Along the Tracks

Friday, May 03, 2002

Yeah, but I was mad ...

The New York state court system is on the verge of allowing “rage” to become an excuse for murder.
The appeals case involves a husband who was convicted of the stabbing death of his wife after an argument. His lawyers have appealed the conviction, arguing the judge should have told the jury to take into consideration his “extreme emotional disturbance,” that is, his rage, as a mitigating circumstance. If the jury had been informed of this and agreed, so the argument goes, then the crime would have been reduced from second degree murder to manslaughter, and the accompanying sentence greatly reduced.
The danger of discerning the thought process or worse, mental stability, of a defendant in deciding the appropriate crime for which to try or convict an accused person, is illustrated clearly in this case. Where do you draw the line between sanity and insanity? How can a crime be “mitigated” by the emotional state of the criminal? It seems more obvious than ever that the place for “mitigating factors” is in the sentencing phase. Terms like “murder” and “manslaughter” need strict definitions based on the real, physical actions of the accused, as can best be determined. “Murder” should mean actions intended to kill another; “manslaughter” should mean actions which resulted in the death of another without the intent of death. A man who kills another in a fistfight could reasonably be convicted of “manslaughter”; a man who stabs his wife 20 times in the chest and stomach clearly intended her death.
After conviction, the mitigating factors can come into play. Was the killer intoxicated, lowering his faculties and inhibitions? Did the victim offer an extreme provocation leading up to the murder? Was the killer in the midst of an “extreme emotional disturbance?” Is (was) he insane?
These are all factors potentially considered by a jury or sentencing judge. Their weight, and their effect on sentencing, would have to be determined by the individuals and circumstances involved. But a crime would be a crime based on what was done, not on how the perpetrator felt.

... and anyway, I don’t like her type

This subject is actually quite closely related to another debate sure to grab headlines in the coming weeks: federal hate crime legislation.
Here, once again, we have investigators, jurors and judges forced to divine the thought processes of criminals to decide just which crime they committed.
Anyone who has read my commentary consistently can appreciate how revolting I find racism and scapegoating of all types. Acts of intimidation should be outlawed and prosecuted vigorously. But the emphasis should be on the word “acts.” The thought processes of the accused should not have bearing in defining the crime; they are more properly placed in the context of prosecutorial evidence and, after conviction, sentencing standards. How is “murder” based on racial hatred different than “murder” for kicks?
Perhaps even more perplexing, how do we define the groups which we grant this extra bit of victim status? Certainly, there are those who do indeed face discrimination of various types throughout our society, and they no doubt will be “on the list.” But this becomes a slippery slope very quickly. Consider: If a pro-Palestinian demonstrator and pro-Israeli demonstrator shout racial epithets at each other, come to fisticuffs and are arrested, has a hate crime occurred? Who should be charged? Both?
A “hate crime” is by definition a “thought crime.” Hate is a thought. It is an ugly thought, but in America, people are allowed to think all kinds of thoughts, whether violent, divisive, crazy or ugly. The First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech explicitly extends outward into the public realm; implicitly, it must extend inward into the mental world or it is no freedom at all. Crimes must be based on definable acts, not elusive concepts like thoughts and emotions.
I would gladly acknowledge that those who commit crimes based on group hatred are a real threat to repeat the crime. My question: Are our sentencing laws so soft that the potential of recidivism cannot be addressed with a harsher punishment? Then they should be toughened against all felons who present a danger of repeating their crime. Singling out by statute one motive for criminal acts over another cheapens the same offenses against victims who are not members of protected groups, and adds a new beat for law enforcement: the mind.

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