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Teen Confesses to Crime on His Blog, Pleads Guilty:
An interesting and sad story. Thanks to Michael Cernovich for the link.
Marcus1:
That's DUI manslaughter? Pulling the wheel from the back seat?

That seems completely absurd. How does this kid get 5 years in jail? And permanent license suspension? What justice does that serve?

He should be pardoned.
12.21.2005 12:37pm
Thales (mail) (www):
It seems pretty uncontroversial from the account that his act exhibits recklessness (and a high degree of it), the mental state usually required for a manslaughter conviction. If the account is accurate, he was voluntarily intoxicated and acted in a manner where it was foreseeable that he could cause serious bodily harm or death. Case closed on criminal liability, although one can certainly argue that the sentence imposed was harsh, though obviously not as harsh as it could have been.
12.21.2005 1:00pm
Shelby (mail):
It sounds like cut-and-dried manslaughter to me. The DUI part presumably comes from his decision to take part in operating the vehicle -- less obvious than the manslaughter part, but perfectly plausible. Personally I'd be inclined toward a long-term but not permanent license suspension (10 or 20 years?), but I can't get worked up about the actual sentence.
12.21.2005 1:01pm
Dylan Alexander (mail) (www):
I suppose you could object to the DUI (although not really) but manslaughter? How is this any different than shooting at a friend to scare him and accidentally hitting him when the "idiot" dodges the wrong way (or fails to dodge)? Do we pardon that guy, too?
12.21.2005 1:02pm
Nicole Black (mail) (www):
There is such a thing as prosecutorial discretion. It seems to me that many prosecutors have forgotten that it even exists.

There are two cases that I encountered that come to mind in this regard-one where the District Attorney's Office chose to prosecute and the other where it chose not to.

In the first, a blue collar husband and wife (with a happy relationship by all accounts) left a restaurant after having drinks w/ dinner and the husband drove them home on their motorcycle. At some point he lost control of the bike and his wife was killed. His BAC was below the legal limit (.10 at the time)--I believe it was at .05. He was devastated. Over the objections of *her* family, he was prosecuted and convicted of vehicular manslaughter after trial. It was a horrible prosecution and verdict.

Around the same time, same prosecutors office, an infant died after having been left in a car in 90 degree heat in the middle of the summer. The father, a businessman was supposed to drop the baby off at daycare (his wife usually did so), but was distracted about an upcoming business meeting, and completely forgot that his child was in the car. The prosecutor exercised prosecutorial discretion and chose not to prosecute in that case.

In my experience, there is no rhyme or reason in re: to the decision to prosecute. And all too often as of late, prosecutors fail to exercise any discretion and simply prosecute at all costs. In my opinion that is what happened in the case described in this post.

(And, yes, I'm a former Asst. PD. Can you tell?)
12.21.2005 1:16pm
La Dulcinea (mail) (www):
First case I ever saw was a DUI manslaughter in Texas. The guy (I think he was about 24 or so) didn't have a record and was generally a good guy, I think. He requested a jury trial. He got 20 years, and he's in for 15 without parole because the jury found he used a "weapon" (i.e., his truck).
12.21.2005 2:27pm
Marcus1:
I don't believe he intended to operate the vehicle. I don't know what the statute says, but even if it were possible to make the words fit, I think it is farsical to say he was driving while intoxicated. He wasn't.

As far as manslaughter, this is nothing like shooting a gun to scare someone. A person knows when they pick up a gun the danger that exists. Does an 18 year old recognize that level of danger, when, in a drunken stupor, he pulls on a stearing wheel? I sure don't think so. It's not at all the same kind of thing.

You can't ignore the facts that he was 18, completely intoxicated, and still responsible enough to have someone sober actually drive. I mean, not if you're trying to implement justice.

It's kind of interesting -- it seems as a society that we recognize that 18 year olds are not mature enough to drink. Yet, when one does, and does something irresponsible, we're still going to put him in jail for 5 years and take away his license permanently? It's totally backwards. What he did was irresponsible, not reckless manslaughter. Apparently his best friend died as a result. Putting him in jail for the next five years simply adds another tragedy to the first.
12.21.2005 2:51pm
jgshapiro (mail):
As far as manslaughter, this is nothing like shooting a gun to scare someone.

