The country’s criminal justice is one of hallmarks of modern civilizations. It secures the rights and liberties enjoyed by modern Americans. Its three components – law enforcement, courts and corrections – all work together and separately to ensure that the vision of the founding fathers continue to guide the country. Each of the components, for example, should ideally abide by the principles of due process and equality. As shown in the case study being considered here, all components apply in processing a person’s entry into the system.
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Description of Murder
Murder is defined by 18 U. S. Code § 1111 (a) as “ the unlawful killing of a human being with malice aforethought.” The operative word in this definition is ‘ malice,’ which distinguishes murder from the general term homicide. Thus, for a killing to qualify as murder, it must be attended by malice. In many states, murder is classified as first-degree murder, second-degree murder and third-degree murder, but in common law, no such subdivision exists. The range in degrees differentiates the order of culpability with first-degree murder being the most reprehensible and considered a heinous crime (Garner 2001, p. 577)
Since malice is a state of mind, it can only be inferred from the conduct of the accused (Carper et al 2007, p. 251). The statute cited specific acts that qualify killing as first degree, such as killing by poison, ambush, or with premeditation. There is also first-degree murder when the killing is perpetrated with the following accompanying acts: arson, escape, kidnapping, treason, espionage, sabotage, aggravated sexual abuse, child abuse, burglary, or robbery (18 U. S. Code § 1111 (a)), among others.
The case of People v. Martinez, 193 Cal. App. 3d 364 Cal Rptr. 265 (1987) illustrated how certain circumstances can qualify killing to murder, In that case, the accused was tried for murder in the first degree after beating his girlfriend to death. Earlier in the evening, the two attended a party, but quarreled in the course of the night. While the accused went out to get more drinks for him and his friend, his girlfriend, who was already drunk by that time, left and headed for the apartment she shared with the accused. A male friend present in the party took her home. They ended up having sex in the apartment. Meanwhile, the accused learned of the events and after a while walked home to the apartment. Finding the two, he immediately chased and hit the fleeing male friend, but the latter was able to getaway. Upon his return, he found his girlfriend hiding in an alley near the apartment in a state of undress. He hit her making her unconscious. He then dragged her to the apartment and continued beating her until she died. He was convicted of murder after the trial, but he appealed this on the grounds that he had only committed voluntary manslaughter. The Appellate Court affirmed the conviction on the ground that the accused had evidently planned and premeditated the killing, and the killing as committed through torture.
Processing the Accused
The criminal justice system has three major components and the suspect in this case, James Lane is dealt with by each and every one of these components. The first component is law enforcement and it is the first component that deals first with the accused. It is the component through which an individual enters into the system. In dealing with the suspect, the police must follow due process and certain legal requirements. In the present case, the police acted on a report made by a neighbor of the victim and the police subsequently conducted an investigation. These are the preliminary steps through which law enforcement identifies suspects (Cole et al, p. 106). After conducting the investigation, the police arrested James Lane probably because they considered the results of the investigation sufficient to find probable cause. Probable cause is the standard required by law before a warrant of arrest could be issued. It refers to facts, which could lead a reasonable man to believe that a crime has probably been committed, taking into account the totality of circumstances (Illinois v Gates, 462 US 213 (1983)).
The arrest of Lane means that the police take him physically into their custody during the pendency of his trial. It could be assumed that the police arrested under a warrant of arrest issued by a judge. However, in some instances the police can make arrests even without such warrants, such as when the crime is being committed in their presence. A record of Lane’s arrest should be made. This process is called booking and during this step, Lane is “ fingerprinted, photographed, interrogated, and placed in a lineup” (Cole et al, p. 106) for the purpose of finding out whether he can be identified by Mr. Wolf and some other witnesses. Before Lane could be subjected to any interrogation, he should be read of his rights, such as the right to counsel, to remain silent, and that anything he says could be used in a court of law. Lane can also apply for bail, where he will be required to offer bond to secure his temporary release pending the processing of his case.
The police and the courts are linked by the prosecution. The prosecution represents and advocates for the state and against the accused or defendant. Ideally, it is the responsibility of the prosecutor to see that justice is done, which means that the welfare of the accused – whether due process is followed in prosecuting the latter – is also his duty (Gilliéron 2014, p. 134). Thus, before charging Lane, the prosecutor must carefully review the investigation conducted of the police and conduct his separate investigation. If he decides to charge Lane, it is at this point that Lane enters the court system. The charging is a very important step because it sets in motion the adjudication process (Cole et al, p. 106).
Once charges are made against Lane, the court must compel his appearance so that he can be informed of the charges against him. The judge may also decide at this juncture whether bail is proper or not. Bail is the money or property pledged to the court or actually submitted for the court to hold as a security for the appearance of the accused. The right to bail is not guaranteed by the Constitution, only the right against excessive bail (Eight Amendment, US Constitution). In Stack v. Boyle, 342 US 1 (1951), the Court held that excessive bail is bail that is higher than the reasonably calculated to meet its purpose. However, bail may be denied in murder cases when the evidence of guilt of the accused is strong (Ferdico et al 2012, p. 28). Applying this principle to the present case, the court may either grant or deny Lane’s application for bail, if any, depending on his or her appreciation of the evidence of the case.
Even after Lane has entered the court system, there is still some hope that the case against him will not be pursued, if after the preliminary hearing the judge has determined that no probable cause exists to charge him with murder. The preliminary hearing is a guarantee against malicious prosecution. If the judge does find probable cause Lane will then be arraigned on an information for murder. If the state calls for it, Lane could appear instead before a grand jury for the determination of probable cause. In the event that it is determined, the prosecution then prepares an information – the formal charging document (Cole et al, p. 107) – against Lane.
