Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Lynne Abraham rant of the week

I tend to only faintly register the daily reports of crimes and murders, trials and sentences, that appear in the papers. However, this (late) morning an NPR program was discussing the case against William Barnes (see here; better links have passed into the unreachable archives), which had perplexed me when I bumped across the new stories, and made me nearly apoplectic as I heard more details.

Basically, this guy shot a police officer during a robbery back in the 60s (yes, the 1960s), leaving him paralyzed and otherwise unwell. Nothing to be proud of, and the guy was convicted of attempted murder and served 20 years in jail. However, a month ago, the former officer died, and now the D.A. is bringing a new set of charges against the same man, this time for murder.

Now, we hear about that kind of thing all the time -- that is, somebody shoots somebody, leaving them in critical condition, and when they die two months later, the charges are amended to murder. But 40 years later? Questions include:
  1. How can anyone be sure that the original injuries led to this death? The man was in his 60s, had received sometimes iffy care through the years (he had to sue the city to get coverage for his on-the-job injuries), and was not autopsied. Essentially the case comes down to the judgement of the Medical Examiner, who concluded that the death was a result of the original injuries (because he had an infection of a catheter, which likely triggered the heart attack).

  2. Is there anything to be gained by this new charge/trial? Since Barnes would be held to the standards of 1960s law, he would likely be capped at a 20-year sentence for third-degree murder, a duration that he has already served. Further, this morning's legal experts found it quite believable that the whole thing would be settled before trial. If Abraham is bringing these charges to help the family "achieve closure" or feel that full justice has been done, will they really be satisfied with a plea bargain along the lines of "...pleads No Contest, in exchange for a sentence of Time Served" and watching this guy walk out of the courtroom free?

  3. Do we, or do we not, believe that people should be able to serve their time and then start to make new lives? William Barnes spent 20 years in prison, but has also been out for some 20 years. He appears to be repentant, and, among other things, addresses groups of juvenile delinquents, college students, and at-risk youth to council them against following in his footsteps. Is there a moral or correctional value to putting him at trial for essentially the same crime he has already paid for, and does this individual present the kind of continued threat that justifies renewed judicial intervention?

  4. In a period when our court dockets are packed, the D.A.'s office is chronically overworked, and city funds are tight, can we really justify the time and expense of pursuing this, among all the violent crimes which might be prosecuted?
I won't claim to know the answers to all of the above questions, but I certainly find the choice to pursue this indictment quite consistent with the mindlessness of Tough Cookie's view of justice. In fact, the novelty/press value of a 40-year-old case might have given it some added pizzaz in her eyes. I just hope that one elderly man's life doesn't become the victim of excess prosecutorial fervor, with the taxpayer picking up the bills for years to come . . .



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