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The Different Degrees of Guilt


Although the law may not like the sound of it, there are often different degrees of guilt that can be associated with a crime
depending upon the prosecutor, defense attorney, and even the judge.
If youve ever heard of the case Commonwealth v. Woodward (also known as the "nanny case,) then you already have a
leg up in the realization that there can be several different degrees of guilt associated with any given crime. In that case, a
nanny was convicted of murdering a toddler by shaking the child until it died. According to the jurys verdict, the nanny was
to spend a minimum of 15 years in prison. However, the nanny was released from prison a week after entering the estab-
lishment because the judge threw out the jurys verdict.
From the beginning of the Woodward case, the prime question that needed to be answered was what charges should be
brought against the nanny. The question "did she do it?" was easily answered in the affirmative by almost every par ty to
the case. However, the more important question, at least in the eyes of the law, was "what exactly did she do?" In order
for the nanny to be charged with first degree murder, the prosecutor would need to show that the woman acted intention-
ally after thinking about the act she would commit. If convicted on this count, the nanny would have been sentenced to life
in prison. However, if the nanny only acted with a malicious disregard to human life when she shook the toddler to death,
then only a conviction of second degree murder would stand. In the eyes of the jury, second degree murder was the
appropriate degree of guilt.
However, there were still many commentators on the case who sympathized with the nanny. Many parents have, at one
time or another, thought about shaking their child in order to impose some order. While most do not act upon this, can act-
ing upon it really be considered second degree murder. Instead, should the crime count as something less because it was
only a reckless act (like a car accident caused by driving too fast). Such a crime would then be considered manslaughter
the judge certainly though that this was the more appropriate charge. Using his judicial authority, the judge lessened the
sentence from second degree murder to manslaughter and also reduced the nannys sentence to time she had already
spent in prison. Even on appeal, the judges decision was upheld.

Does the Criminal Fit the Crime?


Because of the very sensitive nature of the criminal justice system in the United States, a criminal defendant can only be
sentenced to certain criminal penalties if they are tried and convicted of a ver y carefully and narrowly defined crime. By
using this system, each person that stands trial for criminal charges knows precisely what needs to be proven by the pros-
ecutor, as well as what kinds of defenses are available to them. In addition, and even more importantly, by having such
strict standards, this prevents the state from putting people in prison based on vague standards and arguments. As all
defendants know, it is ver y impor tant to be able to know what you are charged with, as well as how you can defend your
innocence.
To fully understand the importance of defining crimes in such a specific manner, we need to look back to England to see
why the United States decided on such a specified criminal justice system. In England, it was pretty easy to get in trouble
with the law. Par t of the problem was that the laws were not well defined and the general public only really had a few main
rules to live by dont anger the church, King or other nobles. If you did happen to get on their wrong side, you would most
likely be severely punished. However, the laws began to change in England during the 1200s when more well-defined
laws were passed. It was around this time as well that the system of judges and juries came to be. Even with this new sys-
tem of judges and juries, punishments for crimes were often brutal and swift and included death or the relinquishment of
your personal property.
As time went on and cases continued to go to the courts, judges and juries in England, the system of "precedent" took
hold. Precedent can be generally defined as one court following what another court did previously. So, if one case came
before a court and a ver y similar case had come before another court previously, then the current case could be judged
based on how the previous case was decided. However, because each case needed to be so similar to the past case in
order for precedent to apply, judges and attorneys began looking closely at the facts and how they could be distinguished
from previous cases. To put it in another way, the law began to change as different factual situations demanded different
judgments and verdicts.
One of the things to come out of this time was the notion of "mitigating circumstances." If, for example, a man was driven
to steal so that his family could continue eating, the man would be put to death if he was judged as previous cases were
judged. However, as the law changed, courts were more willing to look at other facts, such as the mans condition and the
reasons he stole. If the judge could define the mans crime as something other than theft, then the man may not have to
be put to death after all.
Now, consider that this example and several thousand other examples of such court judgments were repeated over hun-
dreds of years. Judges and attorneys carving out new exceptions to the laws that were already in place, defining new ele-
ments for new crimes, creating differing levels of criminality. Now, crimes are ver y much judged based on the specific facts
of the situation and how the jury inter prets them.
Thinking back to the nanny case, it should be clearer now that the different facts of a situation can lead to a different defi-
nition of the crime. As the jury saw it in the nanny case, the crime that was defined was second degree murder. However,
the judge used another definition of the crime to call it manslaughter instead. If this case had been heard in old England,
the nanny would have been put to death for killing a child, because that was the defined crime, causing the death of
another. However, the law has developed nuances that allows the degree of guilt to fit the crime that was committed and
takes into account the circumstances surrounding the crime. Defining a crime in a certain light can allow a prosecutor or a
judge to insert some leniency into a criminal prosecution that would otherwise not be allowed.
However, there has been a push in recent years by lawmakers to take out some of this discretionary judgment of prosecu-
tors and judges. For example, because of the politicization of the war on drugs, many drug crimes now carry "mandatory
minimum" sentences based upon the facts of the crime. Although some judges do not look favorably on these mandatory
minimum sentences, they are no longer free to fit the crime to the criminal because the laws have taken that power out of
their hands.
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