Actually, this is a lot like shooting a gun to scare someone. Any reasonable person, even a 17 year old, knows that pulling on a steering wheel while someone is driving could lead to an accident and that accident could injure or kill someone. That is reckless disregard. The fact that he did not intend to scare someone might be a defense to an aggravated assault charge on Robinette's behalf, but it doesn't take away from his killing someone. He certainly intended to pull on the wheel.

Manslaughter cases almost always involve sometimes harmless but nevertheless dangerous activities that lead to death -- e.g., shooting a gun into the air, driving drunk, setting off firecrackers, fistfights, etc. The fact that the death was an accident is reason to use prosecutorial discretion to charge him with manslaughter, and not with 2nd degree murder (under a reckless disregard theory). It is not a reason to let him off scot free to live with his guilty conscience.

Does his being intoxicated excuse him? It doesn't excise anyone else for manslaughter.

What about his being 17 years old? I'm sure that factored into his sentence, but a 17 year old can be charged as an adult in most (all?) states, so society has already decided that a 17 year old is close enough to adulthood to take responsibility for his actions.

What about the fact that his best friend died? I'm sure that factored into his sentence as well, but criminal charges are decided by the state and not the victim or his family. The crime of killing a person is a crime against the state, not just against the person.

I don't believe he intended to operate the vehicle . . . I think it is farsical to say he was driving while intoxicated.

Unless his defense was that he lost his balance and fell onto the steering wheel (while seated in the car) -- which would be implausible, I don't know how you could conclude that he didn't 'intend' to operate the vehicle. Turning a steering wheel while in a moving vehicle is at least participating in the operation of the vehicle. It doesn't matter if you pulled on the wheel to turn the car or just to scare the driver.
12.21.2005 3:23pm
Marcus1:
jgshapiro,

My reference to the gun analogy was in response to an earlier comment by Dylan Alexander, in case that wasn't clear.


>Manslaughter cases almost always involve sometimes harmless but nevertheless dangerous activities that lead to death -- e.g., shooting a gun into the air, driving drunk, setting off firecrackers, fistfights, etc. <

All those cases are significantly different, in that we can be fairly certain that the person had time to ponder and disregard a significant risk. A person who picks up a gun must immediately recognize the significant risk involved. Guns scream "DANGER." A person who drives drunk should also have considered and recognized the danger.

The same is true of fistfights and firecrackers, if to slightly lesser extents. At the same time, if an 18 year old gets in a fight and through some freak accident one of them dies, should the kid go to jail for 5 years? What does that accomplish? Certainly not justice. Does it deter future kids from fighting? Hardly. It's simply pointless.

The same is even more true here, where it seems highly doubtful that the kid at any moment considered and disregarded a risk.

>a 17 year old can be charged as an adult in most (all?) states, so society has already decided that a 17 year old is close enough to adulthood to take responsibility for his actions. <

Like I said, this is an inconsistent position, since we know that a 17 year old is not mature enough to drink responsibly. We know that 17 year olds, by their very nature, will do stupid things when they drink.

But what does "take responsibility" mean anyway? "Be punished in exactly the same way as anyone else under any other circumstances"? I mean, that might make sense if he intentionally tried to kill somebody. But for reckless behavior while drunk with tragic results? I mean, why else do we have a juvenile code?

>Turning a steering wheel while in a moving vehicle is at least participating in the operation of the vehicle. It doesn't matter if you pulled on the wheel to turn the car or just to scare the driver.<

As I said, even if you can make the words fit a statute, the idea that he was driving while intoxicated is farsical. He was sitting in the back seat with a sober driver at the wheel. If the justice system can't make a distinction between that and a drunk driver or somebody waving around a gun, I think that doesn't say much for our justice system.
12.21.2005 5:48pm
Shelby (mail):
jgshapiro:

I'm not sure prosecutorial discretion is why he was charged with manslaughter. I'm no expert in criminal law, but I know that under common law and (I think) the Model Penal Code, drunkenness can negate intent, which is an element of murder but not of manslaughter. Thus, murder was a more problematic charge. (It may also have been the prosecutor's threat to wrangle a plea.)

