Monday, August 11, 2008

People v. Hovarter (Cal. Supreme Ct. - Aug. 11, 2008)

I rarely have substantial doubt about the guilt of a defendant sentenced to death. Most of the time, I'm pretty darn confident -- even if based solely on the description of the evidence on appeal -- that the defendant did it. Sure, there are exceptions, but they're definitely the exception rather than the rule. At least in my mind.

So I was stunned when I read this case. In which the defendant -- Jackie Ray Hovarter -- is sentenced to death for killing Danna Elizabeth Walsh. And after the California Supreme Court was done recitiong the evidence that was admitted against Hovarter at trial, I literally said out oud: "That's it?!"

Look, I'm not saying the guy's definitely innocent. I have no doubt that he tried to kill a different woman -- "A.L." -- four months after Walsh's murder. And, look, I'm like everyone else in the world, and think that if you're willing to rape and kill one woman, if there's another woman who's been raped and killed in the same general geographic area (i.e., in the same town), there's a darn good chance you did that one to. But when there's no eyewitnesses, no link at all between the defendant and the victim, and no physical evidence of any type, for me, it's an incredible, incredible stretch to say that someone's clearly guilty beyond a reasonable doubt -- so much so, indeed, that we're willing to sentence him to death. And the fact that there's a jailhouse informant here who've even less credible than most jailhouse informants -- and that's saying a lot! -- hardly changes the picture. Sure, it means that there's legally sufficient evidence for a conviction, of course, because a jury could indeed decide to believe a total liar like the informant here. But, man, I gotta say, if there's ever a true case in which "lingering doubt" might let you put a person in prison for life and yet not be totally sure he should be irrevocably killed, this is it. And, to tell you the truth, I'm not sure that I've ever really seen one of those before -- one in which that residual doubt might actually have affected my own calculus.

Now, admittedly, there's part of me that doesn't especially care, since I'm confident that Hovarter in fact tried to kill another woman, so part of me says that he's only getting what's coming to him anyway. But, for good or bad, our system doesn't work like that. Or at least it shouldn't.

Nor -- and this is one of those very rare case in which the initial jury deadlocks in the penalty phase, the defendant chooses to be resentenced by the judge, and the judge then decides upon death -- does the system decide upon death versus life due to electoral or other pressures. But, at least in the trial court, do I have a lingering suspicion that that might have played a part as well; i.e., that an elected judge might decide to sentence a defendant who we all know is at least an attempted murderer to death due to potential backlash from the electorate to a contrary decision? Yeah. I do. Based upon nothing, of course. But when my reaction to the case is so different, I gotta wonder -- again, based on virtually nothing about this individual case or judge -- whether that played a role as well.

Anyway, read this one. See if you reaction is the same as mine. Maybe you totally believe the informant (though if you do, wow, we're definitely on different pages). Or maybe you're more persuaded than I am that it's okay to sentence someone to death when you're sure that the offender committed at least an attempted murder even if he might not have done this particular crime. Or maybe you just have a different take than me. But, on my end, I'm at least a little troubled by this one. And didn't expect to find a "lingering doubt" case on my (virtual) doorstep this morning.

Oh, yeah. The California Supreme Court unanimously affirms the conviction and sentence. Twenty years thereafter. No real surprise there. And I can't even say that, as a matter of law, they're wrong. My reaction here is much less doctrinal than equitable. Yes, the law seems like it was followed. But I'm still not sure that what happens is right.