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April 15, 2011

Canadian commits murder in Illinois after researching abolition of death penalty

This crime story from Illinois, headlined "Woman slain in Oak Brook after being tracked by GPS," reports on a Canadian murderer who claims to have been emboldened by Illinois' abolition of the death penalty. Here are the details:

A man from British Columbia, Canada is accused of fatally shooting his former girlfriend in the parking lot of an Oak Brook corporate park after tracking her with a GPS device glued to her car -- and after researching Illinois law on the death penalty, prosecutors said today.

Dmitry Smirnov, 20, of Surrey, turned himself in to police not long after he repeatedly shot Jitka Vesel, 36, of Westmont at the Windsor Office Park at 125 Windsor Drive in the western suburb Wednesday night, authorities said.

During a court hearing, where he was denied bail, prosecutors said Smirnov had moved to the Chicago area in 2008 after meeting Vesel through an online dating service. But Vesel eventually returned to her former boyfriend and Smirnov returned to Canada....

Two weeks ago, he drove to the area from Canada, buying a 40-caliber handgun and ammunition in Seattle on his way to the Chicago area, Berlin said. He arrived in the area April 8 or 9, and tracked down Vesel’s address through the Internet, Berlin said. Smirnov lived in his car for four days after returning to the area, Berlin said.

Smirnov attached a GPS device to her car and tracked her for several days, Berlin said. On Wednesday night, he approached her in the parking lot and began shooting. As he was reloading, she threw coffee on him and fell to the ground. He fired more shots, Berlin said. Berlin said Vesel was shot numerous times in the head and body and died at the scene....

Smirnov later provided a videotaped confession. Berlin said Smirnov went through with his plan after researching to see if Illinois had the death penalty. Just weeks ago, Gov. Pat Quinn signed legislation banning the death penalty in the state.

April 15, 2011 at 09:39 AM | Permalink

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Comments

Very interesting. Perhaps the death penalty does have some deterrent effect, even if it takes a long time to reach the end game...

Posted by: Alex | Apr 15, 2011 10:27:35 AM

So wait, did he kill her in Illinois (where she lived) because it didn't have a death penalty, or did he kill her because Illinois didn't have a death penalty?

Too bad he couldn't entice her to Canada, where they also don't have the death penalty. But then, maybe he didn't want to raise their murder rate, which is much lower than the United States', and which, like the United States', has gone down in the past 20 years.

Posted by: Anonymous | Apr 15, 2011 12:08:18 PM

When I was an AUSA in Virginia, I was peripherally involved in a case against a drug gang that operated in both Alexandria and across the Potomac River in DC.

As often happens, the gang was in competition with a rival gang. To deal with this problem, one of the fellows in Gang A was assigned to murder one of the fellows in Gang B, to establish that the price of this unwelcome competition was going to be real steep.

The designated shooter from Gang A (who was Alexandria based) managed to convince the target in Gang B (who was also Alexandria based) to take a drive with him. The plan was to take him to an unpleasant section of DC to kill him. Things unraveled, however, and the whole thing fizzled before any damage was done.

Since this involved both drugs and an interstate murder plot, the USAO was pretty interested. We caught the fellow from Gang A. One of the agents interviewing him asked why the plan was so complicated -- i.e., why take the risk and delay of driving into DC to kill the target when it would have been a good deal simpler just to ambush him in Alexandria?

Mr. Gang A answered: "Because DC ain't got no death penalty."

The idea that the DP has no deterrent value is not merely mistaken, but delusional.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Apr 15, 2011 12:18:04 PM

This will definitely spice up the conversation about whether death penalty will prevent crime or not..

Posted by: Laihdu Nopeasti | Apr 15, 2011 12:34:52 PM

Quinn should apologize to the family and the people of IL. This is why you dont make blanket amnesty and repeal the DP. If your opposed commute sentences on a case-by-case basis. There are unrepentent killers who deserve to die and the DP just may be a deterent...to some. Quinn has this death on his hands. He and Gov's like Bill Richardson do a great diservice to the rule of law and jury's decisions. I hope he can't sleep for months.