Also, the guy was 18 not 17 - that's the first thing the story says.
12.21.2005 5:49pm
Guest2 (mail):
Marcus1, the guy was 18, not 8. If you get yourself drunk, you get into a car, and you yank the steering wheel while someone else is driving, you should be held accountable. Being young and stupid doesn't entitle you to a pass.
12.21.2005 6:06pm
David Chesler (mail) (www):
I suppose, since if you are sleeping off being drunk in the back seat of a car, and have the keys near enough to you, that can be DUI -- at least if nobody else is sober and driving -- so can operating part of the car even while someone else is operating the rest of it. Both are stretches.

I suppose involuntary manslaughter is about losing the lottery. This goes back to earlier discussions on this blog, and throughout history, on the purpose of punishment. The essentially exact same behavior, with exactly the same intent, jerking the steering wheel as a prank, can result in no harm, harm but not death, or death, but the act is punished differently based on random chance.

I don't know at all about the impact of the kid's blog statement, which I thought was why this was posted.

Greenberg said she had planned to use the blog as evidence

I've never understood the "admission against interest" exception for hearsay. (IANAL)

And as for the lifetime ban on driving, I completely don't understand that. Is that a punishment (in which case OK, why not take away his right to eat pizza, or why not take away the right to drive for people convicted of rape) or is it to add to public safety.
No matter how stupid and lacking in judgement was his act, it is unlikely that he would repeat it while sober (and if he did, it would be subsequent-offense DUI, which is properly punished more severely) if at all (given the consequence, and given how old he'll be when he has the opportunity to drive again.)
12.21.2005 6:49pm
Nicole Black (mail) (www):
I don't believe it was a failure of proscutorial discretion to charge him with murder. Rather, it's my contention that the prosecutor should have exercised prosecutorial discretion by deciding not to charge him, period.

This kid made a tragic mistake--one that he'll regret for the rest of his life. Every bad decision that results in a horrible result is not necessarily a crime.

What purpose did the prosecution and punishment serve, exactly, for society or for the kid? None, in my opinion.
12.21.2005 7:55pm
jgshapiro (mail):
What purpose did the prosecution and punishment serve, exactly, for society or for the kid? None, in my opinion.

It serves both as a general deterrant to others who might be inclined toward similar pranks, and it serves as retribution (i.e., justice) for the life that was taken. It might also serve a specific deterrant effect, in that he will be unable to engage in similar pranks for the next 5 years, but he seems unlikely to anyway. However, specific deterrance is only one of many involved in punishment.

Every bad decision that results in a horrible result is not necessarily a crime.

Yes, but this one was. The fact that he feels terrible about it after the fact does not entitle him to a pass. Should every criminal who expresses remorse be let off w/o prosecution? Remorse is a factor in the length of the sentence -- which is why he got such a short sentence for killing someone -- but it does not absolve him completely for his actions.
12.21.2005 10:38pm
Marcus1:
jgshapiro,

>It serves both as a general deterrant to others who might be inclined toward similar pranks,<

Are you serious? So who is this aimed at exactly? That kid who doesn't care if his car rolls and his best friend dies, but really doesn't want to spend 5 years in jail?

What you won't acknowledge is that the deterrant effect of a law can be just as effective even if the executive shows some discretion in not prosecuting those who don't fit the aim of a law, or who have already been punished enough. Both apply here. You seem to agree that such mitigating circumstances are properly considered in sentencing, but why not in the prosecution itself?

If you're going to make an example of somebody, it seems you should be darned sure the message is going to have its intended effect. To me it seems inconceivable, if this kid had not be prosecuted, that anyone would have been more reckless in the future. If that is true, then jailing him is nothing less than tragic.

>it serves as retribution (i.e., justice) for the life that was taken<

What does that even mean? Retribution for accidentally killing his best friend? Retribution for a stupid prank gone awry? The kid clearly had no intent to harm his friend. In fact, he acted just as we would expect a drunk 17/18 year old to act. He did what has probably been done hundreds or thousands of times. To me, it's an incredible injustice to punish someone for something that is perfectly expectable, commonly done, and which was done with no intent to harm anyone. That kind of punishment strikes me as deriving from humanity's worst impulses -- to unthinkingly judge others, and therefrom needlessly ruin or harm the lives of others due to a simple unwillingness to empathize or be flexible. Indeed, that, to me, is recklesness.

