BOB INGERSOLL: THE LAW IS A ASS #343: COMMISSIONER GORDON CAN’T DO THE TIME, IF HE DIDN’T DO THE CRIME
If you thought things looked bad in Batman Eternal before, well now they’re even worse. But enough about Batman Eternal, let’s look at where this year-long story has put our friend Commissioner James Gordon of the Gotham City Police Department. It’s not looking too good for him, either.
In Batman Eternal # 21, Commissioner Jim Gordon, who had been tried on 162 counts of manslaughter was found guilty on 123 of them. That must have been soooome interesting trial. The prosecution alleged Gordon negligently discharged his service revolver in a subway station, causing a transformer box to explode. This catastrophe somehow caused two subway trains to collide. The resulting death toll was 162, hence 162 counts of manslaughter. So, based on these facts, how was Gordon convicted on only 123 counts? Shouldn’t he have been guilty of everyone who died in the crash? Not most everybody?
Did 39 people who were on the subway all die of sudden, simultaneous heart attacks just seconds before the crash? Or 28 died from slow-acting poison administered by their wives at breakfast, while 10 of them succumbed to Legionaries’ Disease, and one of them just burst out in spontaneous human combustion? No, there’s nothing wrong with this result, I’m just curious as to what evidence the jury could have heard that made them believe that Gordon was responsible for only 123 of the deaths but not those last 39.
Anyway for some reason not explained in the story, Gordon was convicted of 123 counts of manslaughter. Then, for some reason also not explained in the story, he was promptly sentenced to life in prison in Blackgate Penitentiary.
Now we are in the realm of something legally wrong with the result. Long story short – a term that can’t be applied to Batman Eternal, itself – Gordon really wasn’t sentenced to a life term, because he couldn’t have been.
Under the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution – an Amendment which applies both to the federal government and to the individual states by incorporation of the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment– no government may deprive a person of liberty without due process of law. And even though some people who suffered through six seasons of Snooki and her drinking buddies might want to disavow New Jersey, it is part of the United States. That means the Fifth Amendment fully applied to Jim Gordon’s sentence.
What does the Constitution mean when the Constitution says that a person can’t be deprived of liberty without due process of law? Among other things, it means that a defendant can’t receive a sentence which is not authorized by the sentencing statutes of the jurisdiction in which he or she was convicted. See, e.g., Williams v. New York (1949) 337 U.S. 241.
(Wow, it’s been a few years since I’ve used the old “See, e.g.,” in a sentence. Nice to know the muscles haven’t atrophied.)
Boiled down to its essence, if a state trial court imposes a sentence which is greater than the sentence that jurisdiction’s sentencing statutes authorize, that sentence is void. Boiling the essence down to its essence, if a defendant is convicted of theft and the statutes authorize a maximum sentence of only one year for theft, then the defendant can’t be sentenced to two years. Not even if the defendant stole candy from a baby and the judge thought a longer sentence was more appropriate. The harsher sentence was not authorized by the law and due process says only the sentences authorized by law can be imposed.
In the same way, if a person is convicted of manslaughter in New Jersey and the New Jersey statutes don’t authorize a life sentence for manslaughter, then imposing a life sentence is unconstitutional and the sentence is void. Doesn’t matter that the defendant’s manslaughter was magnified by a factor of 123, the judge can’t up the sentence to something not found in the law, just because the crimes were particularly heinous. (Which means, unfortunately, no matter how much we may think they deserve it, the producers of Jersey Shore can’t get the death penalty.)
New Jersey Statute 2C:11-4 defines manslaughter. It, in fact, defines two kinds of manslaughter. They are aggravated manslaughter, a felony of the first degree, and manslaughter, a felony of the second degree. If you surmise that felonies of the first degree carry harsher sentences than felonies of the second degree, you are correct. Congratulations on your astuteness. If you happened to make this surmise based on what your learned after years of reading “The Law Is a Ass,” then congratulations on your good taste and thanks for paying attention.
Batman Eternal never actually mentioned whether Gordon was charged with manslaughter or aggravated manslaughter. For the purpose of this little treatise, I’ll assume he was charged with the worst form of manslaughter: aggravated manslaughter under circumstances manifesting extreme indifference to human life. Why? Because that’s the version of manslaughter that has the longest sentence. If any version of manslaughter was going to carry a life sentence, that would be the one.
Buuut, it doesn’t. The same statute that defined aggravated manslaughter also set the maximum sentence for aggravated manslaughter. Set it at 30 years.
That’s 30 years; not life.
Last time I looked – in fact every time I looked – a life sentence was longer than 30 years. Gordon’s life sentence exceeds the statutory maximum sentence for a manslaughter conviction in New Jersey. Which means the life sentence imposed on Gordon was illegal. And unconstitutional.
Sure, the judge could have imposed a maximum sentence of 30 years on each of the 123 counts of manslaughter and ordered Gordon serve them consecutively; that is one after the other, after the other, and so on until you reach 123 of them. Quick math – okay, quick use of the calculator app on my computer – reveals that maximum, consecutive sentences in Gordon’s case yields a sentence of 3,690 years. But that’s still not life.
Yes, 3,690 years is the functional equivalent of a life sentence. In fact it’s closer to the functional equivalent of a life sentence with a few extra zeros added to the back end just to seal the deal. Not to mention seal away the defendant for a good long while. But 123 sentences of 30 years maxed and stacked, is still shorter than a single life sentence. The life sentence was illegal.
Which is why I say Gordon couldn’t have been sentenced to a life term. Because he couldn’t.
Would it have been that difficult for someone to have checked what sentences would be possible for Gordon’s manslaughter convictions? I wasted a whole ten seconds writing a simple and rather unimaginative Google search on “New Jersey manslaughter sentences” which produced a whole page of links almost any of which revealed the answer. With that information, the writers could have given Gordon an actual and legal sentence not whatever sounded the worst.
For that matter, does life actually sound worse than 3,690 years? I don’t think so. After all, 3690 years, much like Batman Eternal, is actually longer than life.