Wednesday, December 04, 2013

People v. Abundio (Cal. Ct. App. - Dec. 4, 2013)

Perhaps continuing my theme from earlier today, opinions like this one -- which also came out today -- tend to somewhat frustrate me.  (I originally wrote "hack me off," but that's perhaps too harsh.  Maybe it's more accurate to say that opinions like this simply seem less forthright than I would prefer.  Strongly.)

Here's how Justice Whillhite introduces the opinion:

"In an unprovoked, premeditated attack, appellant Jose Abundio stabbed marijuana dealer Timothy Wong to death in order to rob him of marijuana appellant could not afford to buy. After appellant’s first jury deadlocked and a mistrial was declared, a second jury convicted him of first degree murder. The jury also found true the special circumstance allegation that he committed the murder in the commission of a robbery, and the allegation that he used a knife. [Cite] The trial court sentenced him to life in prison without the possibility of parole, plus one year. On appeal, he contends that his sentence constitutes cruel or unusual punishment under California Constitution, article I, section 17, and [Cite]. We disagree and affirm the judgment."

Well, that seems obviously correct, right?  It's a murder, for goodness sake.  Of course LWOP is okay.  Even plus one year.

What follows this introduction constitutes a full half of the opinion.  All the facts.  The murder, the blood, etc.  And, dude, of course, there's totally no (good) reason for the murder.  Senseless.

You've got some stuff in there that makes the defendant marginally sympathetic.  Yes, he stabbed the guy.  More than once.  But didn't seem like he was actually trying to kill him.  Plus, right after the murder, when a detective happens to be in defendant's neighborhood, defendant walks up to him with his hands raised and says sua sponte "I’m sorry. I did something really bad and wrong. I’m sorry and I’m scared.”  Then during an interrogation promptly admits everything, saying:  "'I didn’t really mean to do it but when I did it, I – I couldn’t believe I did it ‘cause I was just – I was shocked, I was scared, I ran.' Detective Leslie asked appellant if he went home after it happened, and he replied, 'No. I was out and running around ‘cause I
didn’t know what to do. I was – I didn’t even believe I did – that I even did it myself. I was just scared. I didn’t even – I didn’t mean to hurt anybody.'"

Of course, the point is, he did do it.  That's murder.  How absurd that the guy thinks his sentence is even potentially unconstitutional, right?

Then the opinion continues with some legal analysis.  Murder is bad.  Etc.  Long sentences are okay.

The text of the opinion spans 13 pages.  It's only in middle of the 11th page that the Court of Appeal states that defendant's 18 years old.

Now you understand the argument.  Why defendant says LWOP isn't okay.  Because the California Supreme Court has squarely held that you can't sentence a 17-year old to LWOP.  Even when he shoots someone nine times in a deliberate (and successful) attempt to kill him.  Defendant here is basically the same age.  But has nonetheless reached perhaps a "magic" number, 18.  Now you understand the argument.  As we reach the end of the 11th page of this 13-page opinion, only now is the debate (and analysis) actually joined.  Or even introduced.

You shouldn't have to read halfway through an opinion to figure out what it's about.  We shouldn't try to indoctrinate a reader with half an opinion's worth of persuasion before introducing the hard part of the case.

Let's instead be honest -- from the outset -- what the case is about.  Does it matter whether a defendant is 17 or 18 when we decide to send him to prison for life without the possibility of parole?  Is drawing that admittedly somewhat (indeed, largely) arbitrary line okay?  How is the relevant line, if any, implicated in the present case?

Confront things in an honest, and straightforward fashion.  Briefs are advocacy pieces.  Opinions aren't.  We should strive to be more forthright.  Which includes not hiding the bad facts -- and, indeed, the relevant issue -- until halfway through.

P.S. - I just wanted to add the same thing's true for good briefs.  Be upfront about things.  But it's even more frustrating when the contrary is done by a neutral judge.