> The fact that he feels terrible about it after the fact does not entitle him to a pass. Should every criminal who expresses remorse be let off w/o prosecution? Remorse is a factor in the length of the sentence -- which is why he got such a short sentence for killing someone -- but it does not absolve him completely for his actions.<

The thing is, his actions just weren't that bad. Of course someone who commits murder should not be let off for remorse. To intentionally kill someone is incredibly brazen. But that's not what we're talking about. It's patently obvious that the kid here lacked culpable intent. It's obvious because any harm that was going to happen to his "victim" necessarily was going to happen equally to the accused. I just don't see how you can say none of these things matter, we still have to treat all situations the same. We don't.
12.22.2005 12:30am
Conrad (mail):
The kid's an idiot. Too stupid to ride as a passenger in a car without killing someone, and too stupid to host a blog without getting himself incarcerated.

And, if his bog confession was true and he remembered pulling the steering wheel, I'm sure that his lies to investigators and police about amnesia did not incline the authorities towards mercy.
12.22.2005 1:01am
jgshapiro (mail):
Marcus:

So who is this aimed at exactly?

It's aimed at people who would engage in what my grandparents used to call 'horseplay' in cars. The moral of the story is that if you do it and it leads to injury or death, you are responsible and you will be punished.

What you won't acknowledge is that the deterrant effect of a law can be just as effective even if the executive shows some discretion in not prosecuting those who don't fit the aim of a law, or who have already been punished enough. Both apply here.

The aim of the law is to prevent unnecessary deaths that occur through reckless action, without an intent to kill. I think this qualifies.

As for whether he has been 'punished enough,' perhaps losing your best friend is as bad as spending 5+ years in prison, losing your license for life, etc., but this argument means that if you know the victim of any act of manslaughter, you won't be punished by the law. Moreover, even if you *don't* know the victim, if you have a guilty enough conscience, you won't be punished. I certainly don't think that was the intent of the law.

The thing is, his actions just weren't that bad.

His actions killed someone and put another person in the hospital with serious injuries. How can you say they were not that bad? When you are dealing with a reckless prank, the gravity of the action is connected to the harm it causes.

If you shoot a gun into the air in celebration and the bullet hits no one, you're still an idiot, but you got lucky and you probably won't be punished. On the other hand, if it hits someone and kills them, you will go to prison for a while. That's as it should be. Even if you feel terrible about it afterward. Even if the person you killed was your own mother. True, this boils down to some luck, but you roll the dice when you engage in dangerous pranks. Grabbing the wheel of a moving vehicle is a dangerous prank and Ranking was unlucky. Ergo, he goes to jail.

It's patently obvious that the kid here lacked culpable intent.

He had the intent to grab the wheel, and that is all the intent he needs. The shooter in the example above had the intent to fire the gun, if not to kill his mother. Good enough.

The fact that any accident might hurt him as much or more as his victim is irrelevant. You are confusing intent to cause harm with intent to engage in a reckless activity that causes harm. You need the latter to be convicted of manslaughter, but not the former. That's why the shooter goes to jail. He intended to fire the gun. If he fell on the gun and it went off, he would lack intent and would not be guilty of a crime. Likewise, if Ranking had gone into a violent seizure and in the process grabbed the steering wheel, he would not be culpable.
12.22.2005 4:53am
Marcus1:
>It's aimed at people who would engage in what my grandparents used to call 'horseplay' in cars.<

How much do you think the level of horseplay in cars is now going to go down? How much do you think it would have gone up if he had not been prosecuted?

>He had the intent to grab the wheel, and that is all the intent he needs. ... You are confusing intent to cause harm with intent to engage in a reckless activity that causes harm.<

I think this kind of arbitrary inflexibility makes a mockery of our justice system. Recklesness is not all the same. "Horseplay" by an 18 year old in a car after drinking is not in the same league as a 35 year old shooting a gun to scare someone or even a drunk 18 year old getting behind the wheel of a car. They are no more similar than manslaughter is to first degree murder.

To me, you seem a little too comfortable with the amorality of our justice system in a situation like this. How are you so sure it's so totally fair to take two people who committed the same act, and severely punish one while letting off the other completely, based simply on some unforeseen result? How are you so sure there's no relevant difference between recklesness that reflects an actual disregard for life, and that which simply reflects immature shenanigans? Totally irrelevant?

