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Friday, May 26, 2006

Muhammad and Malvo
Shaun Martin

Earlier today, John Allen Muhammad -- convicted of the D.C. sniper shootings -- rested his case.  He's already been sentenced to death in Virginia, and is (incompetently) representing himself in this Maryland prosecution.  Which the state is undertaking, at substantial cost, in order to provide a backstop in the (fairly unlikely) event that Muhammad's Virginia death sentence is overturned.  (There may be some additional publicity and personal ego reasons for this secondary prosecution as well.)

The most interesting component of the trial -- beyond Muhammad's pervasive inability to defend himself -- came when Lee Boyd Malvo, Muhammad's teenage accomplice, testified.  Malvo has already pled guilty to all of the Maryland murders, and will spend the rest of his life in prison.  Malvo, as you may recall, once thought of Muhammad as his father.  But with the involvement with other people (beyond the controlling Muhammad) in his life, Malvo's perspective has changed.  For example, during the trial, Malvo once glared at Muhammad and testified:  "You took me into your house and you made me a monster."

I'm particularly interested in this case because my father's law partner, Michael Arif, represented Malvo in the Virginia prosecution, and (as you might imagine) has gotten to know Malvo well.  Malvo was a teenager who committed the most heinous of conduct:  random and senseless acts of murder for which the death penalty -- if ever appropriate -- seems acutely proper.  And yet, once you begin to know and understand the actual person behind the crimes, things suddenly seem much less black and white.  You start, I think, to see a person whose life may potentially have value.  A life that you're much less inclined to snuff out.

I've positive that my father was a firm and ardent supporter of the death penalty prior to his involvement in this (and analogous) cases.  (It's a small law firm -- Martin & Arif -- and the size of this case necessarily involved the entire firm, including my father.)  I think that, as a result of these experiences, my father has become much less convinced about the wisdom of applying the death penalty, at least in particular cases.  Sure, perhaps that's merely a sign of weakness:  an indication that humans have too much compassion in individual cases, and so need to have structures that harden their hearts and enable them to put people to death without really getting to know them.  And, to a degree, that's what the jury system in fact ensures:  that you get to know the defendant -- but not too much -- and that you get to know the victims as well.

Still, it's nonetheless interesting to see the evolution of someone as ardently conservative as my father in one particular context.  It reaffirms, perhaps, the immense power of personal forces and experiences to shape one's political thoughts and beliefs.

Anyway, that's it for my guest blogging.  It's been an enjoyable two weeks.  Thanks to Gail, Maimon, Mike & Tom for the invitation.  I'll continue to do my own thing at the California Appellate Report, a blog that's much less far-reaching (and much too much law-oriented) than this one.  Take care, all.

http://rightcoast.typepad.com/rightcoast/2006/05/muhammad_and_ma.html

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Shaun Martin
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Comments

My father used to say, "To understand all is to forgive all." The implication was that since he didn't want to forgive all, trying to understand all was futile.

Corkie the Dog

Posted by: Corkie the Dog | May 26, 2006 4:12:26 PM

"..an indication that humans have too much compassion in individual cases, and so need to have structures that harden their hearts and enable them to put people to death without really getting to know them. And, to a degree, that's what the jury system in fact ensures: that you get to know the defendant -- but not too much -- and that you get to know the victims as well."

That's right. Judges (and defense attorneys) get to know the criminal well, and, of course, in any particular case, what's the point of punishing someone when the harm's already done?

Also, being an advocate is corrupting. You identify with your clients, naturally. That happens even with expert witnesses--we economists are vulnerable too. Much of your job is devoted to trying to demonstrate that being a criminal is not as bad as people think. Eventually, you will believe it.

Posted by: Eric Rasmusen | May 28, 2006 6:02:08 AM

Yep. The problem, of course, is that one can interact with the criminal and therefore start to identify with him. On the other hand, the victims aren't available to interact with.

BTW, Muhammad still has capital murder charges pending against him in Alabama, in connection with a robbery in Montgomery. At this point, it's doubtful that the state will bother to prosecute, but they could if something crazy happens with both Virginia and Maryland.

Posted by: Cousin Dave | May 31, 2006 7:56:26 AM

I can readily see a teenager operating under the warping influence of an older malevelent person as being an inappropriate candidate for capital punishment.

But that doesn't mean that no one is an approriate candidate (the older malevelant person, for example).

Posted by: krm | Jun 1, 2006 10:00:50 AM