Duncan: 3 Death Sentences, 9 Life Sentences November 6, 2008Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Criminal Justice, Current Events, Nina Rosenstand's Posts.
I can see on the blog stats that blog readers have been looking for news about Joseph Duncan, so here’s an update: Duncan was just given additional life sentences for the murders of Shasta’s and Dylan’s brother, mother, and her fiancé, so the tally now comes to 9 life sentences in addition to the three death sentences (for the abduction, torture, and murder of Dylan), and three 10-year terms, plus fines. This is where some readers would shake their heads—because after all, what’s the use of 9 life sentences? Especially since Duncan already has three death sentences. How many times can a person be put to death, and how many lifetimes can he serve? Idaho law professor Richard Seamon says it could be a record, and explains the principle behind what some would say is an overkill of sentences:
Courts impose multiple death sentences and multiple life terms for various reasons, Seamon said. “In a situation like this, of course, it does seem to be piling on.” But, he said, “Sometimes on appeal, some of the convictions can be thrown out, and that may very well affect the overall sentence. … That’s the main reason, as a practical matter, it matters.”
There are symbolic reasons as well, he noted. “It has primarily symbolic significance, that each life counts, each offense is individually valued and considered.”
Now Duncan will probably be headed for Riverside County, CA, to stand trial for the murder of little Anthony Martinez. However, Steve Groene, Shasta’s and Dylan’s father, is actively engaged in attempting to prevent that from happening. Groene says the reason officials in Riverside want to conduct the trial is for political gain, more than concern for Anthony’s family; he adds that having had Dylan’s story of torture and death told in detail in the courtroom was devastating, and he would want to spare the Martinez family from a similar experience. And besides, says Groene, it’s a waste of money, since Duncan will spend the remainder of his days in prison anyway.
This is a great example of “pragmatic assessment” over “principle,” but what say you? Does the Martinez family need justice for their boy in court, or should the fact that Duncan will never walk free again be sufficient to them? (Not that they need to listen to us, or to Groene for that matter. We’re using very concrete, tragic events to illustrate abstract issues in criminal justice ethics here.) I’m reminded of a scene in True Grit where Mattie (whose father has been murdered by the outlaw Chaney) is assured by the Texas Ranger LaBoeuf that when he takes Chaney back to Texas to hang for the murder of a senator, he’ll be just as dead as if he’d been hanged for the murder of Mattie’s father. And Mattie responds, “It means little to me how many senators he has killed.” She wants justice for her father, not justice in general. This is a very human reaction—but is it reasonable, in terms of possible outcome and costs? The ultimate question here is, is the Martinez family’s sense of justice satisfied if Duncan is “hanged for a senator” instead of for their son? Should justice reflect the feelings of the victims at all, or should the emotional aspect be irrelevant—as philosophy has traditionally assumed?