The Case of the Speluncean Explorers
In the Supreme Court of Newgarth, 4300 A.D.
The four co-defendants, having been convicted under statute N. C. S. A. (N. S.) § 12-A of the Negwarth criminal code, have been sentenced to death according to the provisions of that statute by the Court of General Instances of the County of Stowfield. In responding to an appealed petition of error, the Supreme Court of Newgarth has issued a lengthy series of opinions, the result of which is a deadlocked conclusion to the primary issues at hand.
As a latecomer to these deliberations, it has fallen to me to make the tie-breaking vote upon the matter before the court. As such, I feel that it is incumbent upon me to review and respond to the reasoning and conclusions of my colleagues and chart a course through their work that leads to determining a proper outcome.
The words of the statute in question are deceptively simple. N. C. S. A. (N. S.) § 12-A of the Negwarth criminal code states that “Whoever shall willfully take the life of another shall be punished by death.” The simplicity of this articulation belies the complexity of issues involved when a case of murder is brought before the Court System. It is these complexities that my Brothers at the bar have bent their expertise and formidable minds to examine.
Brother Truepenny would have us follow the letter of the law and uphold a verdict of guilty. He notes his personal reservations as to the appropriateness of the verdict, and recommends that the perpetration of justice be left in the hands of the Executive, who Brother Truepenny is certain will see the injustice of the sentence and adjust it accordingly. I would respectfully disagree with both the interpretation of the statute, and the seeking of recourse with the Executive branch. With respect to the statute, the term “willful” is key to a finding of murder. It is this element that separates murder as defined by the statute with other acts, such as accident. In the case before the court, we have an instance where the co-defendants admit to killing the victim after much deliberation and consultation. The co-defendants, and the victim, took rather extraordinary measures to determine whether they had reasonable alternatives to their course of action. They asked for a medical opinion as to the effectiveness of their plan, and were denied answer. Clergy also failed to advise upon the moral implications of their potential act. It further stands to reason that had anyone on the outside of the cave-in who had an alternative course of action that would have resulted in the survival of all five of the cave-bound individuals, that person would have communicated it during the discussion. The group, having bent their efforts in such a manner, demonstrated that they lacked “willfulness” as read in the statute. I reiterate that the statute in question is frustratingly vague on this concept, as it is on the issue overall. To compose a law consisting of only twelve words to regulate the conduct of the Court, Jury, and Executioner in the event of such a complicated nature as murder is irresponsible. It would be more irresponsible still to allow a gross miscarriage of justice to result from following the letter of a shoddy law. It would be negligent of this Court to fail to admonish the legislature that they have left us ill-equipped for the chore of dispensing justice on the basis of such poor lawmaking. However, even within the framework of this poor piece of legislation, sufficient room exists for justice to prevail. It is clear that the finding of the lower court was executed without proper regard for the circumstances as they relate to the word “willful” in the statute. On that basis, the case should at very least be remanded for re-trial.
As to Brother Truepenny’s suggestion that clemency be left to the Executive, I find legal and procedural issue with that course of action. First, to recommend such a course would be to tacitly validate the legitimacy of the law as written. Second, such a conclusion would merely shift the same examination of facts, circumstances and the letter of the law to an individual both ill-qualified and too busy to give the matter the examination it deserves. If we wished to procure a prima facia (“at first glance”) ruling on the totality of the evidence, the Court is certainly able to deliver such, and has the background, expertise and capacity to do so in a much greater quantity than does the Executive. Since we neither desire a prima facia ruling, nor are confident in the reception of a competent one from the Executive, the court should reject that recourse.
Brother Foster has taken the unusual step in his ruling of suggesting that the location of and circumstances surrounding the events in question effectively remove the defendants from the proper jurisdiction of the court. He then examines the events in terms of what he styles “the realm of common sense”, and what I would term “natural law” as understood in the Enlightenment writings of Thomas Hobbes and John Locke. If we were to proceed upon Brother Foster’s suggestion and reject the Commonwealth’s jurisdiction in this case, then the work of this court would be finished. We have no legal standing to issue decisions in the “state of nature”, and any comments upon it would carry no more weight than that of any private citizen weighing in upon the matter.
