Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Eye For An Eye

Back in 2009, a felon by the name of Maurice Clemmons killed four police officers in Lakewood, Washington. He fled the scene of the shootings with the help of one Dorcus Allen, who had driven to the location. When the police were looking for Allen, LaTanya Clemmons helped him by driving him to a motel and giving him money to buy a bus ticket. Maurice Clemmons was killed in a confrontation with a Seattle police officer, Allen was captured and sentenced to 420 years in prison. LaTanya Clemmons was sentenced to 5 years in prison for rendering criminal assistance to Allen, far longer than the normal 6 to 12 month standard sentencing range. She was scheduled to be released in July of last year, after serving two-and-a-half years, because of a now-expired law, passed in 2003, that gave certain non-violent inmates a 50% “earned release” credit. But she left prison slightly earlier than that date, after her conviction was overturned on appeal in June of 2012.

Prosecutors were required to prove LaTanya Clemmons knew Allen had committed aggravated first-degree murder, or knew that police were seeking him for aggravated first-degree murder.

In a 2-1 decision released Friday, the Division 2 Court of Appeals held that prosecutors had not presented sufficient evidence to support either allegation at her trial in 2010. Given that, the rendering charge also was not adequately supported and should be overturned, the justices said.
Court overturns convictions of Maurice Clemmons' sister
The dissenting justice maintained that Clemmons didn't need to know exactly what had happened to be guilty, given that: “a renderer need not know the degree of the crime for which police seek the assisted person, knowledge of the police search alone is sufficient.”

To prevent such convictions from being overturned in the future, the Washington State legislature has passed a change to the relevant statute that adds “It is not a defense that the person's knowledge of the underlying crime or juvenile offense committed by the person receiving assistance was nonspecific or based upon secondhand information.”

I understand all of the hubbub. It's hard for legislators to go wrong by lowering the boom on lawbreakers, especially when assaults against police officers are involved. But crafting laws just to close down specific successful defenses seems petty and a bad precedent. The point behind the law is not to lock up people we don't like, or who frighten us. It should be to maintain public safety and the like. Setting things up to ensure that vengeance is meted out to everyone we can catch doesn't serve that, and it buttresses a public perception that hurting people who they can make a case hurt them is a right that government should grant. In the grand scheme of things, what LaTanya Clemmons did was both trivial and ineffective, and she had already served nearly two-and-a-half times the normal top sentence for what she'd done when her convictions were overturned.

Granted, legal punishments are not meant to be pleasant or trivial. Then, they loose a lot of their deterrent effect. (Such as it is.) But making the law into a tool to answer suffering with suffering isn't a good answer. The point behind the justice system shouldn't be to get our revenge for us. It should the purposes of the whole society. Chasing individual cases doesn't do that.

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