Justice and mourning after an atrocity

I posted an obituary in this space for my good friend David Kramer, killed last year by a drunk driver. As I understand the details, he was stopped at a traffic light at 3am. He was rammed from behind by a vehicle that was going about 100 miles per hour in the moment before the crash. David was a special person, who left behind a young daughter and many others with special reasons to miss him.

The perpetrator is now on trial for manslaughter. He was driving without a valid license. As I understand things, he has no criminal record but has some history of auto violations. I am told he is married, retired, in debt. I’m sure he didn’t mean to commit this atrocity, but that’s what happened.

Some of David’s other friends are attending. One goal of their attendance is to show the judge how important David was to many people who knew him. This may matter in sentencing. I’m glad that David’s friends will be there to honor him, and as part of their own mourning, too.

I will not be joining them. I don’t know that this crime was made better or worse by David’s personal qualities and how much we honor his memory. Although I have been surprised by the depth of my own mourning, I don’t view increasing the defendant’s punishment as part of that. Good people have different views on this question, especially given this reckless crime.

I honestly don’t know what a fair punishment is here. I’m told that typical sentences vary from a few months to several years. He should never drive again. He should spend some time in jail to deter others. Of these things I am sure. Beyond that, I just don’t know.

Author: Harold Pollack

Harold Pollack is Helen Ross Professor of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago. He has served on three expert committees of the National Academies of Science. His recent research appears in such journals as Addiction, Journal of the American Medical Association, and American Journal of Public Health. He writes regularly on HIV prevention, crime and drug policy, health reform, and disability policy for American Prospect, tnr.com, and other news outlets. His essay, "Lessons from an Emergency Room Nightmare" was selected for the collection The Best American Medical Writing, 2009. He recently participated, with zero critical acclaim, in the University of Chicago's annual Latke-Hamentaschen debate.

20 thoughts on “Justice and mourning after an atrocity”

  1. I’m uneasy when sentencing is affected by the victim’s prominence, or the size of his family and social circle, or the depth of grief he leaves behind. The survivors’ desire for punishment/justice is understandable but doesn’t necessarily lead to good public policy if they can move a judge’s heart their way. Those who live humble lives, without the benefit of those to fight for their memory, are no less deserving of the law’s concern.

  2. Harold:

    I am sorry for this great loss to you and to the many other people who loved David.

    I understand what you are saying about punishment. Another consideration is deterrence of future such incidents. From that perspective, what I would want to see as a member of the community is that after his prison term the driver is sentenced to long-term abstinence from alcohol, with twice a day breathalyzers as is done in 24/7 sobriety. Stopping him from driving is probably impossible (witness that he didn’t have a licence), but stopping him from drinking is possible and should be done.

  3. A friend of mine did 5 1/2 months for DUI – his third in a few months. He was hugely fortunate that he hurt no one, though he did do some property damage. Jail was awful and – so far – he seems really to have been scared straight. Lost his job. Actual reform from time in the reformatory, I hope. He thinks he can never drive again, and he needs to move (once he gets out of house arrest) to some place where he doesn’t need to drive. This is now the first thing which turns up when he is Googled, which limits what he can try to do professionally. So he got a sentence which (so far) seems to have been adequate to deter, even without having done huge damage through his actions.

  4. Simple question: Should the defendant’s sentence be any different on the actual facts here than if the victim had been, say, a dangerous escaped convict devoid of friends and family? Many states now require an opportunity for the victim, or survivors, to speak out on sentencing. This case highlights the problems with that.

  5. You have my greatest sympathy. My husband was killed in 1985 by a drunk driver. I agree with your comments, Mr. Pollack.
    Best regards,
    Minelle Paloff

  6. Thanks for sharing this, Harold. I am sorry for your loss.

    I had a similar experience fifteen years ago, that touches on something that Ken D said.
    A very close friend of mine was killed by a drunk driver, driving without a license in a truck that had failed inspection a month earlier because of brake problems. Fifteen people were injured but hers was the only death.

