drwex (drwex) wrote,

Two Criminal Cases Produce Odd Court Alignments

(Content warning: the crimes at issue here include violent murder, aggravated rape, and child pornography. If you read the documentation associated with these cases you may read some details of these things. Nothing of that nature appears below this cut-tag.)

Today SCOTUS ruled in two cases that ended up restricting first defendants' rights and then victims' rights.

In White, Warden v. Woodall a particularly vile scumbag pled guilty to crimes that included capital murder, for which he was sentenced to death. Since he pled there was no trial, but there was a sentencing hearing. At that hearing he declined to testify on his own behalf.

Now, if you invoke your Fifth Amendment right at trial it's well established that this use of your rights cannot be held against you. In fact, many judges will instruct the jury in this way, saying that they can't take the defendant's silence into account when determining guilt. Here SCOTUS was asked to rule on whether the same immunity applied in the penalty phase, and they ruled it did not.

It's a Scalia opinion, in which the Court held that the test for whether the Fifth Amendment had been violated was whether or not the case contradicted established precedent. Unsurprisingly, Scalia was joined by Roberts, Kennedy, Thomas, and Alito - no surprise there. But Kagan also joined the majority here, with Breyer leading the dissent. Those opinions should be interesting to read. As is so often the case, this seems to hinge on what criteria lower courts are supposed to use in making their decisions. That's a fine point of law, but with far-reaching implications.

My instinct is that this may lead to more cases going to trial than otherwise would, since defendants now have an additional incentive not to plead. Plea bargains are a severely abused part of the judicial system, but they're also valuable both in saving time and money as well as giving victims more swift justice.

In Paroline v US et al the Court reaffirmed a long-standing doctrine that a perpetrator of a crime is responsible only for the harm they directly cause to victims. The Court held that a single perp cannot be responsible for all the damages a victim suffers when many people commit the crime.

The challenge this raises is that some crimes are very widespread: in this case the crime was child pornography that has been distributed on the Internet. The victim will continue to be victimized as those images remain in circulation and more offenders will continue to be created as more people download and view the illegal images. By holding that the government/victim have the burden of showing how the perpetrators' actions led to the victims' injuries the Court has effectively closed off many avenues of restitution for people victimized by online crimes.

I don't like this outcome, but I don't see a better option. Whatever the total harms are that befall this poor woman, it's hard to see how any one person can be held responsible for all of them. Here we're talking about the harms involved in viewing the images, such as her distress, ongoing victimization, loss of opportunities, etc. The harm of creating the images is a separate crime for which the image creator can be justly punished in full.

Again the alignment is interesting: it's a Kennedy opinion, with Ginsburg, Breyer, Alito, and Kagan joining. Roberts, Scalia, and Thomas dissented as a group, with Sotomayor dissenting separately. I wonder if either of the dissents propose a formula for resolving this, as I expect to see the Court having to deal with more online crime cases in the future.
Tags: thinky stuff
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