Posted by: DeanO | Apr 15, 2011 12:44:32 PM

DeanO:

I doubt it. When you oppose something categorically on religious or moral grounds, the point is that the costs are considered irrelevant -- they are not considered. To them, it's not a question of whether the possibility of the death penalty deters and, if so, whether the deterrent effect is worth it: by definition, no amount of additional deterrence is "worth it." Even if it could be shown that capital punishment deters a dozen murders (or 20--pick your number) for every murderer executed, that would be dismissed as simply irrelevant. At least the state's hands haven't gotten dirty by actively causing a murderer's death as opposed simply to passively failing to prevent the death of many more(non-murderer) victims.

Have I got that right, Peter? Peter? (Interesting, no comments from Peter in response to this post.)

Posted by: guest | Apr 15, 2011 1:09:45 PM

guest --

There also weren't any comments from peter (or claudio or John K or Anonymous (above)) when Doug put up a post asking what the sentencing should be for Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.

Abolitionists know full well that a case like that cries out for the death penalty; that no normal person would regard a term of years, no matter what its length, as justice; and that there are some episodes so gruesome and so totally ice-cold that the usual caterwalling about innocence, bad lawyering, etc., sounds not merely wrong but crazy.

They remember that they were left sullen and flat-footed by Timothy McVeigh. KSM killed 17 times the number of people McVeigh did. So the abbies just slink past in silence and hope it blows over so they can once again trot out Sister Perjean or Al Sharpton or whoever.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Apr 15, 2011 1:30:43 PM

Bill:

I have every confidence that Peter, or Claudio, or John K will explain why crimes like these (regardless of their number) are simply regrettable costs that must be tolerated as part of the price of living in an enlightened and civilized society. If they are especially courageous, they will explain why they consider it especially important to oppose the possibility of capital punishment for people like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed or Timothy McVeigh -- or people who admit that the absence of capital punishment was a significant factor in their decisions to commit murder (or to commit them in jurisdictions that don't have it, as opposed to ones that do). I'm a bit surprised that none of them have commented as yet -- just give them time.

Incidentally, you might know the answer to this; I don't: is there a basis for a federal death-penalty prosecution in this case? I wasn't sure whether the interstate/international aspects of the planning and commission of the offense constituted a legal basis for a federal dp prosecution; and, even if it did, perhaps not wanting to antagonize Canada would be an important factor to consider in terms of whether to proceed. Otherwise, if the defendant behaved as opportunistically as is reported here, this would seem to represent a textbook case for a federal dp prosecution, notwithstanding (or because of) its unavailability under state law.

Posted by: guest | Apr 15, 2011 1:53:28 PM

Bill Otis an Asst US Atty in Virginia?

Very scary.

Posted by: anon | Apr 15, 2011 2:06:41 PM

The DP would not stop this guy from his act or anyone else.....If they are so inclined to kill a human, in some cases the DP is preferable, why spend the rest of your life locked up with big harry stinky slime bags...Assuming thats where killers end up...LWOP should be enough....

Posted by: Josh | Apr 15, 2011 2:07:40 PM

Josh:

I think you've missed the point of the article. The point of the article is that the absence of the possibility of the death penalty was a significant factor in this person's decision to commit the murder (or at least where he chose to commit it). You're simply assuming away the elephant-in-the-room question here by saying, well, the possibility of a death sentence wouldn't have deterred him anyway, so therefore "LWOP should be enough."

Posted by: guest | Apr 15, 2011 2:45:05 PM

In 2008, he was 17. The victim was 33. Was she a sex offender when they began their relationship?

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Apr 15, 2011 2:53:52 PM

anon --

"Bill Otis an Asst US Atty in Virginia? Very scary."

Thanks. I intended to be scary to meth dealers, zillionaire swindlers, gun runners and the like, and I appreciate the compliment. On the other hand, I wasn't so scary when the defendant understood that he needed to change the way he dealt with the world in order to have a chance for a better life, see United States v. Martin, 25 F.3d 211 (4th Cir. 1994)(available at http://ftp.resource.org/courts.gov/c/F3/25/25.F3d.211.93-6702.93-6583.93-6477.html).

Still, since the topic here is not me, despite the typical ad hominem (but hey, you missed (so far) calling me a Nazi), but the death penalty, perhaps you could tell us why Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, cheerful murderer of thousands, deserves a punishment qualitatively identical to the one you'd give a guy who sells heroin or knocks over the gas station. Could you help me out with that one?

