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January 5, 2013

"Can Forgiveness Play a Role in Criminal Justice?"

The title of this post is the headline of this fascinating article appearing in Sunday's New York Times Magazine.  The piece is about a sad Florida case in which a young man shot and killed his girlfriend and the role a restorative justice process used thereafter shaped the defendant's prosecution and sentencing.  There are lots of interesting passages in the full piece, and but this passage early in the piece caught my attention because of what it reveals about prosecutorial discretion and the distinct interests (and power) of some victims once they know the prosecutor's legal options:

“Unfortunately I have a lot of experience talking to the parents of dead people,” says Jack Campbell, the Leon County assistant state attorney who handles many of North Florida’s high-profile murder cases.  Sheriff’s deputies who were investigating the case told Campbell that the Grosmaires’ feelings toward the accused were unusual, but Campbell was not prepared for how their first meeting, two months after Ann’s death, would change the course of Conor’s prosecution.

Campbell had charged Conor with first-degree murder, which, as most people in Florida understand it, carries a mandatory life sentence or, potentially, the death penalty.  He told the Grosmaires that he wouldn’t seek capital punishment, because, as he told me later,  “I didn’t have aggravating circumstances like prior conviction, the victim being a child or the crime being particularly heinous and the like.”

As he always does with victims’ families, he explained to the Grosmaires the details of the criminal-justice process, including the little-advertised fact that the state attorney has broad discretion to depart from the state’s mandatory sentences.  As the representative of the state and the person tasked with finding justice for Ann, he could reduce charges and seek alternative sentences.  Technically, he told the Grosmaires, “if I wanted to do five years for manslaughter, I can do that.”

Kate [the mother of the murder victim] sat up straight and looked at Campbell.  “What?” she asked. Campbell, believing she had misunderstood and thought he was suggesting that Conor serve a prison term of just five years, tried to reassure her.  “No, no,” he said. “I would never do that.”  It was just an example of how much latitude Florida prosecutors have in a murder case.

What Campbell didn’t realize was that the Grosmaires didn’t want Conor to spend his life in prison.  The exchange in Campbell’s office turned their understanding of Conor’s situation upside down and gave them an unexpected challenge to grapple with.  “It was easy to think, Poor Conor, I wouldn’t want him to spend his life in prison, but he’s going to have to,” Kate says.  “Now Jack Campbell’s telling me he doesn’t have to.  So what are you going to do?”

“He’s so sorry he said that,” Kate says now, of Campbell.  “I mean, it opened the door for us.”

I urge readers, before clicking through to read the full New York Times piece, to consider what might have happened once a local prosecutor "opened the door" to a murder victim's family simply by telling them about the legal discretion he possessed to seek a more nuanced form of sentencing justice. I also welcome readers to opine on whether this story should be considered a vindication or violation of victims' rights given that the local prosecutor ultimately engineered a plea deal with a locked-in prison term that differed significantly from the sentence urged by the victim's family during the restorative justice "pre-plea" conference process.

January 5, 2013 at 07:12 PM | Permalink


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Maybe Conor gets out of jail and leads a productive life. The problem, ultimately, is that 20 years in prison for murder, writ large, is going to wind up killing a lot of innocent people.

Honestly, if Conor had gotten a death sentence for the crime, I would have been utterly fine with that.

Posted by: federalist | Jan 5, 2013 7:55:26 PM

Personal drama is fine. However, that is not the purpose of the criminal law, nor is it an interest of the people who fund it, the taxpayer. Public safety is the sole purpose. If it does not interfere, and does not violate a due process right, the victim may participate.

Restitution is good goal of the criminal law, and I assume Restorative Justice is a synonym, but with a lot of rent seeking staff input. Criminal acts are torts per se, anyway. Negotiated settlements are a benefit to all. In the case of murder, not much to do.

Is the the murderer safe to release? That is the question that the authorities must answer. If safe, release early. If still has hair trigger rages, do not release early.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Jan 6, 2013 5:56:11 AM

The criminal justice system is a public entity ... "the people" on are one side, the defendant on the other. It is okay to have the victim and/or their families involved but ultimately the public welfare is at stake. The civil system is more concerned with individual vindication. The OP is interesting and runs counter to those who use the victims selectively. What one is "fine" with is at times not what the victim wants. The victim can be wrong though. Public welfare factors in many things.

Posted by: Joe | Jan 6, 2013 11:56:38 AM

Once again, a trite post from Joe.

Posted by: federalist | Jan 6, 2013 5:42:48 PM

Forgiveness was a Christian virtue practices by the late Jesus Christ, and despite that I hear incessantly from talking political heads that our great Nation was founded on Judeo-Christian values, it seems this one has gone down the drain.

Posted by: Subethis | Jan 7, 2013 1:00:52 AM

? Subethis ?

According to Christian belief, Jesus Christ is not dead, cf. Easter.

Posted by: Adamakis | Jan 7, 2013 10:35:47 AM

1. "Death Penalty Used in All 13 US Colonies at Outbreak of American Revolution"; G. Washington ordered executions during the Revolution.

2. One of 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence is known to have not favoured the penalty (B. Rush).

3. The "First US Congress Establishes Federal Death Penalty" on April 30, 1790, (In 1787 the 5th and 14th Amendments recognizing it with due process).

4. "The first federal execution was on June 25, 1790," {RI had been the last state to ratify the Constitution on May 29, 1790).

~~Pbs.org, Gwu.org, Procon.org

Posted by: Adamakis | Jan 7, 2013 10:38:38 AM

|| "Can Forgiveness Play a Role in Criminal Justice?" ||
Not in the case of homicide.

[["Forgiveness was a Christian virtue practices by the late Jesus Christ...Judeo-Christian values"]]

1. Yes, God is forgiving.
If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.

2.. We are to be forgiving.
And be ye kind one to another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ's sake hath forgiven you.
~~Ephes 4:32

3... However, without repentance, there is not forgiveness:
I tell you, Nay: but, except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish.~~Luke 13:3,5

4.... Furthermore, murder is not a crime to be forgiven by authorities
anywhere in the Judeo-Christian Scriptures.

@ Whoso sheddeth man's blood, by man shall his blood be shed: for in the image of God made he man.~~Gen 9:6
@ Moreover ye shall take no satisfaction for the life of a murderer, which is guilty of death: but he shall be surely put to death.~~Numbers 35:31
@ For if I be an offender, or have committed any thing worthy of death, I refuse not to die.~~Acts 25:11

cf: Luke 19 & 20, & Matt 5:17-18,26, Rom 13, 1Tim1:8.

Posted by: Adamakis | Jan 7, 2013 11:13:49 AM

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