Weekend open thread: Crime and punishment edition

What’s on your mind this weekend, Bleeding Heartland readers? This is an open thread.

Late last week, a Virginia medical examiner determined that James Brady’s recent death was a homicide, stemming from John Hinckley’s attempt to assassinate President Ronald Reagan in 1981. I would be interested to hear from readers more familiar with the criminal justice system about precedent for charging someone with murder when more than three decades elapsed between the fatal wound and the victim’s death. The U.S. Attorney’s office had no comment other than to say that they are reviewing the coroner’s report. If prosecutors charge Hinckley with murder, they could get around double jeopardy questions, as Hinckley was never tried for murder before. But since his previous trial ended in a verdict of not guilty by reason of insanity, it seems that it would be quite difficult for prosecutors to convince a jury that he is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt of killing Brady.

In one of the last decisions announced from the term that just ended, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled a few weeks ago in State v Lyle that mandatory sentences for juveniles are unconstitutional. You can read the majority ruling and two dissents here. The majority ruling built on but went far beyond a 2012 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that invalidated mandatory sentences of life without parole for convicted killers who were juveniles at the time of the crime. Writing for the 4-3 majority, Chief Justice Mark Cady extended reasoning from three Iowa Supreme Court decisions last year related to juvenile sentencing. Cady is not afraid to be ahead of the curve here. I expect that over the next decade, other courts will take into account the growing body of research on the adolescent brain, and this ruling will be viewed as a harbinger rather than an overreach. Justices David Wiggins, Daryl Hecht, and Brent Appel joined the majority.

In dissent, Justices Thomas Waterman and Bruce Zager argued that the court went too far in the current ruling as well as in the previous juvenile sentencing cases. They held that a seven-year mandatory minimum was not “cruel and unusual punishment” for a violent criminal who happened to be 17 years old at the time of the crime. Justice Edward Mansfield joined both dissents. It’s worth noting that the majority opinion didn’t say a juvenile couldn’t be sentenced to a long prison term–only that a judge must take into account individual circumstances and current knowledge of adolescent brain development when determining a sentence.

Side note: Governor Terry Branstad appeared not to understand this Iowa Supreme Court ruling, or perhaps he deliberately attempted to mislead the public about its implications. Speaking to reporters last month, the governor implied that juveniles who commit violent crimes will now have to be released at age 18. Not at all. The Iowa Supreme Court majority did not hold that juveniles could never be tried as adults, or that juveniles could not be sentenced to long prison terms. Judges simply can’t apply to juveniles mandatory formulas designed for adults who committed violent crimes.

Earlier this summer, I never managed to write a post about the idiot “open carry activists” who were hell-bent on walking into chain stores and restaurants heavily armed. Even the National Rifle Association characterized the movement as having “crossed the line from enthusiasm to downright foolishness”–though the NRA wimps soon apologized for offending Open Carry Texas. Thankfully, I haven’t encountered this phenomenon in Iowa, but if I see a person or group of people walking heavily armed into a store or restaurant, I will clear out immediately. There’s no way to tell whether someone carrying a semiautomatic weapon is an open carry activist or a psychopath about to go on a killing spree, and I wouldn’t hang around to find out. This philosophy professor had it exactly right when he pointed out that open carry enthusiasts are different from people who carry concealed weapons: “Those who conceal their guns are ready for trouble, but open-carry activists are looking for it. In general, I don’t trust anyone who is looking for trouble.”

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