White-on-black homicides make liberals aware of the retributive functions of punishment.
I’d rather not have the homicides, but when life hands you a lemon …
Much of the internet chatter about the Michael Dunn case has focused on outrage that the jury hung on the murder charge, convicting the killer instead on three counts of attempted murder and one count of firing a gun. Despite that chatter, no one has found that Dunn was justified in killing Jordan Davis. A hung jury means only that at least one juror didn’t believe that the state had refuted Dunn’s claim of self-defense beyond reasonable doubt, or alternatively that the jurors couldn’t agree as among the alternative charges of first-degree murder, second-degree murder, and voluntary manslaughter.
But now the discussion turns to sentencing (assuming that Dunn is not retried on the murder charge, or is acquitted of it, or that juries keep hanging).
What are the arguments for and against sending the killer away forever?
One of the benefits of a harsh punishment is that it announces and enacts social disapproval of the underlying act. In this case, where some white people seem to think they have a hunting license on young black men, a harsh sentence will help change that opinion, and help shift perceptions of the wrongfulness of the act. (I think we’ve seen this happen with both drunken driving and domestic violence; it’s part of the logic behind “hate crime” enhancements.)
Another benefit of a harsh punishment is that it acts to reaffirm the social value of the victim; again, that seems relevant to this particular crime.
What counts as a harsh punishment depends on the background flow of punishments. For those of us who think that the current sentencing regime is obscenely excessive, that sets up a tension in cases such as this one; a short sentence would send the wrong message about how wrong it is to go hunting for black scalps, while a long one would reinforce the pattern of excessive incarceration. In most European countries, a 15-year sentence would count as ferocious; here, you can get that much for drug-dealing.
In this particular case, where the murder required no physical strength and where it seems to have proceeded from longstanding animus rather than merely momentary passion, there’s also a case to be made for incapacitation; this is someone who might well kill again. Note that he’s already said that his night in jail strengthened his underlying racism, which didn’t really need it.
Say he gets out of prison after 15 years. During that time he will have joined the Aryan Brotherhood, as most white prisoners in bad state prisons find they need to do in self-defense. It’s not easy to see why he would pose less of a risk then than he does today.
So I hope the judge stacks the sentences. Three counts of attempted murder at 20 years each, plus one count of gunfire at 15 years, comes to 75. A 15% discount for good behavior would get the 47-year-old Dunn back on the street sometime in late 2077, at the age of 111. That seems about right to me. It’s the punchline of the old joke:
– “But Your Honor, I can’t do 75 years in prison.”
– “Son, you just do the best you can. That’s all we ask.”
Footnote By the same token, white-collar crime and public corruption are terrible things, but – when they’re prosecuted and lead to incarceration – they help create conservative prison reformers. Hey, it’s not much, but if you do crime-contol policy for a living in this country and don’t develop a sense of humor and the habit of looking on the bright side you’re going to wind up offing yourself.
Second footnote Yes, Dunn was coming from his son’s wedding and had a few drinks inside him. If he’d killed someone under the influence of cocaine, or even cannabis, we’d be hearing about the risks of drug abuse. But when someone kills under the influence of the drug most commonly involved in violence, it barely rates a mention.