Monday, August 31, 2015

Creech v. Frauenheim (9th Cir. - Aug. 31, 2015)

It's a state habeas case, with all the usual deference regalia.  Judge Paez agrees that the petition should be dismissed, and his opinion makes sense.  The guy clearly did stuff he shouldn't have done, and his Apprendi challenge to California's low-mid-high sentencing scheme faces a serious uphill battle.

I mention the case only because I wanted to get your take on his offenses.

Here's what the guy did:

"Creech and his wife, Reanna, have a four-year-old daughter, Sofia, and a three-year-old son, Zachary. 2 One evening in September 2007, Creech and Reanna had an argument because Creech told Reanna he had obtained a shotgun. Reanna decided to leave him that night. A few weeks later, she took the kids to her father’s house in Napa. Several days later, Creech and Reanna spoke on the phone. She told him the kids were at her father’s and suggested that they talk another time to arrange for Creech to see them.

Later that night, Creech went to Reanna’s father’s house and asked him if he could see the children. Creech’s fatherin-law said “no.” When Reanna returned to her father’s home later that night, she saw Creech waiting there and drove away. He followed her. A highway patrol officer stopped Reanna for “driving 15 miles an hour in a 45.” Reanna, who had been crying, explained to the officer the circumstances with Creech and their kids. At the time she was pulled over, Reanna was on the phone with the sheriff’s department. Creech had contacted the police department and explained that he was trying to get in contact with his children, and that he had been “threatened off [his father-in-law’s] property.” The patrol officer told Reanna that, because Creech was the only custodial parent at her father’s house, she had to go back to her father’s, otherwise Creech would be allowed to take the children. Reanna decided to return to her father’s house.

Creech testified at trial that he was angry with his fatherin-law for not allowing him to see his children. So, he decided to return the following morning to shoot at and damage his house. He grabbed bird shot ammunition because “shooting through things. . . wasn’t [his] intent.”

Late that morning, Reanna, who was at her father’s house, heard a “solid thud.” She looked outside and saw Creech holding a shotgun about fifteen to twenty feet away from the house. Reanna shouted to her stepsister, Jennifer Curry, to grab Sofia. Jennifer saw glass flying everywhere. Jennifer also looked out of a window and saw Creech standing about fifteen to thirty feet away, aiming his shotgun and tracking her and Sofia with the barrel of the gun. Reanna grabbed Zachary and went to the downstairs bathroom, and Jennifer and Sofia joined them. Juliane Rush, Reanna’s stepmother, heard a “very loud pop” from the front of the house. She saw Creech standing about fifteen feet away from the front door. . . .

Officers arrived at the Napa house minutes after the shooting, but Creech had left. They found three shells in front of the house. There were many very small perforations in the front door, and the outer pane of the double-paned window in the upper portion of the door was broken. Both layers of a double-paned window in the study were also broken. . . .

A forensic expert, Dr. John Thornton testified at trial. Among other tests, he performed ballistic gelatin testing “to mimic the behavior expected from human flesh . . . if a human body was shot with that projectile.” He performed these tests “without glass at a distance of 45 feet . . . [his] best approximation of the distance between the cluster of shotgun shells in front of the door and the door.” From this test, he opined that “there would be a minimum of an inch and a half of penetration into flesh.” With dual-paned glass, no pellets permeated the gel from 45 feet. Dr. Thornton did not perform tests at any other distance.

In addition to the gelatin testing results, Dr. Thornton also stated other opinions based on the location of the shell casings and particle dispersion. First, he opined that the shots to the door were fired from between forty and fifty feet away, while the shot to the window was fired from twenty feet away. Second, he opined that there were lead pellets in the debris collected from the study. Third, he explained that the bullet 'we’re speaking of is on the small side. It’s intended for small birds.'"

To be clear:  It is not cool to shoot at an occupied house.  Not cool at all.  Even if you're only firing birdshot.  Even if you're just pissed off.  (And even if, as here, "[a]fter the shooting, he went to his parents’ house, ingested a bottle of pills, and was taken to the hospital."  That shows some regret, at least.  But still doesn't excuse your conduct.  In the slightest.)

Okay.  So we're all on board that this guy should be punished.  The case is in California state court.  He illegally discharged a firearm, he shot at an inhabited dwelling, what he did qualifies as assault (even if he didn't actually intend to hit anyone with the birdshot), and it might even qualify as conduct that endangers the welfare of a child since there was a little kid in the house.  All that I get.

So what's the appropriate sentence?

Different people may well have different takes on this.  But I must admit that I was surprised -- very surprised -- to see that the guy got thirty one years in prison for the thing.  Perhaps I wouldn't have been shocked to see him get a decade in the joint.  Though I wouldn't have been surprised to see him get three or four years either.  But thirty one years?  Wow.

Maybe I just have failed to abandon all hope in concepts like rehabilitation and the like, whereas the state has elected to entirely jettison the concept.  But the idea that a person who -- incredibly stupidly and wrongly -- fires some birdshot at a house in an irrational rage is essentially irredeemable, and thus much spend essentially the remainder of his life in prison, conflicts with my gut intuition.

Maybe there was more here I don't know about.  Maybe there was a lot more stuff that the opinion leaves out (though I doubt it).

All I can say is that I was very surprised when I got to that portion of the opinion that mentioned that he was sentenced to thirty one years in prison.