2:39 PM PST, November 15, 2012
Nobody ever said that sticking up for the rights of the accused was going to be easy.
One Pennsylvania man — on the brink of his date with a syringe loaded with Dr. Jack Kevorkian's favorite problem solver — got a reprieve, it seems, because prison did not agree with him. It caused him to have worsening mental distress.
Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court stayed the execution of Hubert Michael, 56, who murdered a teenage York County girl in 1993, as she begged him to spare her.
(Despite hundreds of killers on death row, nobody has been executed in Pennsylvania since murder/torture enthusiast Gary Heidnik's lights were put out in 1999.)
In Allentown, an attorney for Lafayette Upshaw, 30, worked this week to keep prosecutors from seeking the death penalty. Upshaw was charged in the death of one young man and the wounding of another on March 7, in what the lawyer suggested was merely a gang-related shooting spree.
One argument for the suppression of evidence was that authorities were "sitting silently" after Upshaw began a police interview by saying he did not want to talk, and that, I take it, somehow induced him to fill the conversational void, resulting in the utterance of incriminating statements.
Also this week, an Easton man, 45, lost a court battle to get a new trial after claiming new DNA evidence points to another man being involved in the rape of the 11-year-old girl he was convicted of raping and murdering. Scott D. Oliver's hair was found on the girl's body, he told three people he did it, he signed a written confession, and he had attacked the girl while free on bail in a sexual assault case in which he pleaded guilty. So Northampton County Judge Leonard Zito rejected a bid for a new trial.
That brings us to the case of Mark Ciavarella, who, in cahoots with another judge in Luzerne County, put thousands of innocent children in commercial juvenile jails in return for millions in payoffs. Many children were imprisoned for ridiculously minor infractions, without being allowed to be represented by lawyers and with other violations of their rights.
At an appeals hearing on Wednesday, however, Ciavarella demanded that his conviction and 28-year sentence be thrown out because the federal judge at his 2011 trial was biased against him and expressed "sympathy" for people who were upset by the "kids for cash" outrages.
U.S. District Judge Edwin Kosik, it is alleged by Ciavarella's lawyers, received some 150 letters about the case and responded to some of them by saying he personally was "in complete sympathy" with their distress, although he added that "my personal beliefs cannot guide my responsibilities and judgments."
Kosik's sympathetic views were expressed only after Ciavarella had negotiated a plea deal in the case, providing for only seven years in prison. The judge rejected the deal and the case went to trial.
Even after Ciavarella was convicted of racketeering, etc., his sentence was less than what could have been imposed under federal guidelines. That, in some legal minds, makes it hard to argue that Kosik was biased against him. Still, some people feel a judge's "sympathy" for those anguished over what Ciavarella did somehow represents a violation of this bum's rights.
(You should hear what some judges say in open court. "You are an evil man," one judge thundered at a defendant in a trial I once covered in Dauphin County.)
I have long argued in support of constitutional rights, which are too often violated by authorities. But it is difficult to find where the Bill of Rights stipulates that freedom from "sympathy" is an enumerated right.
Similarly, I find nothing there about the right to be spared from distress resulting from a lack of luxury in prison, or the right to get special consideration if participation in a shoot-em-up is part of gang activity, or the right to be let off the hook if someone else also participated in a rape.
Meanwhile, I have supported the imposition of the death penalty in some cases, mainly because there is no other way to achieve justice. If murder carries a life sentence when there are no aggravating circumstances, it is grotesque that the same punishment is imposed on monsters.
A murder involving torture, for example, is worse than one not involving torture. And if a person commits a crime that essentially carries a life sentence, and then feels he is more likely to escape by killing witnesses, what incentive is there for sparing them if the penalty is the same either way?
It is intolerable, indeed, when an innocent person is put to death and then we learn a conviction was achieved only by the deliberate violation of fundamental rights.
The solution to that problem is not to simply eliminate capital punishment. The best solution would be to make authorities, including judges, prosecutors and police, fully accountable if it can be shown they knowingly violated someone's rights.
As it stands, authorities are shielded from such accountability in either death penalty or less serious cases. Ciavarella did not get in trouble for violating anyone's rights. He got in trouble for taking huge payoffs.
Now, it seems to me, some appeals are based on trivialities, not substance. If we expect substance and integrity in court systems, accountability is essential.
Paul Carpenter's commentary appears Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays.
Copyright © 2013, The Morning Call