For an experienced criminal law judge, most cases are not that complex, and most decisions are not that difficult. In fact, most criminal cases are fairly routine. (Drugs, DUI, Theft) Interestingly, my hardest sentencing decision involved a misdemeanor case.
California Misdemeanor Vehicular Manslaughter Cases
The case was misdemeanor vehicular manslaughter. The criminal defendant was a father, employer, and outstanding member of the community, with a flawless record, who did notice a stop sign, and killed a “miracle” baby.
In California, any traffic infraction resulting in death is a misdemeanor, even if the driver was not at fault and the accident was unavoidable. (For example, you are driving faster that 65 on the freeway, and someone jumps in front of your car and dies. You are guilty of misdemeanor vehicular manslaughter.)
Since there is no intent to kill, no intent to injure, no criminal negligence, no drugs or alcohol involved, most states treat these cases as mere accidents, not crimes. If there is any liability, it is civil, not criminal.
Basically, these cases in California are homicides — a traffic ticket with a death.
Typically, in these cases, the victim’s family and friends are outraged. They want state prison or the death penalty. They become livid when they learn that the maximum possible penalty for this misdemeanor is one year in jail.
On the other hand, the defendant-driver’s family and friends are upset that the case is being prosecuted as a crime, when it was just an accident. Since their loved one is not a criminal, he/she should not be treated as one.
The Criminal Defendant
In my case, the criminal defendant was a 54-year-old man. His record was spotless. He never even had a traffic ticket. He was an outstanding citizen who did a lot of charity work. He was also the owner of a business with thirty employees.
At the time of the accident, the defendant’s life was a mess.
Weeks before, his wife lost her brutal battle with breast cancer. This left him as the sole caregiver of his twelve-year-old son who was blind.
Days before the accident, the doctor disclosed that the blind son was also going deaf.
On the day of the accident, the defendant’s accountant informed him that because of his time caring for his dying wife and his blind son, the business was struggling and may not survive. If so, all thirty employees would have to be let go.
The defendant was overwhelmed and all-consumed when he drove home from work. Distracted, he didn’t notice a stop sign. He T-boned a car and killed the passenger.
Tragically, the passenger was an eight-month-old “miracle” baby. The parents had spent over a decade and a small fortune trying to get pregnant through fertility clinics.
The doctor’s described it as a “miracle” when the mother got pregnant and delivered the baby. Unfortunately, the doctors had to perform a hysterectomy. The mother could never have another child. Their one and only baby was killed.
Understandably, the baby’s parents were enraged. They wanted vengeance. They couldn’t believe that the man who killed their precious baby was only charged with a misdemeanor. They couldn’t believe that the maximum possible penalty was a year in jail.
The parents hired an aggressive civil attorney. Hoping for a big cash award, the lawyer fanned the flames of his clients’ rage.
They sued the defendant for millions of dollars. They also sued Toyota for millions for not making the car safer in side impacts. They sued the baby seat maker for millions for not making a safer product. Plus, they sued the city for millions for not having better road markings and signs.
The four insurance companies collaborated. They offered to pay for all the ambulance, medical and hospital bills. They offered to pay for all the property damage and mortuary and funeral costs. They even offered to pay the costs of investigation, including the expert witness fees. On top of all that, they offered the couple $500,000 to ease their pain and suffering.
The parents summarily rejected the offer.
In addition to suing every conceivable party, the couple and their attorney pestered the media. They wanted everyone to know about this “outrageous homicide.”
Guilty Plea and Sentence
The defendant was grief stricken. He wanted to plead guilty to spare the parents from the trauma of a trial.
After the defendant pled guilty, I scheduled a sentencing hearing. The courtroom was packed with friends and family of both the defendant and the parents. Several media outlets were also present.
The baby’s parents demanded revenge. They wanted vengeance. Their hurt had turned into hate. They wanted the defendant to suffer the maximum one year in jail.
The prosecutor did not believe the defendant deserved jail, but he wasn’t going to admit that in open court and have the parents as his enemies.
The defendant’s lawyer cited his perfect traffic record, his clean criminal history, his responsibility as an employer, his contributions to the community, and his obligations as the single parent and sole caregiver of a blind and deaf son. Plus, if the defendant were sentenced to jail, his 30 employees would become unemployed.
I knew from my limited experience that these are not jail time cases. I placed the defendant on three years’ probation, and I ordered him to pay restitution and perform 500 hours of community service at a charity that would be a memorial for the baby and his family.
This was the most difficult sentence of my career. I struggled to balance justice and mercy. Twenty-five years afterward, I am comfortable with how I resolved the case.
Hostile Reaction to My Sentence
Criminal defense attorneys criticized my sentence as unduly harsh. Typically, these types of cases go for about 250 hours of community service. Five hundred hours was a huge amount.
Because of the “harshness” of my sentence, I was very surprised when I was lambasted on the front page of the Los Angeles Times and the Orange County Register. Both newspapers focused only on the tragic killing of the “miracle” baby. Neither of them mentioned the mitigating circumstances of the defendant. They portrayed him an evil “baby killer.” They demanded “justice without mercy.”
Furthermore, the Register wrote the article in such a way that everyone thought the baby was killed by a felony drunk driver, and I had just given him a slap on the wrist. (It would have been an easy decision for me if it were a felony drunk driving case – state prison.)
I received a flood of hate letters. They threatened a recall campaign. I also received dozens of annoying and threatening phone calls.
I was very discouraged. I also got a sobering lesson about the lack of objectivity and integrity of the media. (“Fake News“)
Years later, the defendant sent me a personal letter. He finished his 500 hours of community service in record time. He thanked me for the “harsh” sentence. He explained it took all 500 hours for him to feel like he had fully paid the price for his crime. He could now move on.
As a post script, he mentioned that his business survived the ordeal and was doing well, and his son was thriving.
I never learned how the parents’ multimillion-dollar lawsuits turned out. I hope they found peace. But they were not going to get peace or “closure” from their attorney or the court system. Based on my experience, I predicted, that their all-consuming bitterness and hate, if unresolved, would lead to divorce.
We all experience tragedies in our lives. Bad stuff happens. Accidents occur. We must resist the temptation of letting our hurt turn into hate. For our own sake, and for the sake of our loved ones, we must “forgive those who trespass against us.”
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