Posted by: Bill Otis | Apr 15, 2011 3:28:42 PM

Josh --

Let me ask you the same question I asked the guy who thinks I'm "scary": Could you explain why Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, cheerful murderer of thousands, deserves a punishment qualitatively identical to the one you'd give a guy who sells heroin or knocks over the gas station? Or do you think he should get the death penalty instead?

Posted by: Bill Otis | Apr 15, 2011 3:35:41 PM

The unspoken question that may even get SC's juices flowing: If he was going to do that much planning, why not do just a little more and plan to get away with it? The murderers they catch are usually not the premeditated variety, and clearance rates nationally for murder are in decline.

Posted by: Gritsforbreakfast | Apr 15, 2011 3:39:39 PM

guest --

That is a really good question, and I confess I don't know the answer. The interstate travel and stalking might provide a jurisdictional basis, but these things are technical and statutory.

The Federal Death Penalty Act of 1994 expanded federal law to make 60 crimes death-eligible, but I don't know if it captures this one. The Act authorizes the death penalty for an individual in any state or territory who committed an offense such as murder of designated government officials, kidnapping resulting in death, murder for hire, fatal drive-by shootings, sexual abuse crimes resulting in death, car-jacking resulting in death, and certain crimes not resulting in death, including the running of a large-scale drug enterprise. But I don't know it in enough detail to give you a sure answer. Part of the reason for this is that I haven't been an AUSA for 12 years, and am a little rusty.

As to your other point: I used to think there was such a thing as principled abolitionism, along the lines you outline. I am now pretty skeptical; I think it's at best willful blindness.

We all want an enlightened and humane society. Such a society is by definition the one that preserves the greatest number of innocent lives. In view of the 20 or so various and independent studies done over the last decade (available at http://www.cjlf.org/deathpenalty/DPDeterrence.htm) -- virtually all of which show that each execution deters between 5 and 18 murders -- to oppose the death penalty is to knowingly accept the loss, often through hideous means, of hundreds or perhaps thousands of innocent lives. That is not enlightened and it is not principled. It's appalling, and reveals a sanctimonious, moral holiday kind of thinking that's just mind-boggling.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Apr 15, 2011 4:06:24 PM

Stories like this are typical. They make the prosecutor an unquestioned god. The headline could be "Man kills after buying gun." Or as it actually is, "Woman slain in Oak Brook after being tracked by GPS."

Both of these are factually provable with concrete evidence. The claim that he killed after researching the death penalty law is suspect. First, there is some subjective interpretation required and we cannot, and have not, heard the other side of the story, namely, what was really meant. And we won't because even if the defendant has an attorney, he will be advised to remain silent. By the time we hear what was really meant, if different, this story will have already served its purpose.

So this story is actually Berlin's (the prosecutor's) story because Berlin is the narrator and the news media is the robotic parrot.

Most harmful though is disservice to humanity because the situation is used for self promotion (for the DA's office or for law enforcement in general and for political maneuvering regarding the DP).

Posted by: George | Apr 15, 2011 4:39:28 PM

George:

So the point is "pay it no mind because it credits the prosecutor's account which may be inaccurate; because even if it's completely accurate we can never be completely certain it's accurate because the defendant won't dispute it because counsel will advise him to remain silent; and because, at any rate, it would do a "disservice to humanity" to consider it even if the prosecutor's account turns out to be completely accurate"? I gather that the main point ("most harmful though") is that even if this account turns out to be completely accurate, it will "disserv[e] . . . humanity" to have policy acknowledge the possibility that the prospect of capital punishment influences primary conduct, even if it does.

And how much "subjective interpretation" is involved? Either he did, say, Google searches for Illinois+abolishes+"death penalty" in the time-frame leading up to the killing or he didn't. If he did, what he found on the internet either had some effect or influence on him or it didn't.

Posted by: guest | Apr 15, 2011 5:11:56 PM

George:

Also: "Man kills after buying gun," as opposed to mentioning that he apparently tracked her using a GPS device and had evidently researched Illinois's recent abolition of the death penalty? In the unlikely event that I ever end up running a newspaper, remind me not to hire you as a writer or editor.

Posted by: guest | Apr 15, 2011 5:19:18 PM

Surely this case raises issues about the availability of guns to any wacko who cares to put down his cash..

