Wednesday, February 23, 2011
Hot on the heels of my thoughts on depraved heart murder, the New York Court of Appeals today issued People v. Prindle, in which the defendant was in the process of stealing a snow plow blade (this year, I could certainly sympathize) when police responded to the scene and defendant took off in his van with the police in hot pursuit. The chase ended between 2 1/2 and 4 miles later, when the defendant crashed into another car, severely injuring the victim, who survived in a comatose state with terrible injuries before dying five days later.
The quirk about the case was that the trial court gave a jury instruction which tracked the law in the now-overruled, supposedly objective and morally shorn People v. Register. At the time of trial, Register hadn't been explicitly overruled yet, but it was on the way out. The trial court instructed that a finding of depravity depended on a decision that the defendant's "conduct, when objectively viewed," rose to a level of dangerousness "demonstrat[ing] an attitude of total and utter disregard" for human life. The defendant didn't object; so that's the standard that the Ct. of Appeals used.
In my previous post, I argued that a legal moralist view of depraved heart is perhaps counter-intuitively more defendant protective than an objectified view that focuses exclusively on risk-taking. The beauty of Prindle is that it manifests the utter inadequacy of the objective, morally denuded approach to depravity in another way: it is unfair.
Compare another wild car chase case more than 20 years ago, People v. Gomez, in which the Court of Appeals upheld a depraved indifference conviction where the defendant drove 40 miles an hour along a city street, hit a parked car, continued onward weaving between lanes, hit another moving car, climbed up a sidewalk curb and hit and killed a kid on a bike, and then sped up, hitting and killing another child. In Prindle, there was testimony that the defendant drove the van erratically, was weaving in and out of lanes, crossed over the median, barrelled through no less than 5 red lights, causing traffic to come screeching to a halt, drove for long moments in the lane of oncoming traffic at 65 mph (with cars peeling and skidding out of the way), hit a truck at an intersection, and plowed on ahead until it crashed into the victim's car without braking or attempting to avoid it.
Without any explanation at all, applying the "objective" test, the Prindle majority distinguished Gomez and held that these facts were legally insufficient to rise to the level of depraved indifference and could only be second degree manslaughter. How it did so is a mystery to me, as well as to dissenting Judge Pigott. Was it the killing of two people? The fact that the people were children? The driving on after the initial hit? If it helps (as if it should!), the victim here was a young woman who was on her way back from a baby shower. Examined "objectively," exactly what factual circumstance is it that warranted giving Gomez a minimum of 15 years where Prindle gets a minimum of 1?
No, objectifying the standard for depravity -- eliminating the inquiry into culpability -- by trying to discern whether a defendant like Gomez presented a "grave" risk, while Prindle only presented a "substantial" risk, is no way to run a railroad. The unfairness to -- that is, the unequal treatment of -- defendants in using this sort of fact-oriented, mens rea insensible approach to depravity boggles the mind. Placing depravity on a continuum with ordinary criminal recklessness -- calling it a species of extreme recklessness regarding homidal risk without any uniquely morally culpable component -- is a dreadful idea.