Thursday, August 12, 2010

People v. Lynch & Jennings (Cal. Supreme Ct. - Aug. 12, 2010)

What we learn today is that if you burglarize and kill the elderly, you'll be sentenced to death, and that if you neglect and kill your five-year old son, you'll also be sentenced to death. In both cases, the California Supreme Court will unanimously affirm.

The common theme, of course, is the murder of someone who's especially vulnerable. On my end, I thought that the guy who committed multiple murders (Franklin Lynch) was higher on the culpability and "deserving of death" scale than the guy (Martin Jennings) who neglected and murdered his son. Nonetheless, you can see why a jury might decide as they did in both cases.

The cases raise for me the eternal question of how we qualitatively compare murder cases to decide who lives and who dies. We only want to kill the "worst of the worst," and yet we don't engage in any actual comparison -- we simply ask a jury to view a single case and to decide the defendant's fate. This necessarily results in some errors, because juries will differ, and my sense is that it's a one-way rachet: rarely will jurors erroneously say "this murder isn't especially bad" based on a sample size of one (if only given that most murders are indeed horrible), and there's a significantly higher risk that a jury may conclude that a particular murder is "especially" bad even if an observer who reviews the totality of murders would conclude otherwise.

Of course, we have trial and appellate courts, which allegedly can make that determination based upon a larger sample size. But due to electoral and other pressures, I've yet to see that constraint actually work in practice, and so it remains a theoretical rather than practical means of ensuring that we dole out death to only those who "actually" deserve it. At least in California, which is the only state I can really talk about with any degree of knowledge.

So two opinions today that come out exactly how you'd expect, but that nonetheless raised for me one of the traditional lingering questions about how the death penalty (and, arguably, other penalties) actually gets applied in practice.