Brother Foster took a second approach to the question predicated upon the rejection of his first. He has argued that precedent exists wherein those who violated the
”letter of the law” did not violate the spirit and were acquitted accordingly at court. Brother Foster cites Commonwealth v. Staymore in which the defendant, by extraordinary circumstances was unable to remove his vehicle from an illegal location in conformity with the statute. This case illustrates both Brother Foster’s point and my own, as it relates to the subject of “willfulness” as understood in the murder statute. Clearly Staymore has intended to obey the statute and was prevented by uncontrollable and unforeseen circumstances from doing so. The Court in that case had no problem judging his intentions in light of his acts. Brother Foster also points to a case where a typographical error in the text of a law provided for the opposite of what the law intended. Fehler v. Neegas had the court ruling entirely on the basis of what could reasonably be extrapolated from the text as to the intent of the author, rather than what was actually written. This decision opens the door for us to consider such things when examining circumstances if an alleged murder. In fact, this ruling compels us to look deeper than the “letter of the law.” Brother Foster offers the notion of self-defense as a justification of murder by the statute. He points out that, while accepted by the Court, self-defense does not qualify as an exception to the Murder Statute as written. We can take this argument a step further to illustrate the ineffectiveness of this statute. Consider, for a moment, the Commonwealth’s employee who has the task of executing these defendants. Is that person, too guilty of murder? According to the statute, he is indeed. Literal application of the law would result in an endless chain of executioners-turned-to-convicts. The Court implicitly rejects such a reading of the law, as do I.
Brother Tatting expends a good deal of his effort disputing Brother Foster’s “state of nature” analysis, and while I may differ in the specifics of reasoning, I concur with the conclusion that such an interpretation leaves the Court both powerless and without clear direction with regard to the issue at hand. Brother Tatting points out that precedent in the form of Commonwealth v. Parry supports his interpretation regarding the letter of the law by allowing an affirmative defense of self-defense. Brother Tatting runs afoul of the notion of reading the purpose of a statute by noting that precedent illustrates numerous and differing purposes that a statute might have. He notes deterrence as one of these purposes, and dismisses the notion that the circumstances of this case are common enough to support a ruling based solely upon that purpose. With this bit of analysis I am compelled to agree. Brother Tatting further argues that precedent in Commonwealth v. Scape suggests retribution as a purpose, and that Commonwealth v. Makeover suggests rehabilitation as a purpose of the statute. Leaving aside for the moment the impossibility of this particular statute being intended to rehabilitate (a task made difficult by the proscribed death of the guilty party), I suggest that these precedents suggest the opposite of what Brother Tatting feels they do. He offers that these cases suggest that it is futile to consider the purpose of a statute when applying it. I would argue that given the previous actions of the court, such consideration is not only permissible, but also an integral part of the decision process. If it were not, no such body of case law would exist to imply multiple purposes for the statute. For this reason, I would be compelled to reject Brother Tatting’s argument that it is inappropriate to consider the purpose of the statute in its application to a set of circumstances. Foster’s application of Commonwealth v. Valjean is also flawed. An arcane case, Valjean is a perfect example of poorly written law badly applied without consideration of purpose. Incarcerating an individual for nineteen years over a theft of property valued at less than three dollars is excessive in the extreme. Its absurdity defrays any deterrent value, as the facts of the case might be dismissed as a fancy belonging more appropriately in a novel by Victor Hugo, or the like. As such, Commonwealth v. Valjean serves as an example of the blind application of a poor law, a precedent to be avoided, rather than emulated. Having twisted himself into unnecessary rhetorical knots, Brother Tatting declined to offer a final opinion on the case.
Brother Keen’s opinion begins with a criticism of the notion of relying on Executive clemency to right the wrong produced by following the letter of the statute. For different reasons than my own, he comes to the same conclusion of rejecting that recourse. He then offers the astounding philosophy that those of us at the bar ought to be unconcerned about “right” or “wrong”, arguing our role to be that of semantic mechanics who need only determine whether the facts of a case meet the written criteria of the law. I find this analysis to be both untenable and repugnant. Volumes of precedent, including all of the cases above (with the possible exception of Valjean) prove clearly that the accepted role of Judges is to interpret the laws and see them executed in a manner that most correctly reflects justice. It is for that reason that the final decisions afforded the judicial branch lie not with one individual, but upon the learned consensus of a group of experienced and qualified jurists. I must heartily reject the notion that the realms of “right”, wrong”, “wicked” and good” are beyond the scope of what we are to consider in these cases. We call that which is manifestly wrong an “injustice”, and as an integral part of the justice system, our duty is to redress such “injustices”.
