Tuesday, March 20, 2012

3 Cases of American Justice

The final story is not yet written on any of these cases. There are three deaths involved here.

In the first one, teenager Trayvon Martin was walking back to his father's fiancee's house in a gated community, carrying a phone and some candy, when George Zimmerman pursued him, got into an altercation with him, and shot him dead. This was in Florida, which has a "Stand Your Ground" law, which turns around the normal duty to retreat (in public places - you can defend your home).

A person who is not engaged in an unlawful activity and who is attacked in any other place where he or she has a right to be has no duty to retreat and has the right to stand his or her ground and meet force with force, including deadly force if he or she reasonably believes it is necessary to do so to prevent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another or to prevent the commission of a forcible felony.

The police ruled Trayvon Martin's shooting to be a justifiable homicide. Because of public outcry, there will be a grand jury convened to look into the matter. But we are told since the "Stand Your Ground" law has been passed, the rate of "justifiable homicide" in Florida has tripled.

It seems to me that in a state like Florida, one can carry a gun, seek a fight with someone, come to blows, get one's nose bloodied, and then shoot that person, and it can be ruled justifiable homicide - at least, if one is white and the victim is black.

Read this WaPo editorial.


The second case is that of Tyler Clementi and Dharun Ravi. Ian Parker, in the New Yorker, goes into detail. Dharun Ravi and Tyler Clementi were freshmen roommates at Rutgers University. Dharun Ravi used a webcam in his room to watch Clementi in an embrace with another man, and twittered about it. Clementi found out, was upset and later committed suicide.

It became widely understood that a closeted student at Rutgers had committed suicide after video of him having sex with a man was secretly shot and posted online. In fact, there was no posting, no observed sex, and no closet. But last spring, shortly before Molly Wei made a deal with prosecutors, Ravi was indicted on charges of invasion of privacy (sex crimes), bias intimidation (hate crimes), witness tampering, and evidence tampering. Bias intimidation is a sentence-booster that attaches itself to an underlying crime—usually, a violent one. Here the allegation, linked to snooping, is either that Ravi intended to harass Clementi because he was gay or that Clementi felt he’d been harassed for being gay.

Dharun Ravi turned down a plea bargain, went to trial, and was found guilty. The detailed verdict must be read. Excerpt:

3rd Degree Bias Intimidation
(For 4th Degree Invasion of Privacy charge on Sept. 19)

• Invasion of Privacy with the purpose to intimidate Tyler Clementi because of sexual orientation: ACQUITTED

• Invasion of Privacy with the purpose to intimidate M.B. because of sexual orientation: ACQUITTED

• Invasion of Privacy, knowing that the conduct constituting invasion of privacy would cause Tyler Clementi to be intimidated because of sexual orientation: ACQUITTED

• Invasion of Privacy, knowing that the conduct constituting invasion of privacy would cause M.B. to be intimidated because of sexual orientation: ACQUITTED

• Invasion of Privacy, under circumstances that caused Tyler Clementi to be intimidated, and considering the manner in which the offense was committed, Clementi reasonably believed that he was selected to be the target of the offense because of sexual orientation: GUILTY

Notice the nuance in the above. Nevertheless, Ravi is guilty of the main count because of the fourth clause. And so on. Dharun Ravi faces jail time and deportation, sentencing is yet to happen.

At this point we might think that Dharun Ravi was stupid and cruel, but in a juvenile way, but just how much punishment does that deserve? So far, he faces more serious consequences than did George Zimmerman, who legally carried a gun, chased after somebody as a self-appointed watchman for the neighborhood, got into an altercation and shot him dead.

A case of the webcam and twitter being more deadly than a gun.


If you are not yet feeling depressed, let's move on to the third case. Fourteen year old Kuntrell Jackson participated in a store robbery where one of the other robbers had a gun and shot the cashier dead when she tried to call the police. Since the death penalty for juveniles was struck down by the Supreme Court in 2005, Kuntrell Jackson was mandatorily sentenced to life in prison without parole. Mandatory here means that once the accused is found guilty, the jury cannot consider the defendant's age, background or intent in setting a sentence. Kuntrell Jackson's case is now with the Supreme Court, and you should read Nina Totenberg's report on hearing.

Stevenson {the defendant's attorney} said that 80 percent of the life without parole sentences for those 14 and younger are in states where the penalty is mandatory for murder. And, in many of these states, even minors convicted of second-degree murder, with no intent to kill, get a mandatory term of life without parole. Alabama and Arkansas, where the crimes in Tuesday's arguments took place, are among those states.

The theory seems to be that the law seeks to punish, not rehabilitate; that a fourteen year old cannot be rehabilitated. But also, here is the verdict of the Arkansas Court of Appeals.

When a fourteen year old has become a repeat offender (shoplifting, auto theft), it is perhaps more a failure of society and family than it is of the fourteen year old. What do we do? We lock up our failures.

Also, neither Kuntrell Jackson nor Dharun Ravi were directly responsible for the death of another, unlike George Zimmerman. And so far the consequences are not proportional to the actions.