Thursday, August 08, 2013

People v. Maciel (Cal. Supreme Ct. - Aug. 8, 2013)

Once you read a certain set of facts, you'll understand why this is a death penalty case:

"On Saturday, April 22, 1995, between 10:00 and 10:30 p.m., three adults — Anthony 'Dido' Moreno, his sister, Maria Moreno, and Gustavo 'Tito' Aguirre — and two of Maria‘s children — five-year-old Laura Moreno and six-month-old Ambrose Padilla — were shot to death in a house located at 3843 Maxson Road in El Monte, California. Richard 'Primo' Valdez, a Sangra street gang member, shot and killed Anthony Moreno and Gustavo Aguirre, while his fellow Sangra gang member Jimmy 'Character' Palma shot and killed Maria Moreno and the children."

You kill a five-year old kid, and a six-month old baby, and you can see why the jury might sentence you to death.

Oh.  But this case isn't about either Valdez or Palma.  Palma, for example, was indeed sentenced to death.  But he was killed in San Quentin by other inmates while on death row.  Presumably by the Mexican Mafia.  Which has a strict policy of not killing women or children. (Plus, one of its members expressly said that the group would kill Palma for "killing the babies."  So I think I've got a pretty good handle on why Palma was killed before California took its turn.)

Presumably Maciel's the guy in the Mexican Mafia who ordered the hit on the adult victims, right?  One of the victims had indeed dropped out of EME, and so there's indeed likely a shot-caller there who gave the order.

Nope.  That's someone else too.

Well, then, Maciel didn't do any of the actual shootings, but was among the people who barged into the house.  He was at least there.  So he's as responsible too.

Strike three.  Not even there.  Has a rock solid alibi.  Prosecution doesn't even argue otherwise.

No, what gets Maciel sentenced to death is that he allegedly "conspired" -- maybe, and in some uncertain and totally unclear -- way to get one of the adults killed.

I cannot emphasize enough how weak the evidence is against Maciel.  Did he know the murder would go down?  Probably.  Just like perhaps half of the Mexican Mafia.  But the evidence that Maciel actually did something affirmative to help out the murder of his friend is incredibly weak.  Incredibly, incredibly weak.

Is it legally insufficient?  The California Supreme Court unanimously holds that it's not.

I'm nonetheless left with a firm conviction that Maciel might, in fact, be innocent.  That we're going to kill a guy for a crime he didn't commit.

Is Maciel a bad guy?  Sure.  He's probably -- though the most we can say is probably -- killed someone in the past.  (Though I'll mention that the only evidence in this regard is the statement of his "sponsor" in the Mexican Mafia that when "one of his homies killed that one year-old baby a few months ago, [Maciel's] the one that took care of them."  In short, that Maciel killed someone in retaliation for someone killing an infant.  I'll briefly mention that killing someone who's killed a child is hardly the most offensive murder in the world; indeed, many proponents of the death penalty would do the same thing.  As well as the irony of sentencing Maciel to death for helping to kill a baby when the best evidence of a murder he actually committed was of someone who had killed a baby.)

Still, Maciel's not a nice guy.  Especially in prison.  Assaults, etc.  Seems definitely a totally violent guy.

Nonetheless, we want to kill people for crimes they actually committed, right?  And here, I'm not at all sure we're doing so.

Moreover, this is not a case where we're ever going to be able to "prove" Maciel's innocence and give him relief.  There's no DNA evidence.  There's no "finding the actual killer" -- we've already done that.  There's no one who can dispositively testify that Maciel didn't have anything to do with the crime.  So absent federal relief, Maciel's going to be executed.

You rarely see death penalty cases in which guilt or innocence is really at issue.  This is one of those cases.

It's a good example of just how amorphous a "conspiracy" entails.  As well as proof thereof.  Especially in the context of a gang.

It's also proof of just how serious the consequences can be if we get it wrong.

I feel deeply for the victims here.  Seriously.  I'm always especially touched by the killing of innocent women and children.  Something that understandably raises profound emotions.

But I wonder about whether Maciel might in fact be innocent.  Maybe he had something to do with the thing going down.  Maybe.  But I'm incredibly far from sure.

Read the whole thing to see if you agree.  And ponder the decision to seek the death penalty against Maciel as well as to execute the sentence.