    Her death left a hole in my life that no one or nothing can fill. I still miss her, and I still have a very vivid memory of the last time I saw her, about three weeks before her death. I still remember what is was like to be unable to speak for a solid minute or more, when another friend called me with the news.

    Her many friends, including me, were invited to provide victim impact statements. I declined, and the primary reason was that I had long before that decided that I disagree with this in principle. What matters in criminal justice is only the behavior of the criminal and the circumstances of the crime, not the social value of the victim. But I also declined for a more personal reason; I feared that a judge or jury would not see how truly valuable this woman was to me and to so many others. You see, she had no children. She was in her late 20’s and not married, but in a committed relationship with another woman. They were not attractive women, and among their friends were many other childless unattractive women. She had dropped out of a PhD program at Stanford to become a park ranger. Her parents were hippie goat farmers in Oregon. She had spent a few months in a psychiatric hospital on suicide watch.

    I don’t know how it turned out-I have since moved away and lost touch with many of our mutual friends. The scumbag loser who killed her had violated so many laws that he was likely to get a severe sentence. He’s probably dead by now.

    I feared that her “value” would be deemed less than if she were a beautiful, happily married mother, or a successful scientist, or an active member of a church, or just someone who had never been on antidepressants. I was unwilling to participate in a morally flawed process that would also expose my friends and I to the realization that the loss of this person who was so dear to us would not be considered an outrage to the rest of the world.

  7. I am so sorry for the losses people have mentioned here. And I’m so glad I’m not the only one who has trouble with the concept of the victims’ loved ones influencing sentencing, or anything else in a trial. Maybe it’s because I don’t have a large family or circle of influence myself, and I believe I’m no less worthy of receiving “justice” than someone who does. But a crime against a retired curmudgeon with no family to speak for him is no less a crime than the same crime against a young mother with parents, siblings, friends, co-workers, and church members to speak for her.

  8. I too am very sorry about your friend.

    I’m not so sure though that there’s nothing else we could do to prevent drunk driving. It seems to me that having a .08 BAC level (in California) is an invitation to people to push the limit. My guess is this is the result of alcohol industry lobbying. Then when someone gets killed we throw the book at them (if the victim was, say, a young pitcher … who was in a car with a driver who had also been drinking, though I’m not sure they told the jury)(not that that means they deserved to die. I’m just saying.)

    In addition to having a limit of no drinking at all, we should take licenses for a much longer time the first time, and permanently the second time, and make sure that everyone who knows the person is clear on the fact that this person is not insurable. In other words, loan them your car and you lose your house if there’s an accident. I think that would cut way down on the person’s driving.

    Instead of making people feel bad about being an addict, we need to stop them from driving and I think there are a lot of ways we haven’t tried yet.

  9. In addition to having a limit of no drinking at all

    How long after one drink before you are allowed to drive? What limit are you going to put on blood alcohol levels, given that there is always some alcohol in the blood?

    Like all zero tolerance proposals, it’s basically unworkable. There are countries with this standard, but they can’t actually use alcohol tests to prove it. They have to go by observed impairment, which is a standard with all sorts of problems. We could opt for a lower limit than 0.08%, but zero isn’t really an option.

  10. Ultimately, there is a potential technological solution in the form of self-driving cars and automobiles with anti-collision detection. We could eliminate most drunk driving if we poured billions into developing these technologies, which are already surprisingly well developed, and then moving forward with the legal and regulatory framework to make them widely available.

  11. Although I strongly agree with posters that the victim’s friends and family members should not make the case for a longer sentence for the accused, I understand the victim’s family &c who show up at periodic parole hearings to argue their case for denial of parole. I’ve been horrified by some of the short sentences for murder in the past. Convicts spending five years for a murder!

