12 December 2008

A Case For A Commutation?

A Colorado Court of Appeals case decided yesterday where the guilty criminal defendant was herself a victim seems a case in which it is appropriate for Governor Ritter to consider granting not a pardon, for a jury has defensibly found beyond a reasonable doubt that a crime was committed, but a commutation, because the sentence is grossly disproportionate to the gravity of the crime under the mitigating circumstances involved.

The opinion begins by summing up the case.

Defendant, Karen S. Rodriguez, appeals the judgments of conviction entered on jury verdicts finding her guilty, under a complicity theory, of numerous counts of attempted and completed aggravated incest, sexual assault on a child, and sexual assault on a child by one in a position of trust. We affirm.

Defendant’s husband physically, emotionally, and sexually abused defendant, their youngest daughter, M.R., and defendant’s son from a prior relationship, M.H. The husband abused the son over a ten- to twelve-year period and abused the daughter throughout the year before his arrest.

Defendant facilitated the husband’s offenses by bringing the children to him to be sexually abused. At trial, she asserted that she acted under duress as a result of the husband’s extreme emotional, physical, and sexual abuse perpetrated against her. The prosecution’s theory was that, although defendant had herself been severely abused by her husband, the abuse had not been severe enough that she could not have protected the children from her husband.

The jury found defendant guilty of the twenty-four counts charged against her. After merging several of those convictions, the trial court sentenced defendant to an aggregate term of 118 years to life imprisonment.


Certainly, one can imagine a case where a wife is a co-conspirator with her husband in a better of sexual abuse of their children. The jury ruled beyond a reasonable doubt that Karen S. Rodriguez crossed that line. One can disagree with the ruling on the legal issues she raised on appeal, most notably a claim that evidence of husband's similar pattern of abuse of his ex-wife and children in a prior marriage was improperly excluded and would have corroborated the testimony in her own defense.

Ignore all that for a moment. All those are the typical day to day issues found in a great many criminal appeals.

What really strikes me is the sentence. A sentence of 118 years to life imprisonment, which amounts to a sentence of life in prison without parole, which is the same sentence that applies to aggravated murderers, seems grossly excessive in light of Rodriguez's culpability in this case.

While one can say that it is a crime to fail to do enough to protect your children, and to weakly give into to a husband's perversions, even when you are yourself abused, this is an understandable weakness. Rodriguez is not the primarily culpable person in this case. There is no indication that she would be a threat to the general public or her family, once freed from her abusive relationship. She was a secondary actor in this admittedly grievous event. More than anything else, she is herself a victim here. She has already served a sentence of twelve years or more of hell in her marriage, which was probably worse than anything should will experience in prison, and that deserves consideration that the sentencing court did not consider.

The message a sentence like this sends to women is Rodriguez's position who want to escape their private hell is keep the secret for your criminal husband, or your life is over. The message this sends to the public is that victims who are morally weak are just as culpable as intentional cop killers.

Rodriquez is not the serial predator that stiff penalties for sex offenders were aimed at putting behind bars forever. The husband in this case deserves a de facto life without parole sentence. His wife does not.

Wouldn't a five year sentence or so be enough to tell that community that her behavior was unacceptable and must be punished seriously because it allowed her children to suffer so deeply? Do we really mean to send the message that a woman like Rodriguez is not just someone who committed a serious crime, but unredeemable?

Part of the problem is that the legislature has done a poor job of tailoring sentences to offense severity when a prosecutor brings a large number of counts of related crimes. Part of the problem is that there is apparently no room for mercy that considers her status as a victim as well as an offender, even though one is very often both in these kinds of cases.

In an ideal world, prosecutors and judges would exercise their discretion to avoid this kind of outcome. But, prosecutors all too often mindlessly push for a maximum punishment rather than exercising good judgment, and judges all too often find it easier to follow the guidelines for a typical case, rather than recognizing that cases like this deserve a special downward deviation (and often judges have no discretion at all).

A Governor's commutation and pardon power is designed as one safety valve to prevent excesses like the one in this case from getting out of control. Sometimes, A+B+C doesn't give a result that makes sense in our legal system. A little mercy and sense of proportionality in cases like this one would show fairness, yet still do justice. A little mercy could prevent the State of Colorado from wasting an imperfect but not unredeemable woman's life and prevent its taxpayers from spending money on prisons that doesn't need to be spent.

When one wonders why our corrections budget is spiraling out of control, one has to keep in mind cases like this one, where immense waste arises from less than thoughtful and merciful sentencing of crimes that are bad, but not nearly so culpable as the sentences suggest.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Would a commutation mean that she would serve no prison at all? That doesn't seem to make sense either.

Andrew Oh-Willeke said...

Commutation is a word that means a reduction in sentence of less than the entire sentence while it is still being served.

A pardon is a vacating of a conviction by executive privilege which eliminates all further sentence if the sentence is still in progress, but is more often used to remove the collateral effects of having a felony record for people who have already served their entire sentence.

I proposed a sentence reduction to something in the vicinity of five years in prison in lieu of a just imposes sentence that amounts to life in prison without parole.