Thursday, November 21, 2013

Out of the mouths of prosecutors

On Tuesday afternoon up in Montgomery County (for those of y'all not familiar with the place - it's just north of Houston), Verna McClain, a nurse, pled guilty to killing a mother in a doctor's parking lot and taking her baby. Ms. McClain was facing the death penalty, but the deal brokered by her attorney, Tyrone Moncriffe, will see her spend the rest of her life in prison instead.

But that's not the story.

The story is what Montgomery County District Attorney Brett Ligon told the media afterward.

Here is a clip from the article in yesterday's Houston Chronicle:
Although McClain will not have an executioner end her life with a lethal drug, she will "wither and die" in prison, and her victim's famly can have the certainty that the verdict will never get overturned on a technicality or appeal, Ligon said. 
"The victim's family also got to hear what few in their place do, an admission of guilt," he added. 
"No games were played in the courtroom. There was no hiding behind insanity defenses." 
While McClain had no prior criminal record, not even a parking ticket, Ligon believes she is all the more dangerous because nobody can predict what she might be capable of doing at any instant.
Of course, as has been pointed out in this space many times before, what the prosecutor refers to as a technicality is a constitutional protection. Yes, it can get messy sometimes trying to gather evidence and present it in court with that pesky little Bill of Rights nipping at your heels. But that's the point, isn't it?

The Founding Fathers had a profound fear of someone being wrongfully convicted. They also had a profound fear of allowing the government too much power to intrude into our private lives.

When we allow the government to refer to a constitutional protection as a "technicality" without calling them on it, we make it easier for the courts to cast those protections aside.

Mr. Ligon would like for us to believe that the insanity defense is a great tool for folks accused of murder to walk away from any responsibility. The truth is that the insanity defense in Texas is a very narrow defense that is rarely invoked by a defendant. In order to prevail on an insanity defense, the defendant must show that due to a mental defect he was unable to determine right from wrong at the time of the alleged offense.

While it is my understanding that Ms. McClain's attorneys thought about putting on an insanity defense, they were unable to do so because there was no evidence that Ms. McClain suffered from any mental defect.

I would propose that, as our understanding of the brain increases, that we revisit the insanity defense in Texas. If a defendant can prove up a mental defect should it even matter if he was able to distinguish right from wrong? I have seen folks with brain tumors do things they would never have imagined doing before - they knew it was "wrong," but they had no ability to control the impulse due to the effects of the tumor in their brain.

As to the question of whether Ms. McClain would be a threat in the future, Mr. Ligon's argument that an absence of a criminal record makes her more dangerous is beyond absurd. The absence of a criminal history makes it all the more likely that what happened that day in the parking lot was an outlier. If we are going to allow prosecutors to argue that a person should be considered a danger to society because their behavior was unpredictable, then we might as well tear up the special questions a jury must answer in a capital case once they find the defendant guilty.

What makes Mr. Ligon's comments all the more distressing is the fact that he was a member of the defense bar prior to becoming the DA in Montgomery County. He knows what he's spewing is horseshit but he doesn't care because his only goal is to poison as many jury pools as possible. Mr. Ligon might want to take a look at the disciplinary rules in Texas - his job is not to win cases but to see that justice is done.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Don't get me started on ligon. Ill never shut up