  12. Well, you have to have room in the prisons for all the people guilty of economic crimes.

  13. I too am sorry for your loss. I think one reason why it is important for family and friends to attend the trial is simply to serve as a counterweight to what will no doubt be testimony about the defendant’s own family and community bonds, the effect of the crime on him, even if he is the perpetrator, and his prospective loss from being sent to jail or deprived of a drivers’ license. It’s easy to underestimate just how destructive vehicular crimes are, especially if you have ever driven under the influence, as many people have. This isn’t to say that a person’s sentence should be enhanced because they killed a particularly good or prominent person, it is to make sure that the person imposing the verdict and the sentence is aware that a person killed by a vehicle is as important and real as a person killed by a gun and certainly as real as the defendant. The prosecutor will do this anyway, because they see this all the time especially in cases of DUI where there is clearly no willful intent to cause the death of another.

  14. “This isn’t to say that a person’s sentence should be enhanced because they killed a particularly good or prominent person.” I certainly agree. However, the family and friends at sentencing hearings often seem unaware of that concept, and no one reminds them. It frankly seems to me that these proceedings — at sentencing hearings, after all — are designed to allow the bereaved to declare that their loved one was special and give them the impression that that will affect sentencing, but avoid actually adopting the principle implicit in that — namely that some lives are more valuable than others based on how many people liked the deceased and how much. I have always found this “improvement” in the criminal justice process troubling.

  15. I’m also of two minds about this. On the one hand, if one does some simply math, one finds out that [insert name of H’wood celebrity] behind the wheel of an SUV wields an awful lot more kinetic energy in a 60kph (40mph or so) impact than does that same celebrity behind a 9mm SIG-Sauer.

    On the other hand, people can learn and change.

    And, thus, what I chose to do many, many years ago when I became “the old man” in my mid-twenties: When I dragged my miscreant airmen and NCOs* out of the drunk tank — whether on or off base, whether in the US or overseas — I gave them a writing assignment. I kept copies of the relevant pages from the regulation in prestapled packets at home, and had my then-state-of-the-art computer print up personalized written-order letters directing the miscreants to write and deliver to my desk by 0800 the next duty day …

    the letter I would have had to send to his/her parents if they had managed to get his/her sorry behind killed while out DUI, explaining the circumstances of the death while on active duty, consistent with the regulation’s requirements.

    Word got around. In the better part of a decade as a commanding officer, I never had a DUI second offense.

    * This was a long time ago, but recently enough that no punishment was necessary for officers with DUIs — just discharge paperwork.

  16. I can understand if many people don’t want a .00 limit. Probably most of the drunk drivers themselves think that they drive fine, even above .08. But there’s still no good reason why we go so easy on people who get caught driving drunk. I think they get maybe a 6 month suspension and they have to go to some classes. Big deal. Why not make it a couple of years the first time? Maybe with some therapy, that they get to pay for themselves. They may or may not need it, but it will add to the hassle factor. That would give people plenty of time to think, and maybe even beat their alcohol problem. Driving is not a right.

  17. Ken D., what you say is true, and it also applies to defendants and their family, many of whom try to use prior virtue as a mitigating circumstance if not an outright excuse. The idea is to hold the two in balance, but you are right — in some cases a mismatch between the two can tip a result into outright injustice.

  18. NCG: Your own body will make alcohol as a byproduct when breaking down starches into sugars. Even if you’ve never had a drink, you have a BAC over .00 a while after a nice spaghetti dinner. Are we to punish starch consumption in our zealous attempt to control other peoples’ behavior? .08 is two drinks in one hour – that’s pretty low. The impairment to driving of two drinks is no worse than that of using a cell phone.

    That said, I’m all for equal treatment under the law if it will reduce the number of phone-tards on the streets. I say DUI-level punishment for cell phone use while driving! I’m serious. Ride a motorcycle a while and you get a good feel for who the dangerous drivers are.

  19. I think the relative social prominence of the parties and how badly they are missed when dead or will be missed when in prison should be irrelevant to sentencing.

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