Recently in Murder Category

December 1, 2010

John Wesley Ewell- Three Strikes and Out

John Wesley Ewell has been charged with murdering Hanna Morcos, Denice Roberts, and Leamon and Robyn Turnage in their suburban Los Angeles homes in September and October of 2010. The charges are a nightmare for opponents of 3 Strikes Laws.  With previous robbery convictions on his record, Ewell had been charged with relatively minor crimes that could have been used as Third Strikes and put Ewell into prison for the rest of his life.  Yet in each case, prosecutors exercised leniency and refused to file Strike 3 charges. As a result, Ewell was a free man when he allegedly committed the 2010 murders.

Supporters of 3 Strikes laws will no doubt call for their use even when a third strike crime is a minor one.  However, predicting future violence is tricky. Studies suggest that most offenders with 2 strikes on their record don't commit additinal viuolent crimes. 

And California is already under a court order to release prisoners. If 3 Strikes laws were strictly enforced, where would the extra prisoners be housed?  And in a state whose budget is already a train wreck, where would the money to pay for all the additional inmates come from?

We all need to mourn the deaths of innocent victims.  But we also have to recognize that discretion is a necessary component of our criminal justice system.  We have no choice but to trust to officials and experts to identify offenders who are likely to commit violent crimes if they are shown mercy.  But mistakes are inevitable.  

October 5, 2010

Tyler Clementi's Suicide: Manslaughter Charges Are Not Warranted

Tyler Clementi's suicidal jump off the George Washington Bridge has been followed by cries for manslaughter charges against Dharun Ravi and Molly Wei, the two Rutgers students who allegedly used a webcam to broadcast Clementi having sex with another male.   

However, prosecutors can only file charges that they believe they can prove beyond a reasonable doubt. In this situation, to justify involuntary manslaughter charges a prosecutor would have to believe that it can be proved that Ravi and Wei acted in reckless disregard of a substantial risk.  But while Ravi (Clementi's roommate who actually set up the webcam) and Wei may have been foolish and perhaps cruel, no evidence thus far suggests that they could have reasonably anticipated that Clementi would commit suicide.  So far as we know Clementi had never attempted suicide or even discussed suicide with the students. Indeed, there's some evidence that Clementi considered a variety of responses, including changing roommates, before committing suicide. His death is a tragedy, but it does not justify manslaughter charges.

July 8, 2010

Mehserle Convicted of Involuntary Manslaughter

As I predicted, an LA convicted former police officer Johannes Mehserle of involuntary manslaughter in the shooting death of Oscar Grant on a train platform on New Year's Day 2009.  Since Mehserle was charged with murder, I am sure that he and his attorneys are satisfied with the verdict.  Merserle will probably have to serve some time in jail, but with involuntary manslaughter probation instead of jail is a possibility. 

This is a case where the jury seems to have gotten it right.  Though the tragic shooting of a black victim by a white police officer understandably generated anger in Oakland, where the shooting took place, it's hard to be convinced beyond a reasonable doubt that Merserle intended to kill Grant. At the same time Mehserle is justly responsible for firing a gun that he testified he thought was a Taser.  Police officers are trusted with deadly weapons, and they have to be accountable for mistakes such as the one that Mehserle made.

Good move to have the trial in LA rather than Oakland.  Now let's hope that all the communities stay peaceful and that there's no repeat of the iots that took place in Oakland following Grant's tragic death. 

June 30, 2010

Johannes Mehserle Verdict: Riot or No Riot?

Johannes Mehssserle is the BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) police officer who is charged with murdering Oscar Grant on Jan. 1, 2009. Meherle admits shooting Grant on a train platform in Oakland, CA. He claims that Grant was resisting arrest, and that he was trying to subdue Grant with his Taser when he accidentally pulled out a gun and shot him. Word of the New Year's Eve shooting spread quickly and resulted in widespread rioting in Oakland.

Mehserle's trial was moved to LA. As the trial nears its conclusion, both the verdict and the chance that it will produce additional rioting are uncertain. A verdict of murder is unlikely, since the tragic killing was neither intentional nor premeditated. Voluntary or involuntary manslaughter is a more more likely and fairer verdict, since Meherle is certainly at fault for not recognizing the difference between a Taser and a deadly weapon.

For me, the biggest concern is the effect of the verdict on Grant's supporters in Oakland and LA.  Like most people I hope for calm reactions no matter what the verdict.  But if my sense of the likely verdict is accurate, experience suggests otherwise.


February 26, 2010

Alcala Convicted of Murder For the 3rd Time

Rodney Alcala was convicted on Feb. 26, 2010, of murdering 12 year old Robin Samsoe in 1979.  This was his 3rd conviction for the same crime- California appellate courts reversed the first two convictions.  This time around, with the help of DNA evidence that wasn't available at the time of the first two trials, Alcala was also convicted of murdering 4 other women.

Alcala represented himself.  It's often said that a person who represents himself has a fool for a client. In Alcala's case, it might be more appropriate to say that he had a ghoul for a client. 

