How Can You Defend a Guilty Person? Part II

My client was guilty! No question about it. Seventeen year old, Jim, found his wife in bed with another man. Jim went beserk and kicked the defend a guilty personother man out but did worse to his wife–he strangled her around the throat with his hands. Then, trying to avoid detection, he spray-painted her body in gang grafitti, and dumped her in a gang area of Minneapolis.

Later, he confessed to everything.

Charged with 1st degree murder, he found it hard to plead guilty and check himself into a lifetime of prison, so he went to trial. His only hope lay in two possible outcomes: the jury would feel some sympathy for him and let him off with less than Murder 1 or the facts, as they came out in the trial, wouldn’t support the full charge. A mosquito had more hope of surviving the winter than Jim did of getting any leniency.

I was appointed to defend Jim.  How could I defend a guilty person?  The answer starts with: he was guilty…but of what?

When the Medical Examiner who conducted the autopsy on the victim testified, he broke the case wide open for Jim.

To prove Murder in the 1st degree, the prosecution must show that the killer “premeditated and intended” to kill the victim. That means the killer had some time to think about things, to realize what he was doing and, if possible, stop before death. For instance, if someone shoots a victim once, you could say it was intentional or maybe even accidental. But the third, fourth, and fifth shots would certainly be premeditated. In Minnesota, 2nd degree murder is defined as “intentional but without premeditation.”

Justivce means not only convicting a guilty person but also making sure the conviction fits exactly what the person did. Which one was Jim guilty of?

The Medical Examiner testified about the cause of death—choking around the throat that cut-off air to the victim which suffocated her. But…in this case, when Jim started to choke her, he broke a part of her spine that would have caused death instantaneously, without the long suffocation. For the defense, the Medical Examiner opened a huge door.

If Jim had broken her spinal column quickly, killed her instantly, then how could he have thought about what he was doing? How could he have premeditated the killing? He certainly intended to kill the girl, but did he have time to contemplate it, to premeditate the killing?

The jury decided he did not and found him guilty of 2nd degree Murder.  You may disagree that he deserved a break but to answer your question of how could I defend a guilty person, this case shows you how. I have to admit it wasn’t easy, but I think justice was done here.  What do you think?


About Colin Nelson

Colin T. Nelson worked for 40 years as a prosecutor and criminal defense lawyer in Minneapolis. He tried everything from speeding tickets to first degree murder. His writing about the courtroom and the legal system give the reader a "back door" view of what goes on, what's funny, and what's a good story. He has also traveled extensively and includes those locations in his mysteries. Some are set in Southeast Asia, Ecuador,Peru, and South Africa. Readers get a suspenseful tale while learning about new places on the planet. Colin is married, has two adult children, and plays the saxophone in various bands.

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