well end up getting you killed. But I guess I'm not really in the head of the gun-toting, or fight-provoking, manly men of this world. Hardly something I'm desperate to change.)

Anyway, after all this, Thomas and Marilyn go into the kitchen, at which point Thomas talks about suicide. Not a good sign. Then, in an even worse sign, 45 minutes later, Steven returns to Thomas' house. At which point Marilyn tells Steven to leave, but Steven starts screaming for Thomas to (you guess it) come out and fight. Eventually, Marilyn persuades Steven to leave. Then Marilyn goes to a bowling alley to find Steven, and when she returns to Thomas' house, Thomas tells her that he has spoken to Steven and that Steven is going to come over to the house and "settle" the matter once and for all. Bad sign.

Sure enough, Steven drives on over. Thomas comes out with his gun, and (predictably) starts calling Steven a "little worm", while Steven continues the refrain that Thomas should drop the gun and "fight like a man." What scintillating discourse. Then, like children, Thomas and Steven start shoving each other. During the shoving, Thomas stumbles, and accidentally fires a shot into the ground. Does the sound of actual gunfire stop things? No way. These are "men". They then go back to shoving. At which point Thomas points the gun at Steven's gut and says "Boom, Boom". Does such an actual threat of death stop the fight? Fuggetaboutit! The shoving match then continues apace.

Well, you can guess what happens next. During the latest -- and final -- round of shoving, the gun goes off again, this time hitting Steven in the stomach.

Sure, the fight's now over. But that's not all. At this point, a neighbor runs into the house to dial 911, which Marilyn has already done. Then Thomas leans over Stevens -- who's now lying on the ground with a gunshot wound to the stomach -- and ponders what to do next. And then, after a little bit of contemplation, pumps three more shots into Stevens as he's lying on the ground. Figuring -- I'm quite confident -- "Screw it. I've shot him already. My life is over. Might as well make sure he's dead."

Then Stevens walks into the house, unloads the gun, and puts it on the counter. And -- and this is what really gets to me -- takes a bunch of pills, apparently in an effort to kill himself. To me, that's incredibly weak. Now, I know, he's not thinking clearly, or rationally, or even coherently, at this point. But taking pills?! You've just killed someone with a gun. If you want to off yourself, shoot yourself in the head. Taking pills at that point is just a totally lame cry for attention and sympathy. Which, lemme tell ya, you ain't gonna get, Mr. Murderer. At least from me. At least have the cajones to finish the job with yourself. Like you darn well made sure you did with your victim.

Now, I admit, this may sound harsh. And, let me tell you, it's not that I don't sympathize -- at some level -- with Thomas (though only so much). He's obviously distraught. He obviously can't think straight. He's been through events that might make even the most sane person act utterly irrationally. And, honestly, I can see why someone might think "Oh well. I'm going to spend the rest of my life in prison anyway. Might as well get my money's worth by making sure the guy is dead." As well as want to -- but not really want to -- kill myself after the stark realization of the consequences what I'd done and began to set in.

Anyway, an interesting story. I'll finish up by noting that, after Steven is shot, when police and firefighters come on to the scene, they find Marilyn cradling Steven's body on the sidewalk. Depressing. And they find Thomas unconscious in a pickup truck, as well as checks that Thomas had written to his children and letters that he had written to his family and friends, all of which presumably constructed after the murder and while Thomas waited for the pills to kick in. Depressing II.

So there's my uplifting story for the afternoon. Reminds me of a case I once worked on. In which a guy, high on crack, enters his ex-girlfriend's 17-floor apartment, tells her he desperately wants her back, and fights with her as she says she doesn't want to reconcile with him. So he drags her to her 17-th floor balony, throws her off, waits 20 seconds or so, and then jumps off himself. Oh, one more thing. She hits the concrete and dies. He hits the hood of a parked car and lives.

But that's a story for another time.