Sunday, February 27, 2011

Fear versus Anger

One of the sagest pieces of advice that I ever received during the time that I was a prosecutor was from Judge Caprice Cosper, whom I consider to be the best Judge I ever had the honor to practice in front of.

The case was a mildly high profile case where two working parents had left their five year old child in charge of their three year old child for an hour while their work shifts overlapped.  During the space of one tragic hour, the five year old daughter had played with a lighter and inadvertently set the family home on fire.  The five-year-old had escaped the flames.

The three-year-old had not.

I had been working the intake desk when the call came in.  As a new father, I was incensed, and (now, in retrospect) very reactionary.  I filed the case as a first degree Injury to a Child that had resulted in death against both parents.  A Grand Jury downgraded those charges to the State Jail Felony of Endangering a Child.

Both parents pled guilty to a PSI (Pre-Sentence Investigation) hearing before Judge Cosper (which is the equivalent of throwing yourself on the Mercy of the Court).

In my time as a prosecutor, I looked at countless crime scene photographs and attended many autopsies.  Thankfully, very few of those memories stick in my mind.

Sadly, the photographs of the aftermath of that fire have never been able to leave my mind.  I think the effect of being a father to a small child has enhanced that.

I argued to Judge Cosper that the parents both deserved the maximum sentence of two years in a State Jail Facility.  She disagreed and gave them probation, and she then told me, very kindly, the following words that guided me as a prosecutor in the short time I had remaining as a prosecutor.

"Mr. Newman," she said, "in this job there are those people we deal with that we are mad at and those that we are afraid of.  You need to learn the difference."

And she was right.  I did.

As a parent, I was upset, and, quite frankly, outraged at the results of what happened to a defenseless three-year-old due to her parents' horrible mistake in judgment.

But they weren't threats to Society.  That was a fact that escaped me at the time.

A few months earlier, I had seen the crime scene video of the home of Andrea Yates.  I wish to God that I never had.  To this day, I can be giving my son a bath and an image of Noah Yates will flash through my mind.  The sickening feeling is something that I don't think I can really translate to you, unless you've seen the video.  Just suffice it to say that it is heartbreaking.

I was all for prosecuting Andrea Yates to the fullest extent of the law.  All the way to the ultimate penalty.

Why?  Because I was angry about what she had done.

There wasn't a single thing about her that indicated she would be a future threat to society.

Today, the District Attorney's Office filed the charges of Injury to a Child with reckless intent causing serious bodily injury against Jessica Tata for the deaths of four children under her care when a fire broke out at a daycare she was responsible for.  I don't know any more about the case than anyone else who has followed it in the media.

As a parent, I applaud the decision, because I am furious with Jessica Tata for her role in the deaths of tiny little children who had no ability to save themselves from fire -- just like I feel fury against every person charged with hurting any child.

But, I'm not scared of her.

The Defendants that we are scared of are so much easier to deal with, aren't they?


Mark W. Stephens said...

And where, amongst the "fear" and "anger," do we find...justice?

Thomas Hobbes said...

Perhaps as simple as the difference between being righteous and being self-righteous ...

Thomas Hobbes said...

Mark, you won't find justice hanging out with fear or anger. Too often, they inhibit justice.

I heard this morning that the HCDAO will ask for no bond. I wonder if the request is based on fear of flight or danger to the community ...

Murray Newman said...

That's a tough call, Mark, but I agree with the illustrious Mr. Hobbes that it should be something divorced from anger though.

The thing about the Criminal Justice System is finding that elusive definition sometimes.

Oh, and on a side note. If Lykos and crew wanted to impress me, they would spend less time cracking down on pill mills and illegal aliens, and more time on going after these shoddy little fly-by-night "day cares" that are putting children's lives at risk.

Anonymous said...

I disagree. You/We should fear Andrea Yates.

BLACK INK said...

Cappy Cosper's profound wisdom and good character made her one of the best District Judges in Harris County history.
She never politicized the bench by subverting justice for political gain.

Murray, Pat Lykos is no Cappy Cosper.
Lykos is incapable of impressing you or anyone else with wisdom or good character.

A professional politician when faced with choosing between doing the right thing and getting re-elected; embraces campaign mode.

Winning at all costs in politics has no place for wisdom, virtue or justice.

Lykos and her base are more concerned with collateral hot point issues such as pill mills and illegals than they are with the actual day to day real job description of District Attorney.

In fact, reading the day care article this morning left the impression that Lykos didn't even know the range of punishment....unbelievable!

