23 Jan. 2018
The Mother Who Lost It All
On a normal Monday afternoon in sunny Los Angeles, California, the date being August 28th, was when suddenly at 5:04 p.m a seven-year-old was fatally shot by his own wrong-doing. A woman by the name of Helen just got home from picking up her 3 boys from their elementary school. Helen was a single mother and was worried for her and her children safety so Helen obtained her Carry Concealed Weapon license in early July. Helen went through the whole process, which included providing proof of California residency, she possessed a handgun safety certificate and completed a safety demonstration of her purchased handgun (oag.ca.gov). On this Monday after school her seven-year-old felt extra curious and found his way into the safe. Helen strategically placed the safe on top of her closet so her kids could not be easily accessible to it. Seven-year-old Trevor got his moms vanity chair and lifted himself high enough to reach the dial of the safe. At first, the child tried the code 0-8-6-7, his mothers birthday, he then tried 8-8-8-8, his favorite number. After failed attempts, the child figured out the lock code was 7-1-5-9 (the address of their house was 7159 McAbe Lane). At the time, Helen was assisting her youngest son, five-month-old Travis, she was changing his diaper and unloading her groceries out of the car and placing them in her garage. This whole process took Helen about 20 minutes where her attention was not focused at what was going on in her bedroom, where the safe was located. The seven-year-old then proceeded to play with the gun like a toy and accidentally shot himself in the stomach. He was rushed to the hospital and was pronounced dead two hours after the incident. Helen was arrested and charged with felony and involuntary manslaughter. It is important to note that Helen did have a criminal record, in 2016 she was charged with possession of Marijuana Under Proposition 64 which came into effect in November of 2016. The proposition states that it is legal for an adult over the age of 21 to possess one ounce of dried marijuana. Helen was in possession of 5 grams and she was charged with a fine of $500. For this crime she was prosecuted for homicide that occurred because of her carelessness behavior. After due process, her sentencing was 20 years in prison and a $20,000 fine. Helen was outraged by the outcome and demanded a re-trial. Helen and her attorneys’ told the judge that not only do they want a re-trail but that her constitutional right of not being cruel or unusually punished was being violated and that excessive fines were being imposed on her.
According to the eighth amendment, “Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.” The cruel and unusual clause of this amendment is the most controversial part. For decades, lawyers and judges all across the country have tried to interpret what exactly our founding fathers meant as cruel and unusual. It is essential to realize that punishments have changed dramatically since back then. The wording of this clause was originated in the English Bill of Rights of 1689. The amendment itself was adopted into the constitution one hundred and two years later. In the Supreme Court case Furman v. Georgia, in 1972, Justice Brennan wrote, “There are, then, four principles by which we may determine whether a particular punishment is ‘cruel and unusual’. First, The “essential predicate” is “that a punishment must not by its severity be degrading to human dignity,” especially torture. Second, “A severe punishment that is obviously inflicted in wholly arbitrary fashion.” Third, “A severe punishment that is clearly and totally rejected throughout society.” Lastly, “A severe punishment that is patently unnecessary.” In this situation Helen’s punishment is considered a punishment that is patently unnecessary.
It is without a doubt that the wording “cruel and unusual” can be interpreted in a variety of ways. In the Oxford English Dictionary, the word cruel means, “Of persons: Disposed to inflict suffering; indifferent to or taking pleasure in another’s pain or distress; destitute of kindness or compassion; merciless, pitiless, hard-hearted.” In this context, her punishment is not cruel, it does not inflict any sort of physical pain, the judge is not gaining pleasure in sentencing her and the only suffering that we can take into account here is Helen’s term in prison. The amendment uses the word unusual, meaning, ” Not usual; uncommon; exceptional.” What is considered usual in this context, according to California State law a “usual” punishment for this offense would be the base charge of involuntary manslaughter which is between 10 months to 16 months. Depending on the recklessness of the crime, for example, driving under the influence and killing someone, the punishment can be more severe. In 2010 a man was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter after he accidentally drew his gun and shot an unarmed man. California’s sentencing guidelines mandated a two to four-year sentence. The law of California states that a 5-year conviction is for the following, “Any person taken into custody as a danger to self or others, assessed, and admitted to a mental health facility under Welfare and Institutions Code” The wording of this is problematic because Helen was not admitted to a mental health facility, however, in this context she is classified as “a danger to self or others” since she put her seven-year-old at risk by making the concealed weapon accessible to him. The National Rifle Association posted an article entitled, “Federal Penalties For Firearms Misuse” which has 12 provisions stating the crime and the punishment with fire-arm related assaults. The majority of them are all five or ten year sentencing for things related to drug use, making the fire-arm fully automatic, transfers of fire-arms and alterations of the registered serial number, none of them have anything to do with the context of this situation.
Under federal guidelines there is a minimum of 10 months sentencing for involuntary manslaughter (FindLaw,com). To reiterate, the eighth amendment states that, “Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.” Her 20 year sentencing is cruel and unusual for the circumstances of California State Law, and federal laws.With-regards-to her $15,000 fine, California law says that for involuntary manslaughter, the defendant can be charged up to $10,000 in fines. In the Oxford English dictionary, the word excessive means, “Of persons or their actions: Transgressing the bounds of law, decency, or morality; outrageous, lawless, wrongful.” In this case the $15,000 fine is considered lawless and wrongful because in accordance with Shouse Law Group in California, the potential penalties for involuntary manslaughter is $10,000. Therefore by this stature the fine is considered excessive and therefore her constitutional rights are being violated. One may argue that the nature of the “cruel and unusual punishment clause” relates to punishments such as torture, death row and punishments similar to those. The twenty year sentencing is not cruel in some people’s eyes, yes it may be a bit over-barring but the word cruel does not describe it in such a way that her constitutional rights are being violated. This is also not necessarily an unusual punishment for involuntary manslaughter, it is typical for the defendant to be charged jail time and also a fine. However, while researching through not only California State Laws but also on the federal level, Helen’s “crime” does not fit the punishment. Therefore, it can be deemed unusual which is exactly the wording of the constitution.
Undeniably, involuntary manslaughter is punished harshly not only in the state of California but across the country. Helen’s sentencing violated her constitutional right according to the eighth amendment. Twenty years in prison is considered unusual for these circumstances: she was unaware of the situation, she had all of the correct legal documents to be in possession of the gun and her child acted on his own free will. There was virtually nothing Helen could have done to prevent the child from acting the way he did. In addition, the fine of $15,000 is excessive in the eyes of the law because in California the usual fine for involuntary manslaughter is $10,000. Despite the wording of the eighth constitution being hard to interpret legally, it is clear that overall her sentencing was unjust and violated her constitutional rights.
“40 Unique Places to Stash Firearms.” ITS Tactical, 14 Nov. 2016, www.itstactical.com/warcom/firearms/40-unique-places-to-stash-firearms/.
“California Involuntary Manslaughter Laws.” Findlaw, statelaws.findlaw.com/california-law/california-involuntary-manslaughter-laws.html.
“Discover the story of EnglishMore than 600,000 words, over a thousand years.” Home : Oxford English Dictionary, www.oed.com/.
“Experienced lawyers are ready to help.” Avvo.com – Legal. Easier., www.avvo.com/.
“Frequently Asked Questions.” State of California – Department of Justice – Office of the Attorney General, 31 July 2017, oag.ca.gov/firearms/pubfaqs.
“Involuntary Manslaughter Penalties and Sentencing.” Findlaw, criminal.findlaw.com/criminal- charges/involuntary-manslaughter-penalties-and-sentencing.html.