In a few days, the jury will decide whether to recommend that Alcala be put to death.  But to this point this has been The Case That Would Not Die. The only good thing to come of the prolonged agony for Robin's family and friends is that Alcala lived long enough for DNA testing to enable the police to solve 4 other terrible crimes. 

January 29, 2010

Roeder Murder Trial- Jurors Get it RIght

It took the jurors in the Scott Roeder murder trial all of 37 minutes to convict him of the first degree murder of Dr. George Tiller,brushing aside Roeder's immoral defense that the killing was justified because Dr.Tiller performed abortions.  (See my previous day's blog entry for more information about the case.)

Sometimes American juries are derided for their seemingly irrational decisions.  I think it's worth saluting this Wichita, Kansas jury for getting it right. 

January 28, 2010

Scott Roeder Asks Jurors for a License to Kill

Scott Roeder is charged with murdering Dr. George Tiller.  Testifying in his own defense at the trial, Roeder admitted that he killed Tiller.  And the killing was totally premeditated- Roeder bought a gun, practiced his shot, and killed Tiller inside a church.

Roeder explained that he had a good reason for shooting Tiller- Tiller performed abortions.  Roeder had the chutzpah to explain that "It's never up to man to take life," perhaps temporarily forgetting that he did exactly that when he shot Tiller. 

Roeder undoubtedly hopes that the jurors will find this a valid reason for killing, and if not acquit him at least convict him of nothing more serious than manslaughter.

If the jurors accept this disgusting defense, people like Roeder would have a license to kill anyone who disagrees with their religious beliefs.  Maybe today it's an abortionist, but who knows who would be next.  If your God disapproves of homosexuality, no problem, kill homosexuals.  If your God disapproves of inter-racial dating, no problem, kill those couples.  I write in the hope that sanity prevails on the jury and that Roeder spends the rest of his sorry life in prison.  

January 11, 2010

Rodney Alcala- Will Trial No. 3 prove that he's a serial killer?

Rodney Alcala has twice been convicted of killing 12 year old Robin Samsoe in Huntington Beach (CA) in 1979.  Each time he was sentenced to death.  But both convictions were reversed, so here in Jan. 2010 Alcala is again on trial for killing Robin Samsoe.

Robin has plenty of company this time around.  As Alcala remained in prison, DNA testing linked him to the deaths of 4 other late-1970's CA murder victims.  So Alcala now is charged with 5 murders.

Ironically, Alcala's first conviction was reversed because the trial judge allowed the prosecution to offer evidence of Alcala's violence towards girls other than Robin. Now that evidence rules have changed and Alcala is charged with other crimes, Jury # 3 will hear plenty of evidence suggesting that Alcala is a serial killer.    

Alcala has chosen to represent himself.  That's less of a gamble than it seems.  He is now 66 years old, so even if he is convicted and the conviction is upheld, the chances that he'll be executed are virtually nil.


October 8, 2009

A Pyrrhic Victory?

A "Pyrrhic victory" connotes a victory with disastrous consequences.  This is one way to understand the defendant's "victory" in the California case of People v. Morgain (2009).  Morgain was convicted of murder, and sentenced to a term of 51 years to life in state prison.  Morgain appealed, and the court rejected all of his arguments except for one.  The court agreed with Morgain that he should have been credited with serving 249 days in custody prior to the date of his sentence, rather than the credit of 248 days that the trial court had given him.  Winning one extra day of credit on a sentence of 51 years to life seems like a Pyrrhic victory if ever there was one!     
September 23, 2009

Bruce Lisker's Freedom Infuriates the D.A.

Bruce Lisker's mother Dorka was brutally murdered in 1983.  Lisker was convicted of the murder in 1985, and languished in prison until August 2009, when a federal judge overturned the conviction.  The judge ruled that the conviction had been based on false evidence, and that Lisker's trial attorney had not defended him competently.  The Los Angeles D.A. could have re-tried Lisker, but in September 2009 surprised everyone at a court hearing by announcing that it would not re-file murder charges against Lisker because it lacked evidence of guilt.  After spending about a quarter of a century in prison, Lisker was finally free.

The D.A.'s office was hardly apologetic.  The prosecutor insisted that he was personally confident of Lisker's guilt, but had to drop the charge due to a lack of evidence.  What a terribly embarrassing thing for the D.A. to say.  What would have been wrong with "So sorry?"  

The evidence on which Lisker's conviction was based turned out to be so unreliable and perhaps even falsified that even Phillip Rabichow, the Deputy D.A. who prosecuted Lisker in the 1985 trial, told investigators said that he had a reasonable doubt of Lisker's guilt.  If you want to read about the sordid details, they are brilliantly captured in this 2005 LA Times story.  Shoddy police work, lying, jailhouse snitches, a rush to judgment by the police, a suspect who at 17 already had an unsavory past-- you'll find in Lisker's story all of the usual suspects when miscarriages of justice occur. 

The added ingredient in Lisker's story is the D.A.'s nasty and uncalled-for farewell.  The D.A.'s mindset serve as an assurance that future miscarriages of justice will occur.