Posted by: Terry Beckett | Apr 15, 2011 6:18:36 PM

Guest: "And how much "subjective interpretation" is involved? Either he did, say, Google searches for Illinois+abolishes+"death penalty" in the time-frame leading up to the killing or he didn't. If he did, what he found on the internet either had some effect or influence on him or it didn't."

Like I said, subjective. But there is a bigger problem with your argument and it is also typical. The prosecutor's narrative has no respect at all for the presumption of innocence, and you apparently follow suit. But you are not alone. The media knowtows as a matter of course.

Posted by: George | Apr 15, 2011 6:28:57 PM

George:

Okay, we'll see. But let's assume for the moment that the prosecutor's "narrative" turns out to be accurate (as I said, I'll grant that we'll have to wait until later to know for certain), and that this person indeed decided to commit this murder (or at least chose where to commit it) on the basis of Illinois's categorical abolition of capital punishment. Would your position that the "disservice to humanity" that would accompany acknowledging that Illnois's abolition of the death penalty factored into the killing the "most harmful thing," i.e., because it would lend support to people who question the wisdom of complete abolition, going to change any?

And, at least as to whether the defendant conducted internet searches using specified key terms (e.g., Illinois + abolishes + "death penalty") within, say, a month before the killing, how is that a subjective question?

Posted by: guest | Apr 15, 2011 7:15:07 PM

George --

Do you favor or oppose the death penalty for Khalid Sheikh Mohammed?

Posted by: Bill Otis | Apr 15, 2011 7:17:51 PM

Guest, that is precisely the kind of mental gymnastics propaganda intends us to indulge in and entertaining it gives it credence.

Even if he searched for information on the DP, and the prosecutor may be able to introduce this as evidence of premeditation, that is not proof that he would not have killed if Illinois still had the DP. That would require proving a negative, which is impossible, and that is what gives this kind propaganda its endurance.

Posted by: George | Apr 15, 2011 7:50:00 PM

Mr. Bill, didn't you argue Sen. Kyl was irrelevant?

Posted by: George | Apr 15, 2011 7:52:28 PM

George:

"Even if he searched for information on the DP, and the prosecutor may be able to introduce this as evidence of premeditation, that is not proof that he would not have killed if Illinois still had the DP."

You don't think it's at least **some** evidence that gave at least **some** thought to Illinois's abolition of the death penalty in determining **either** whether to commit the murder **or** where to commit it? What on earth would you consider it evidence of? (I can't imagine your holding evidence offered by the defense in a criminal case to prove an affirmative defense to whatever standard you're applying here.)

At any rate, "mental gymnastics" are what we do here; this isn't a courtroom. The presumption of innocence is a legal fiction appropriate for court. (I don't want to be misunderstood: it is an exceptionally important legal fiction; the alternative would be unacceptable.) This is a blog. It's like a law school classroom. It's appropriate for Professor B.--or any of us in the comments--to ask, "assume the facts are X; then what?"

Suppose this guy says, and there's no question about the truth or reliability of his statement, "I gave Illinois's decision to abolish the death penalty at least some consideration in deciding whether to do this, and it heavily influenced my decision about where to do it. If the death penalty were still an option in Illinois, I might not have done it, and I almost certainly wouldn't have done it in Illinois, as opposed to in Canada or some U.S. state in which there was no death penalty."

I take it then that your response would be either or both of "I'll only deal with that question once I'm persuaded as a matter of fact that this is what actually occurred (and I will not be persuaded as a matter of fact that this is what actually occurred)" or "this possibility cannot be acknowledged under any circumstances because it would disserve the goal of categorical abolition of the death penalty." Tell me I'm wrong; and if, so, why and how I'm wrong. I'm just not interested in hearing that this is simply "propaganda" that should not be indulged simply because a prosecutor has suggested it.

Posted by: guest | Apr 15, 2011 8:14:57 PM

George --

It's not exactly a low-ball question. Since you remained silent when Doug raised the issue nine days ago ("[I]nspired in part by the LATimes piece, I am eager to hear just how (and with what sentencing purposes most in mind) folks think terror offenders should be punished"), then, if I'm interested in your views -- as I am -- my only choice is to ask on another thread. This seems like an apt one, since the DP is the subject here.