Do you really not believe in prosecutorial discretion, or are you just being difficult?

I don't know how one really makes the case for compassion, when people seem so much more inclined toward hypocricy and condemnation. Anyway, I'll keep thinking about it.
12.22.2005 11:40am
David Chesler (mail) (www):
What you said Marcus.
Note that JGShapiro says "Likewise, if Ranking had gone into a violent seizure and in the process grabbed the steering wheel, he would not be culpable."
But that's an awfully bright line separating black from white, an awfully strong step function, allowing no difference between the mildest horseplay and the most wanton disregard for a highly likely bad outcome. (What if this hypothetical epilectic knew he were prone to seizures, even knew that under circumstances [flashing lights, stress, an aura] that a seizure was particularly likely that night, but he didn't take measures like sitting so far from the steering wheel, or having his friends put him in a strait jacket?)
12.22.2005 3:09pm
David Chesler (mail) (www):
Or in the other direction, suppose he had been sober, and had not grabbed the wheel, but had played a non-criminal prank, like saying "Oh look, there goes Santa Claus!" causing the driver to look, lose attention to the road, and crash, rollover, and kill a passenger. (Or insert any other prank -- though the urban legend of using a cadaver arm to pay a toll, causing a fatal heart attack to the toll taker, probably does have a criminal act in misusing the body part.)

The gravely tragic outlier consequence, and the severe punishment for it, does not reflect the differences we perceive a priori in the badness of this behavior compared to a prank (with or without technical criminality) that does not go awry.
12.23.2005 12:14pm
Marcus1:
David Chesler,

>The gravely tragic outlier consequence, and the severe punishment for it, does not reflect the differences we perceive a priori in the badness of this behavior compared to a prank (with or without technical criminality) that does not go awry.<

Right. Which, I think, is ok, if there is some strong deterrent effect or some other justification. The same problem exists with drunk driving in general, that many people do it, and it's sort of a negative-lottery when someone ends up killing someone.

There, however, strong DUI laws have, at least I believe, a strong deterrrent affect. Also, although it's not often said, the fact that a drunk driver got in an accident shows an additional level of brazenness (my word for the day) which all drunk drivers may not exhibit. People who get in drunk driving accidents probably tend to be reckless in their driving beyond the simple fact that they are intoxicated. Thus, having very tough laws for drunk drivers who got in an accident would effectively say "If you ARE going to drink and drive, then you better be DARNED careful, because we're not cutting you any slack."

And I think that message gets accross. People take heed of that. With this kid, though? There's no deterrent effect whatsoever. It's too rare of a situation. That's what makes the punishment so pointless, in addition to being unfair.
12.23.2005 6:11pm
David Chesler (mail) (www):
In further agreement, drunk driving is regularly punished even when there is no ill consequence. And for those that get into accidents while DUI, there is a random aspect (and even more for accidents leading to death and those that don't) but there is also more of a proof-of-the-pudding. Blood alcohol is only a proxy for incapacitation (given differing tolerances), being unable to drive without an accident is probably also a good proxy.
Unlike the kid's case, where it was just bad luck, and only DUI (and therefore only criminal) by the thinnest technicality.
12.23.2005 6:47pm
Marcus1:
Yea, I don't think it was DUI at all (not having seen the statute). As I learned, criminal statutes are to be construed narrowly, and I don't think any DUI law was intended to apply in a situation like this.

It's sort of like if I see a bug running accross my piano, and I try to smash it. Did I play the piano? Did I intend to? I'm not sure there's a perfect analogy, but I don't think it's clear cut at all that he was operating the vehicle.

The question of intent with shooting a gun that killed someone, as I understand, would be whether you intended to shoot the gun. It wouldn't necessarily be whether you intended the result, e.g. the death, but it wouldn't just be whether you intended to pull the trigger either. If you thought the safety was on, I think that might be a defense to the hypothetical crime of illegally shooting a gun. It seems like the same defense here would say he didn't intend to operate the vehicle, even if he did intend to pull on the wheel.

(Who says you have to be arguing to run an idea into the ground?)
12.23.2005 9:40pm