Monday, December 17, 2012

People v. Watkins (Cal. Supreme Ct. - Dec. 17, 2012)

This case is a snapshot of some of the things that are wrong with the death penalty in California:

(1)  The murder is in 1990.  It takes less than two years to sentence the defendant to death.  But it then takes over twenty years for the first appeal -- the automatic one to the California Supreme Court -- to be decided. 

Moreover, those two decades are spent briefing and deciding a totally straightforward case in which there's no substantial issue on appeal that that -- to the surprise of no one -- results in a unanimous verdict affirming the conviction and sentence.  Twenty years for that.

Defendant was 21 years old at the time of the murder.  He's now 43.  He's still got an appeal to the United States Supreme Court, state habeas petitions, (probably multiple) federal habeas petitions, and Ninth Circuit (and U.S. Supreme Court) appeals about those habeas petitions to go.

He'll almost certainly be in his 50s -- or older -- when and if he's ready to be executed.  An old(ish) man executed for a crime he committed when he was barely old enough to buy beer.

That's not justice for anyone.  Not for the victim.  Not for the defendant.  Not good for society.  And not an impressive job of running these things by the California Supreme Court.

(2)  Why -- among all the murderers -- do we sentence this particular guy to death?  On the one hand, as I was reading the facts of the case, I was thinking:  "This guy's a classic criminal.  Holdups and all sorts of common robberies.  A plague on society."  Which is undoubtedly true.  Though that describes a great many non-murderers as well.  Sadly.

So I was inclined to be sympathetic to a death sentence.  And then I get to the circumstances of the murder itself.  So random.  Why did he shoot the victim?  No idea.  It wasn't a robbery, it wasn't a resisting victim, it didn't appear to be anything.  Which, at first glace, made me even more likely to support a death sentence.  A guy that shoots a random 62-year old who's about to take a shuttle to LAX?  Really?  You can see why we'd want to kill the perpetrator.

But then I hear defendant's defense.  Which is far from absurd.  He says that the shooting seemed random precisely because it was -- because he didn't mean to shoot the gun, which randomly went off.  Which was why there was no confrontation, no demand for money, no words spoken; not even contact other than from across the parking lot.  No one was meant to get shot.

Do I necessarily believe the defendant?  No.  Not necessarily.  But his story at least seems plausible.  It's at least possible that this was an accident.

Which isn't to say that the defendant shouldn't have been convicted of murder.  The jury heard all of the evidence and decided that the defendant wasn't credible.  The jury decided that for some totally inexplicable reason -- one for which there was utterly no evidence at trial, but which was nonetheless possible -- the defendant decided to shoot the victim, and that it wasn't an accident.  That decision might be right.  Perhaps even beyond a reasonable doubt.  Sometimes people do indeed do that.

But this nonetheless seems to me a perfect case where "residual doubt" in sentencing may well come into play.  Defendant never killed anyone before.  Never even shot anyone before -- as far as anyone can tell, anyway -- much less seems like the kind of person to kill people at random.  Indeed, reading about his former crimes, it would seem to me that any of those other offenses that he committed on the day of the shooting were far more likely to have resulted in a murder (random or no) than the one in which the victim here was shot.  If defendant were a hothead inclined to shoot people, why didn't he shoot those earlier people he actually robbed and who -- almost to a person -- gave him "lip" or otherwise (to a perverse mind)"deserved" to be shot?  It just seems weird.

That's not a substantial argument on appeal.  But it does make me think:  Why are we killing this particular guy?  What makes him special?  Why him and not the wide variety of (in my mind) worse offenders we read about in numerous pages of the California Appellate Reporter -- defendants who were sentenced instead to LWOP?  Is the death penalty, the ultimate sentence, really that random?  (And, yes, I understand that the defendant has not been a model prisoner, but we're talking about distinguishing murderers here -- people for whom the forfeiture of their life is an appropriate or inappropriate sentence.)

Plus, going back to the offense itself, I can't help feeling that it's possible -- possible -- that we're going to kill a man who in fact has never deliberately killed anyone.  Is it likely?  No.  Not if you agree with the jury's verdict, anyway.

But it's still possible.  We may perhaps be taking a life from someone who's never deliberately done the same.

Which is not, I might add, a reason for keeping him alive for 30+ years and then killing him.  If you believe in the death penalty, you want it to happen timely.  If you don't, you want it to happen not at all.  Mixing the two and adopting an intermediate position is in many ways the worst of all worlds.

Albeit the one we have.

There is -- in short -- almost nothing about this case that I like.  The opinion is straightforward, mind you.  But the underlying facts are not.