It's not ad hominem, it's current, and it's a topic of great interest to people who care about sentencing.

To state the obvious, you can easily answer if you want to. And it takes no more than a yes or a no (although you can of course elaborate, as I hope you will). I can't imagine you have no opinion on it.

Do you favor or oppose the death penalty for Khalid Sheikh Mohammed?

Posted by: Bill Otis | Apr 15, 2011 10:33:51 PM

guest --

I personally don't need to rely on anything in the story Doug put up here, since, in a case in which I was involved (see the third comment on this thread, Apr 15, 2011 12:18:04 PM), the defendant said point-blank, and matter-of-factly, that he avoided committing murder in Virginia because he could go across the river to DC where they had no death penalty.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Apr 15, 2011 10:43:17 PM

Guest, I don't dispute that the prosecutor had to right to state the facts as known and probably did so in good faith, and the news media had the right to print them as it wished. Nor is there any reason to have anything against discussing hypotheticals.

I believe there will and should be justice for the woman who was killed and her family, but I also think the due process should start at the beginning when the media gets the story. The problem is that most defense attorneys do not want it tried in the media and theretofore cannot attempt to balance the story. So the news is almost always one-sided by default.

My only point is that the article is like an opening argument by the prosecution. Would you like to be arrested and tried that way? Or what if you were the attorney assigned to this case and the first and only thing you knew about it so far was this article? Would you think it fair or would you think your job would be tougher because of it? If your job would be tougher, wouldn't that be because the prosecutor already gained some advantage? One last question. Do you think the prosecutor promoted this case in the media solely because the public has the right to know (pure altruism)or do you think there was some advantage expected or earned?

Mr. Bill, I missed Doug's Khalid Sheikh Mohammed post and don't know anything about that case. But if you are asking if he should get the DP I would probably say no because killing someone is not a good way to demonstrate that killing is wrong.

Posted by: George | Apr 16, 2011 1:12:54 AM

George --

"I missed Doug's Khalid Sheikh Mohammed post and don't know anything about that case."

Unfortunately, we all know lots about the case, the case being the 9-11 mass murders, which KSM has admitted (indeed, proclaimed) that he planned. Glory to Allah, death to the infidels, and all that.

"But if you are asking if he should get the DP I would probably say no because killing someone is not a good way to demonstrate that killing is wrong."

I'm interested in your saying you would "probably" say no. Are there any circumstances in which you would say "yes"?

Posted by: Bill Otis | Apr 16, 2011 8:08:31 AM

Bill,

Nazi, neo-Nazi or non-Nazi, you are truly still very scary.

Three questions for you:

Where does your apparent hatred-inspired thinking come from?

Why do you have such need to channel it here?

Do you think hatred is a good basis for public policy formulation?

Posted by: anon | Apr 16, 2011 1:52:10 PM

@ Guest at April 15 5:18

He's 20, and a foreign national.

He didn't "put down his cash" at a licensed gun store or anywhere else that any gun control proposal would have effected to buy a handgun.

Since he had already determined to commit murder, and buying a gun from any source with the intent to commit homicide is already unlawful, I'm not sure how you think passing another law with less of a penalty could have deterred him.

Posted by: Matthew Carberry | Apr 17, 2011 5:19:16 PM

anon --

If you'd care to actually ask me something, rather put up a rant with a question mark behind it, I'd be happy to answer.

Oh, wait, weren't you just saying that I should be banned? Well then I wouldn't be able to answer, would I?

Say, as long as you're into banning opposing commenters, I've got some books over here you might want to burn. Why stop with a mere gag rule?

Posted by: Bill Otis | Apr 17, 2011 7:16:09 PM

Hi, Jitka was my sister-in-law and beloved aunt of my little girl. I met Smirnov only once, when he was staying with Jitka for a few days. He did not say much...and who could know...who he really was. If I ever see him again I will spit into his face and wish him to burn in a hell for all the pain he caused. What should I say to my little one, who is waiting for her auntie? She and her boyfriend were supposed to visit us in a few weeks.
I WISH YOU WERE NEVER BORN...YOU GOOD FOR NOTHING,USELESS MONSTER. YOU ARE THE FIRST PERSON I TRULY HATE !! MISA

Posted by: Misa Varekova | Apr 24, 2011 5:38:57 PM

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