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Constitutional Law Criminal Law

Quirky Minn. Law Comes Back to Bite Officer Chauvin’s Defense

It’s an old legal adage and one of my favorites in law that “Bad Cases Make Bad Law.” While the phrase has been interpreted a variety of ways for me its meant that cases that arise out of extreme examples or unique situations often end up creating a law either from judicial decisions or by a statute to remedy the extreme situation that is soon applied to many other cases which do not have those extreme factors. Its why I am usually opposed to any law named after a specific person or event – there is usually a reason why some scenario was not covered by existing law and when we write a law to help prevent some rare scenario from re-occurring, it gets applied to situations the original drafters had not intended.

So it is in the trial of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin. Near the end of the prosecution’s case, the government was allowed to present witnesses, including George Floyd’s brother, to talk about the kind of person George was. Victim statements about the impact a crime has had on their lives are common during the sentencing portion of trials across the country. But allowing the introduction of deep biographical information about a victim ahead of a verdict is rarer. Minnesota allows it under a doctrine called “The Spark of Life.”

The doctrine emerged in 1985 when a defendant accused of killing a police officer argued to the Minnesota Supreme Court that the prosecutor prejudiced the jury with a speech about the officer’s childhood; his parents; and his marriage. The prosecutor became so emotional the trial court had to take a recess.

The Minnesota Supreme Court ruled that prosecutors could present evidence that a murder victim was “not just bones and sinews covered with flesh, but was imbued with the spark of life. The prosecution has some leeway to show that spark and present the victim as a human being as long as it is not an “attempt to invoke any undue sympathy or inflame the jury’s passions.”

I get it, why not humanize the victim, right? Three reasons (1)Experienced Minnesota jurors who have sat through a few trials, will know that if no “Spark of Life” evidence is presented then the victim might not have been a very nice, or morally upright person; (2)The real reason to use this evidence is to make a larger emotional impact on a jury. And frankly, if you can’t just use the taking of life (regardless of whose it is ) to give a jury an emotional impact, you shouldn’t be trying cases; (3) The moral character of the victim should only come into play as part of a justification defense to explain why an accused might react differently if Mother Teresa approached them versus Charles Manson. Otherwise, are we saying murder is more or less of a crime depending on who was killed?

It reminds me of a rule they used to have a long time ago in Texas. It was called the “needed killin’ ” defense and basically allowed defense lawyers to put in evidence of the bad moral character of the victim to explain why the accused shot him. It went away when the Wild West did and this “Spark of Life” doctrine needs to go away as well. plainly put “it needs killin’ ”

She’s blind for a reason

To my knowledge, Minnesota is the only State allowing this kind of evidence. In New York, there is no provision for allowing evidence of the victim’s good moral character or family life – until sentence.

Yes, there is some moral irony that a doctrine first used to gin up the emotions of a jury in a police-killing case is now being used against the accused in this case. But our system is designed to protect the accused -even where the evidence is strong. To protect the accused and provide the accused with a fair and impartial jury. I’m not even a fan of victim impact statements, though I get that it can be cathartic for those who have suffered the loss. It just seems to place a point value system on a human life. The circumstances of how a crime was committed can certainly be relevant in both the liability phase and the sentencing phase of a criminal matter. But a convicted person should not get more time for killing a father of three than if he had killed a 70 year old homeless man with no family – assuming the same circumstances surrounding the crime.

And this evidence certainly has no place before a verdict. The accused’s fate should be decided by a jury whose emotions have not been toyed with (again, beyond the circumstances of the crime itself). Its extraneous, its irrelevant, and it unfairly burdens the accused, including Derek Chauvin.

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