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The Different Degrees of Guilt

Although the law may not like the sound of it, there are often different degrees of guilt that can be associated with a crime depending upon the prosecutor, defense attorney, and even the judge.

If you've ever heard of the case Commonwealth v. Woodward (also known as the "nanny case,) then you already have a leg up in the realization that there can be several different degrees of guilt associated with any given crime. In that case, a nanny was convicted of murdering a toddler by shaking the child until it died. According to the jury's verdict, the nanny was to spend a minimum of 15 years in prison. However, the nanny was released from prison a week after entering the establishment because the judge threw out the jury's verdict.

From the beginning of the Woodward case, the prime question that needed to be answered was what charges should be brought against the nanny. The question "did she do it?" was easily answered in the affirmative by almost every party to the case. However, the more important question, at least in the eyes of the law, was "what exactly did she do?" In order for the nanny to be charged with first degree murder, the prosecutor would need to show that the woman acted intentionally after thinking about the act she would commit. If convicted on this count, the nanny would have been sentenced to life in prison. However, if the nanny only acted with a malicious disregard to human life when she shook the toddler to death, then only a conviction of second degree murder would stand. In the eyes of the jury, second degree murder was the appropriate degree of guilt.

However, there were still many commentators on the case who sympathized with the nanny. Many parents have, at one time or another, thought about shaking their child in order to impose some order. While most do not act upon this, can acting upon it really be considered second degree murder. Instead, should the crime count as something less because it was only a reckless act (like a car accident caused by driving too fast). Such a crime would then be considered manslaughter the judge certainly though that this was the more appropriate charge. Using his judicial authority, the judge lessened the sentence from second degree murder to manslaughter and also reduced the nanny's sentence to time she had already spent in prison. Even on appeal, the judge's decision was upheld.

Does the Criminal Fit the Crime?

Because of the very sensitive nature of the criminal justice system in the United States, a criminal defendant can only be sentenced to certain criminal penalties if they are tried and convicted of a very carefully and narrowly defined crime. By using this system, each person that stands trial for criminal charges knows precisely what needs to be proven by the prosecutor, as well as what kinds of defenses are available to them. In addition, and even more importantly, by having such strict standards, this prevents the state from putting people in prison based on vague standards and arguments. As all defendants know, it is very important to be able to know what you are charged with, as well as how you can defend your innocence.

To fully understand the importance of defining crimes in such a specific manner, we need to look back to England to see why the United States decided on such a specified criminal justice system. In England, it was pretty easy to get in trouble with the law. Part of the problem was that the laws were not well defined and the general public only really had a few main rules to live by don't anger the church, King or other nobles. If you did happen to get on their wrong side, you would most likely be severely punished. However, the laws began to change in England during the 1200s when more well-defined laws were passed. It was around this time as well that the system of judges and juries came to be. Even with this new system of judges and juries, punishments for crimes were often brutal and swift and included death or the relinquishment of your personal property.

As time went on and cases continued to go to the courts, judges and juries in England, the system of "precedent" took hold. Precedent can be generally defined as one court following what another court did previously. So, if one case came before a court and a very similar case had come before another court previously, then the current case could be judged based on how the previous case was decided. However, because each case needed to be so similar to the past case in order for precedent to apply, judges and attorneys began looking closely at the facts and how they could be distinguished from previous cases. To put it in another way, the law began to change as different factual situations demanded different judgments and verdicts.

One of the things to come out of this time was the notion of "mitigating circumstances." If, for example, a man was driven to steal so that his family could continue eating, the man would be put to death if he was judged as previous cases were judged. However, as the law changed, courts were more willing to look at other facts, such as the man's condition and the reasons he stole. If the judge could define the man's crime as something other than theft, then the man may not have to be put to death after all.

Now, consider that this example and several thousand other examples of such court judgments were repeated over hundreds of years. Judges and attorneys carving out new exceptions to the laws that were already in place, defining new elements for new crimes, creating differing levels of criminality. Now, crimes are very much judged based on the specific facts of the situation and how the jury interprets them.

Thinking back to the nanny case, it should be clearer now that the different facts of a situation can lead to a different definition of the crime. As the jury saw it in the nanny case, the crime that was defined was second degree murder. However, the judge used another definition of the crime to call it manslaughter instead. If this case had been heard in old England, the nanny would have been put to death for killing a child, because that was the defined crime, causing the death of another. However, the law has developed nuances that allows the degree of guilt to fit the crime that was committed and takes into account the circumstances surrounding the crime. Defining a crime in a certain light can allow a prosecutor or a judge to insert some leniency into a criminal prosecution that would otherwise not be allowed.

However, there has been a push in recent years by lawmakers to take out some of this discretionary judgment of prosecutors and judges. For example, because of the politicization of the war on drugs, many drug crimes now carry "mandatory minimum" sentences based upon the facts of the crime. Although some judges do not look favorably on these mandatory minimum sentences, they are no longer free to fit the crime to the criminal because the laws have taken that power out of their hands.

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