Tuesday, June 23, 2020

People v. Mayfield (Cal. Ct. App. - June 23, 2020)

It was a lazy day in the California Court of Appeal; only a single published opinion all day, and that one issued only at the very end of the day.

But what a doozy.

It's by Justice Bedsworth.  Here's how it begins:

"The members of this panel have enjoyed long careers in the practice of law. We’ve seen enough to make it difficult to shock us. But not, as it turns out, impossible."

Wow.  I mean, I've seen a lot of opinions as well, and hence a lot of crimes.  Given the introduction, I was expecting an incredibly heinous and violent offense; something akin to torturing numerous small children or the like.

But that's not really what he meant.  Or at least not particularly, I don't think.

The actual offense at issue was not more serious than many offenses you read about in published opinions -- indeed, in a lot of ways, it was less violent.  But it's a hate crime.  There's an African-American woman at a bus stop who's eight months pregnant, and the defendant starts spewing incredibly hateful language, threatens to kill her unborn child, ends up grabs her backpack, and instills a massive amount of fear in her.  It could have been worse, of course.  There are lots of murder cases; in this one, no one (fortunately) gets killed.  There are lots of cases involving torture and serious bodily injury; in this one, there's an incredible amount of emotional distress and PTSD, but no blood or knife wounds or severed limbs or the like.  So, yes, it's a serious offense, which is why the defendant's facing serious time.  And the defendant has a very lengthy criminal record -- a fact that's (again) not unprecedented, as we read plenty of cases with similar (or worse) records, but which nonetheless sets the stage for Justice Bedsworth's point.

It was a three strikes case, and the trial court struck one of the defendant's prior convictions and hence gave him a five-year sentence (in return for a guilty plea) instead of 25 to life.  You almost never see such decisions reversed; it's an abuse of discretion standard, and there's usually a lot of deference by the Court of Appeal to the boots-on-the-ground judgment of the trial judge.

Not here.  The Court of Appeal reverses.

You can see why.  Lengthy criminal history.  Not Mr. Mayfield's first hate crime (!).  Serious issues and serious threats to a vulnerable person.  Plus, every time Mr. Mayfield gets released, he seems to quickly reoffend in some manner.  Someone who commits a random hate crime at a bus stop, after committing a different random hate crime at a liquor store (where he stabbed a guy) which led to a prior conviction, is not someone we generally want rapidly back on the streets.  As Justice Bedsworth says, yes, offering him five years if he pleads guilty does make sure he goes to prison, and saves us a little bit of money in prosecution costs, but "[a]ny expense saved the state by his plea would likely be re-incurred with interest if he gets out in five years and there are still bus stops."

All of this leads the Court of Appeal to do what it does here.  And it's not just the Court of Appeal.  As the opinion notes, the Orange County District Attorney -- the District Attorney -- showed up to argue the case below.  It's a high-profile thing.  Even back then.  We are none-too-keen on people committing hate crimes.  And our attentiveness to this sort of thing has only increased an order of magnitude since then.  If there was ever an era in which Mr. Mayfield didn't want his case to be argued, it's probably now.  As perhaps tangentially indicated by how long it took the Court of Appeal to render its opinion after oral argument:  three work days.  Not something you usually see, and an indicia of how urgently the Court of Appeal wanted to get out the relevant message.

Justice Bedsworth's opinion is worth reading in its entirety, and he does an outstanding job of making the case for Mr. Mayfield being amongst the "worst of the worst" -- at least in the setting of offenses that don't involve the taking of a life and the like.  People reading the opinion will, I think, generally have the same reaction as Justice Bedsworth (and the rest of the panel) did:  Lock him up.  Forever.  (Mr. Mayfield is 44 years old, so with a 25-to-life sentence, he's likely to die in prison, especially as I suspect he's exceptionally unlikely to ever get paroled.)

For myself, I'm loathe to call people undilutedly "evil" (a word that's in the opinion to describe Mr. Mayfield, but those are the District Attorney's words, not Justice Bedsworth's).  Yes, he's done some terrible things, and keeps doing them, and that needs to stop.  But one thing that's not in the opinion -- that's nonetheless readily discoverable -- is that Mr. Mayfield is a transient.  Probably someone with a fair degree of mental illness, I suspect.  As with many homeless people.  That doesn't excuse any of his conduct, of course.  Nor, I'd bet, does his mental illness likely satisfy the standard for technical legal "insanity," as I suspect that Mr. Mayfield knows "right" from "wrong" full well.  (Within the confines of his clearly messed-up normative framework.)

So, yes, I get where Justice Bedsworth is coming from.  Though I nonetheless wonder what people a century or two from now will think when they read this published opinion.  Will they think:  "What a screwed up society:  Mayfield should definitely have been incarcerated for the rest of his life -- only crazy people could fail to see that, and what a messed-up world that a trial judge didn't understand that."  Or will they think something softer?  There's a relentlessness to the opinion -- an expressed desire or perceived need to incarcerate Mr. Mayfield for the rest of his life -- that works at present.  And maybe, perhaps, will play even better in a century of two; in the same way we view even more positively now the writings of pre-Civil War abolitionists (e.g., "How could anyone possibly fail to understand how obviously right these people were?!").

But maybe not.  Maybe it plays out a little bit the other way instead.

Regardless:  Fascinating opinion.  Read the whole thing.  See what you think.