Thursday, February 17, 2005

People v. Benavides (Cal. Supreme Ct. - February 17, 2005)

When you read ten or twenty cases a day for a decade or so, you can't help, I think, but become fairly jaded -- perhaps even slightly insensitive -- to facts that demonstrate even stark brutality. Your reaction to a single murder case, I think, can't help but be tempered by the fact that you've previously read hundreds of other similarly egregious cases. Your emotional reaction is tempered by experience. Maybe that's good. Maybe that's bad. But it's undeniably true.

I say that as a preface to noting that I've only read two appellate cases over the past decade that literally made me sick to my stomach -- that made me physically nauseous as I read the facts. The first of these was People v. Anderson, a depublished case previously found at 77 Cal. App. 4th 368 (2000). This case is the other.

I'll spare you a recitation of the facts, which essentially involve the (alleged) sexual abuse of a 21-month-old baby girl -- abuse that directly caused her death after a period of horrible suffering. I literally took three steps outside my office after reading the first four pages of the opinion because I really thoughtthat I was going to throw up. Maybe it's because I have a three-year old daughter and a one-year old son. I couldn't believe how deeply -- and how physically -- my reaction was to the manner in which this child was allegedly injured and killed. Horrible. Beyond horrible.

My only intellectual reaction to the opinion -- beyond noting that the California Supremes unanimously uphold the death penalty here (surprise, surprise) -- was that the case concretely demonstrated to me how impossible it is for a jury to "rationally" choose between life and death: to decide who lives and who dies on anything approaching a coherent basis. And also how the facts (and photographs, etc.) of a particular case may well affect not only the jury, but also the appellate courts. This is a defendant who gets sentenced to death even though he doesn't have even a single criminal conviction or any prior history of violence, whereas far more dangerous and vicious people get sentenced to life. Why? Purely because of the nature of the crime, I think -- particularly given the utter absence of any other evidence at the penalty phase. And he gets selected to die even though, notwithstanding the barbarity of the crime, my firm sense is that he didn't intend at all to kill the child. So deliberate, premediated killers with a history of lifelong violence live but this guy dies.

Not that I don't understand why the jury imposed the death penalty, of course. Look, if just reading about the case makes me sick, I can understand how the jury must have felt to actually be there. So it's not that I don't understand what transpired. But that doesn't necessarily make it -- or the system that produced it -- right. I was also somewhat distressed to see how the barbarity of the facts seemingly affected the Supreme Court as well. Justice Brown holds (in Part III.B) that the evidence against defendant was extremely strong and hence that the admitted error in admitting certain prejudicial evidence against him was harmless. But this was a much, much closer case on the facts that the vast majority of other death penalty cases; indeed, there were utterly no witnesses here against the defendant, and the entire issue basically revolved around the cause of death (i.e., what conclusions one drew from the medical evidence in light of the testimony of the starkly contradictory medical experts at trial).

Do I think that Benavides is guilty? Yeah, he probably is. Is it totally and completely clear? Nope. Is it so completely and utterly clear that there's no way that the jury could have found the other way. No way. But I have a firm sense that, given the facts of the case, the California Supreme Court -- like the jury -- wants the guy who perpetrated this horrible crime to pay the ultimate price. And when you have that reaction, and believe that this is indeed likely the guy, concepts like "reasonable doubt" and "evidentiary error" and "equality of treatment" tend to get ignored. That's life, I know. But when someone's life hangs in the balance, it strikes me as even more unjust.