Brother Keen cites historical evidence that the practice of judicial activism, the remaking of laws through Court decision, is fraught with danger. He cites the historical Civil War that was fought over perceived abuses of judicial prerogative. His caveats are well taken, but I believe that the historical example does not preclude our taking proactive measures in this case. If, in our learned judgment, a law produced by the legislature is poorly written, it is not only our right, it is our duty to offer interpretation that satisfies a governments commitment to justice. If the Legislature disagrees with our interpretations, they are, of course free to draft new law with language that better restricts the actions of the Court. In the absence of such language, our judgment should, and does, prevail.
Brother Handy tells us of the “tortured” reasoning that each of his colleagues engaged to reach their conclusions, and admits that his own ideological bent is far more focused on the human element of jurisprudence, making, one would assume, judgments such as this simpler than what his colleagues have suggested. He points to public opinion polls that break 90-10 in favor of clemency for the defendants, and cites this as evidence of public opinions regarding the issue. Brother Handy, able and well-intentioned jurist that he is, has apparently never heard of a “push poll” or errors in questioning that lead to skewed results. He relies upon this single poll to come to the conclusion that there is massive public support for overturning this ruling. Even if we go out on a limb and assume that this poll accurately reflects the will of the people, such a determination is irrelevant to our considerations. The Judiciary branch is insulated from public opinion for a reason: The founders of this government did not trust the judgment of the people. This is a point of view vindicated by the mass hysteria preceding the Holocaust that formed the backdrop of our government’s organization.
A more interesting analysis conducted by Brother Handy is that of three other options the “system” had for vindicating the defendants. I find this analysis interesting in that I believe that it goes to prove the opposite of what it was intended to demonstrate. He offers the judgment of the prosecutor to pursue the case, the judgment of the jury and the clemency determination of the Executives as “less rigid” for a in which the issue might have been decided. Given the failure of these agents to come to the manifestly just conclusion, relying on the restrictive legal requirements as they understood them, I believe that they reinforce the need for a responsible body, such as this court, to impose a little common sense on the issue. The prosecutor, if the statistics Brother Handy offers are in any way accurate, has committed political suicide in pursuing an unpopular punishment for a speciously argued crime. The jury, relying on an obscure interpretation of process, stated the obvious, that the facts of the case align with a guilty verdict given the letter of the law. They then dumped the final determination back onto the judge, who rubber-stamped the jury’s findings. This course of action suggests that the jury knew the decision to be morally wrong, and wanted to wash their hands of the consequences. The third option, deferring to Executive clemency, is an equally poor option, especially if we take at face value to the assessment of Brother Handy that the Executive would base his own determination on his personal bigotry and inflexibility.
My own conclusions can be expressed in a relatively straightforward manner. First, I contend that the applicable statute in this case is very poorly written and invites misinterpretation through its vagueness and inflexibility. I strongly urge the Legislature to take this case as an incentive to rewrite the homicide laws to reflect realities such as degree of culpability and possible affirmative defenses. As a second conclusion, I affirm this Court’s standing to offer reasonable interpretation of the letter of the law in the interest of fundamental fairness and justice. Further, I contend that in the case before the court, such considerations are necessary for rendering a just verdict. With justice being the ultimate goal of the Criminal Justice system, this requirement overrides any other in the execution of criminal cases. I reject the notion that this case falls under an abstract jurisdiction of “Natural Law.” As unusual as the circumstances are, they occurred within the Commonwealth, and both the victim and defendants are citizens thereof. I further reject the argument that in reversing the ruling this case, the Court indulges in a form of dangerous Judicial activism. This case, its scope and implications, falls well short of the type of case that calls the balance of power in government into question, as suggested by some of my colleagues. With such a narrow set of facts, it is unlikely in the extreme that this case will serve as a non-specific precedent, especially if the Legislature heeds my warning and rewrites the statute.
Upon the issue of leaving the case to Executive clemency, I would argue that, irrespective of his personal or political predisposition, this or any Executive is less equipped to render an appropriate opinion in such a case than is a well-informed, trained and practiced panel of Judges.
Statute N. C. S. A. (N. S.) § 12-A of the Negwarth criminal code reads, “Whoever shall willfully take the life of another shall be punished by death.” In the case before the court, I find that the “willing” element of the requirements is not substantiated by the facts of the case. Even though the act itself was entered into after much deliberation, one would be hard-pressed to argue that any of the participants wanted to commit the act of which they were accused. Since the statue does not invoke intent per se as a prerequisite of murder, the planning before the act is irrelevant to the rendering of the verdict. It is the majority opinion of this court that the writ of error is substantiated by the facts of the case. The writ is granted and the lower court’s verdict is accordingly…
REVERSED WITH PREJUDICE