Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Capital Punishment: Suicide By Court?

While vacationing in Florida the previous week, I was leafing through a complimentary issue of USA Today when this story, "Lawyers: Inmate Trying 'Suicide By Court'," caught my eye. Was a defense attorney actually arguing, as implied by the caption, that a capital defendant's voluntary plea of guilty to capital murder and waiver of his sentencing proceeding was akin to "death by cop?"

As a matter of fact, yes. The defendant in question is Marco Allen Chapman. According to the USA Today article, Chapman pleaded guilty in December 2004 to killing two children, Chelbi Sharon (7) and Cody Sharon (6) in their home in Warsaw, Kentucky. Chapman also admitted to stabbing and seriously injuring the victims' 10-year-old sister and raping and assaulting their mother during the attack. The latter were left for dead. Based on the foregoing, the trial judge imposed the death sentence. Tomorrow, the Kentucky Supreme Court will hear arguments on the legality of Chapman's waiver of his right to have a jury determine his punishment. According to the article, Chapman's lawyers (one would think Chapman was proceeding pro se given his self-proclaimed status as a volunteer) say that he is trying to use the legal system to commit
"suicide by court."

I feel obligated to note here that I'm not implacably opposed to capital punishment in the most egregious cases (and Chapman's crimes would certainly qualify as such). For reasons too numerous to mention here, I also find much merit in Professor Berman's suggestion that capital punishment be an exclusively federal endeavor. Finally, I've come to believe that all too often the issue of capital punishment and questions regarding its retention or abolition tends to eclipse, or is erroneously construed as a surrogate for, meaningful sentencing reform. In New Jersey, for example, our death row is presently home to nine incontestably guilty and vicious killers (one of whom stomped to death another death row inmate several years ago). Yet our prisons are filled to bursting with over 27,000 inmates; New Jersey, in fact, holds the dubious distinction of incarcerating, by a wide margin, the highest percentage of drug offenders in the country.

Back to Chapman. There is no evidence that Chapman refused to go to trial notwithstanding a strong defense, or refused to perfect an appeal though advised that the record reeks of reversible error. On the contrary, Chapman was adjudged competent on numerous occasions.
Although Chapman's attorneys argue that Chapman was "depressed" when he waived right to a jury finding with respect to the appropriate punishment, so what? Given the magnitude of his crimes and his clearly limited options with regard to punishment, who wouldn't be? How this should in any way confer a tactical legal advantage is confounding.

Let's acknowledge that in the ordinary case, discovery that a client wanted to accept his just deserts would present no problem to counsel; declining trial is a clear case of the defendant's inalienable right to plead guilty, and standing pat on the guilty verdict simply amounts to the exercise of his choice whether to appeal. But as opponents of capital punishment never tire of arguing, death is different.

In the end, what so rankles me about the article and defense counsel's allegation of "suicide by court" is the none-too-subtle and distasteful attempt to yoke the judicial system to defendant's alleged act of self-destructive irrationality and make it, in essence, his accomplice. However, unlike Chapman's defense counsel, I detect no irrationality in defendant's uncoerced willingness to admit his guilt in open court and to subject himself to the punishment authorized by the state of Kentucky for his horrific crimes. Let's see what the Kentucky Supreme Court has to say.

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