Thursday, February 21, 2013

Sending A Message

File Under:  For Great Justice

On February 20, 2011, apparently while texting and driving his vehicle, then 17 year-old Aaron Deveau lost concentration, came across the center line, and plowed headlong into the truck driven by Donald Bowley, causing Bowley's death from injuries suffered in the wreck 18 days later.  A little over a year later Deveau would be the first person to be convicted of a vehicular homicide under the new breed of anti-texting laws.  This might seem like a simple issue on the surface, but in reality it is rather complex and illustrates the problems that hamper the American criminal justice system.  Many things were done right in the sentencing of Aaron Deveau:  the judge issued an individual sentence, the defendants age was considered, the maximum penalty was levied against a clearly culpable defendant, the judged utilized judicial discretion in extending mercy, and the court used the opportunity to send a clear message to the community -- both locally and nationally.  These are all positives to the credit of the court in this case.  However, the system fails in the much larger grand scheme of things.

The Crime Itself.

One man is dead and another man will spend 1 year in prison for his death.  Is this punishment proportional to the crime?  Looking at the Massachusetts state code, and reasoning that if the maximum sentence the defendant was facing was 2 1/2 years, then I assume he was facing the charge of misdemeanor motor vehicle homicide.  The nature of the crime and the victims death could even qualify for a charge of second degree murder, depending on how you interpret Massachusetts common law.  If the District Attorney sincerely wanted to make Aaron Deveau an example, was misdemeanor motor vehicle homicide the best charge for his offense?

Interpretation of the Massachusetts Penal Code [2]

Second Degree Murder - maximum sentence: life imprisonment with eligibility for parole after 15 years
  • "The unlawful killing of a human being accomplished [...] with malice aforethought..."
  • Malice Aforethought: " intent to act in a manner likely to cause death or serious injury. The malice element does not require an intent to cause a death."
Involuntary Manslaughter - maximum sentence: 20 years barring mitigating circumstances
  • " unintentional killing occasioned by an act which constitutes such a disregard of the probable harmful consequences to another as to be wanton or reckless..."
  • "...wanton or reckless conduct includes both affirmative acts and failures to act where a duty to act exists. Such acts or omissions must embody a disregard for the probable harmful consequences to another. The conduct must involve a high degree of likelihood that substantial harm will result to another. The law requires that the defendant have knowledge of the circumstances and the intent to do the act that caused the death, and also requires that the circumstances presented a danger of serious harm such that a reasonable man would have recognized the nature and degree of danger."
Felony Motor Vehicle Homicide - maximum sentence: 15 years and/or $5,000 fine, mandatory 10-yr revocation of driver's license.
  • "Operation of a motor vehicle upon a public way or place to which the public has a right of access or access as invitees or licensees [...] recklessly or negligently so that the lives or safety of the public might be endangered, and thereby causing the death of another person."

The Sentencing

Aaron Deveau maintains (now) that he made a mistake, one for which he is sorry.  I will avoid elaborating on, but cannot avoid implying that the charge and sentencing reflects a level of preference that other members of the community would not have received in the same circumstances.  Not wanting to make a felon out of the young Deveau, I can only surmise that the District Attorney (in giving him the lightest charge possible) and the Judge (for only sentencing him to 1 year in prison) felt that his actions were just not meritorious enough of a more severe penalty.  Or maybe they felt that other citizens would be shocked back into reality and deterred from texting-while-driving due to Deveau's stiff 1-year prison term.  The same 1 year Martha Stewart received for obstruction of justice over $50,000 or the same 1 year Lil Kim received for perjury.  That is equitable, right?  The public will surely will be shaken by this landmark decision, will they not?   I suppose this is a stiff sentence when you consider the slap on the wrist actress Rebecca Gayheart received for pleading no contest to vehicular homicide in the death of 9 year-old Jorge Cruz; she was sentenced to "three years probation, a one-year suspension of her license, a $2,800 fine, and 750 hours of community service." [3]  We had a problem in this country: people using mobile devices while driving or otherwise simply driving distracted.  This was already patently illegal by existing state law everywhere.  However, to correct this problem what did we do?  We added more statutes to the bloated, confusing penal code despite the fact that people already were not deterred by the threat of consequences.  Now we have yet another law which ( in some cases) is hard to enforce and has very arbitrary, impotent sentencing guidelines.

The Defendant

Ignorance of the law is no excuse for breaking it.  That point is irrelevant though, as Aaron Deveau knew the law.  No new statute has probably received as much notoriety as those adopted or being adopted in states nationwide specifically prohibiting the practice of using a mobile device while operating a motor vehicle.  Even before such laws were added to the penal code, anyone who passed a written examination to become a licensed driver knew that at all times a driver should keep his or her eyes on the road and hands on the steering wheel.  Aaron Deveau did not care about the law or how breaking that law could harm others.  Is that an offense that one can excuse to this degree on grounds of youth, especially when someone died from his malice?  Aaron Deveau:
  1. Knew his actions were a crime;
  2. Knew car accidents are one of the leading causes of death by injury (only recently overtaken at #1 by suicides);
  3. Knew his criminal actions are highly contributory to car accidents as any reasonable person would know;
  4. Had the presence of mind required to be deemed culpable;
  5. Committed his actions willfully;
  6. Covered up the crime, and
  7. Lied to authorities.
Justice Served?

What picture does this paint of Aaron Deveau?  An evil monster?  By no means, but the criminal justice system is not about witch hunts and demonizing people who genuinely made colossal mistakes.  It is about ensuring Justice.  Aaron Deveau was not a victim of a bizarre natural or physiological event.  He did not blackout or swerve to avoid a wreck.  Aaron Deveau may not have intended to kill Donald Bowley, yet through willful, wanton, and reckless action the victim is nevertheless just as dead -- and that makes Aaron Deveau a murderer.  Aaron Deveau did not need to spend the entirety of his life behind bars, but maybe he needed to consider it -- just have that hang over his head a while, to give up a larger piece of what he took from Donald Bowley.  All the system accomplished was to create another future ex-convict.  The District Attorney and the Judge did not: appropriately punish Aaron Deveau, they did not create an example of him, they did not incapacitate him long enough, he likely will not rehabilitate, and future sentencing will show that this was not equitable.  One year was a slap in the face of Justice.  One year in prison could have been more than sufficient for the pain and suffering inflicted upon the decedent's girlfriend, Luz Roman, for her own injuries.  But it does not even begin to atone for the loss of her boyfriend, especially considering the man would still be alive if all Aaron Deveau had done was put down his damn phone and paid attention to the road.

"So Damn Lucky" by Dave Matthews from Some Devil released 2003 on RCA

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