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Thomas Hobbes said...

Wow! You nuked someone!

Anonymous said...

Maybe they requested a high or no bond b/c they considered her a flight risk?

If that was the case, looks like they were right - she's gone.

Anonymous said...

I am mad at her and scared that she will never be arrested now that it appears she fled the country.

Anonymous said...

She, like Yates, should be put in jail for the rest of her life, with no chance for parole. To think that just because they are "no longer a danger" or you, subjectively, are not SCARED of them, doesn't mean they shouldn't still be charged with the proper charge. I'm not a lawyer but I have a little common sense.

You know, Murray, it's too bad there wasn't video of Yates chasing down some of her children and drowning them or of the kids in the day care gasping for air. Maybe you'd have a different perspective once you realized how scared those kids were. Maybe then you'd realize that some people just need to be put away for life. Even if YOU are not scared of them. Maybe the rest of society is...or should be.

Murray Newman said...

Anon 8:26,

With all due respect, I think you missed the point of my post.

If I could ever take back any given fifteen minutes of my life, they would be those minutes I spent watching the Yates crime scene video. Because all I felt watching it was raw fury. I can't even see my son playing happily in a bath without remembering the grey water that surrounded Noah. I hate that. I think it is a great tribute to the men and women of HPD that responded to that scene who refrained from doing something impulsive.

The point I was trying to make (and perhaps I did it poorly), was that somewhere between Fury and Forgiveness there is Justice.

Quite frankly, I think Andrea Yates should have been given Life without Parole. She was mentally ill without question, but in my personal opinion that can only excuse so much. I don't believe she met the definitions of the Insanity Defense Statute.

I'm just trying to take a step back from my visceral reaction and acknowledge that Justice isn't about anger. There are other factors that need to be accounted for. I don't pretend to know where on the spectrum Justice falls. That's what juries are for.

Prosecutors and Defense Attorneys argue the opposite ends of that spectrum on a daily basis to those juries. On some days, one side or the other experiences an absolute "victory" for their side of the argument.

Jessica Tate should be brought to justice (swiftly) and answer for the four young lives lost. I'm only trying to point out the fact that perhaps raw fury shouldn't be the only consideration when that justice is brought about.

Anonymous said...

As far as we know, Jesssica Tata did not have a psychotic disorder. She went shopping while leaving the stove afire with seven babies at home. Crazy? No neglegent. Mrs. Yates did and still does have a psychotic disorder, albeit now parially contolled on medication. Huge difference, no comparison. If Mrs Yates ever regains full sanity, her images of her babies dying will be far worse than any punishment the state could ever impose. Learn the differences.

Anonymous said...

How were charges not filed more promptly? Is this an example of the problems with the DA's office now? Would that have happened under the old regime?

Anonymous said...

I think the difference is that Tata was entrusted with these children, they weren't her own. I think her callousness should get her the maximum, but I agree with Cosper that the other case should not.

As for Yates, if she doesn't meet the definition of insanity according to the statute, well, that means the statute needs to be revised. What sane person could drown their five children. I believe she needs to be committed for life, but treated. I think her husband, who knew how sick she was and that she had even had previous drowning delusions in the past (he once had to rush home after she called and told him she filled the tub) but kept her off of her meds and kept making her crank out babies, should be the one who gets prosecuted for the death of his children.

And finally, Black Ink, you are a broken record. Get a new schtick. Your bitterness at life is showing.


Anonymous said...

Hi kettle; I'm pot.

Kindest regards,


Texas Nexus said...

Your parent prosecution recollection brings up an interesting point...

You were *one* prosecutor who, if successful (and I'm assuming you wanted to succeed, to have what you thought was justice, administered to the parents), had the power to interrupt and dramatically alter *two* lives in a way you now would not have wanted to.

Remember that *exact* feeling you had when before and after you learned the difference between someone with whom you're angry and someone you fear.

How many prosecutors across the country are motivated by that "before" feeling of anger? For all sorts of crimes - both victimful and victimless?

And how many prosecutors never learn to feel motivated by the "after" feeling?

How many lives are ruined by a sustained introduction to our criminal justice system because of prosecutors who mentally, subconsciously salivate at the "before" feeling?

And my final question -> how do we change this attitude? Because seriously. It just ain't right.

Johnny Exchange said...

I understand the difference between being 'mad' at a person for the crime and being in fear of them, but aren't judges supposed to uphold the law by handing down punishment that befits the crime committed, not the intent?