The next stage is Lane’s arraignment. An arraignment is the reading in court of the information and the entering by the defendant of his plea. Lane can either plead guilty or not guilty. If he pleads guilty, he must do so voluntarily and with knowledge of its consequences. If these requirements are present, the judge may then cut the trial short and proceed to sentencing. Moreover, plea bargaining may also be negotiated between the prosecution and the defense at any time during the trial (Cole et al, p. 106). Plea bargaining involves a negotiated agreement between the parties in a criminal case (Barkan and Bryjak 2011, p. 353). For example, the prosecution may offer Lane a lesser sentence or a lesser charge, if he admits to such charge. If the case against Lane is pursued, and he does not plead guilty or enter into a negotiated agreement with the prosecution, trial is then held. Since murder is a serious charge that carries with it a serious sentence, the trial is conducted with a jury. The quantum of evidence that the prosecution must meet is proof beyond reasonable doubt (Cole 2014, p. 108).
The trial of Lane ends – after both parties have presented their evidence – with sentencing. If he is found guilty, the judge must impose the sentence that is fitting for the charge of murder, but if Lane is not found guilty, then he is immediately released and freed. If convicted, Lane can appeal his conviction to a higher court on the grounds of procedural error, or violation of his rights as an accused. In the event of no appeal, or if the appeal affirms the conviction, Lane is then handed over to corrections, which gives teeth to the conviction by carrying out the sentence imposed by the judge. Upon full service of his sentence, Lane regains his freedom after release to society (Cole 2014, p. 108).
Analysis: Weakest and Strongest Links in the Criminal Justice System
Corrections are the weakest link and the prosecution is the strongest link in chain of the US criminal justice system. The weakness of corrections is evident from the current state of prisons in the US. They are considered a very dangerous place, congested with poor and substandard facilities. This is probably because US prisons are swollen by too many prisoners that have amassed since the last few decades resulting from the policies of war against drugs and get-tough-on-crime approach. As a matter of fact, Garland (2001) called the present prison rate in the US as phenomenal taking into account the country’s prison history. Even though the US spends about $68 billion a year for its maintenance – a far cry from the $6. 9 billion it used to spend in the 1980s – US prisons are still far from ideal (Stevenson 2011). Pre-trial custodies have exacerbated the numbers accounting for more incarceration than after sentencing. In addition, the lack of distinctions between prisoners and their crimes have exposed low level criminals resulting in criminogenic effects, such as violence, suicide and brutality (Siegel and Senna p. 359). Jails have also failed to rehabilitate criminals resulting in high recidivism rates: 68. 1% to 73. 8% for property offenders; from 50. 4% to 66. 7% for drug offenders, and; from 54. 6% to 62. 2% for public-order offenders (BJS 2014).
On the other hand, the strongest link in the criminal justice system chain is the prosecution. Considered the most powerful component in the justice system, prosecutorial discretion can make or unmake a suspect’s life and future. The power to decide whether to place a person under the entire criminal justice system rests in the hands of the prosecutor. Moreover, the discretion to enter plea bargaining, which has come to characterise the US criminal justice system, is a power that even defense attorneys acknowledge. Thus, a prosecutor can determine whether to cut short or totally forego trials by entering into negotiations with the defense. This power is considered not subject to review making prosecution “ one of the most solitary and unfettered exercises of of power in the American political system” (cited Abadinsky p. 219).
The US criminal justice system is composed of the components of law enforcement, courts and corrections. All of these components work together and separately to ensure that a person accused of committing a crime is placed under a process that is both fair and abides by the due process clause as guaranteed by the Constitution. As illustrated in the present case study, the accused goes through all three components to ensure or minimize injustice both substantial and procedural due process.
18 U. S. Code § 1111.
Abadinsky, H. (2014). Law, Courts, and Justice in America: Seventh Edition. Waveland Press.
BJS (2014). Reentry Trends in the U. S. Bureau of Justice Statistics. http://www. bjs. gov/content/reentry/recidivism. cfm
Barkan, S. and Bryjak, G. (2011). Fundamentals of Criminal Justice: A Sociological View. Jones & Bartlett Publishers.
Carper, D., McKinsey, J. and West, B. (2007). Understanding the Law. Cengage Learning.
Cole, G., Smith, C. and DeJong, C. (2014). The American System of Criminal Justice. Cengage Learning.
Eight Amendment, US Constitution.
Ferdico, J., Fradella, H, and Totten, C. (2012). Criminal Procedure for the Criminal Justice Professional. Cengage Learning.
Garland, D. (2001). ‘ Mass Imprisonment: Social Causes and Consequences,’ SAGE.
Garner, B. (2001). A Dictionary of Modern Legal Usage. Oxford University Press.
Gilliéron, G. (2014). Public Prosecutors in the United States and Europe: A Comparative Analysis with Special Focus on Switzerland, France, and Germany. Springer Science & Business Media.
llinois v Gates, 462 US 213 (1983).
People v. Martinez, 193 Cal. App. 3d 364 Cal Rptr. 265 (1987).
Stack v. Boyle, 342 US 1 (1951).
Siegel, L. and Senna, J. (2007). Introduction to Criminal Justice. Cengage Learning.
Stevenson, B. (2011). ‘ Drug policy, criminal justice and mass imprisonment,’ Working Paper Prepared for the First Meeting of the Commission Geneva, 24-25 January 2011, Global Commission on Drug Policies, http://www. globalcommissionondrugs. org/wp-content/themes/gcdp_v1/pdf/Global_Com_Bryan_Stevenson. pdf