The Problem with Overcharging Crimes

In North Carolina a man was acquitted of murder by a jury after strangling his four-year-old son. His defense? Violent sleepwalking. An expert testified that he was likely unconscious during the act, and therefore did not have the intent to kill his son.

It’s shocking. How could this happen?

Here’s the interesting thing: the jury actually asked the judge if they could consider a lesser verdict of manslaughter. The judge told them it was all or nothing. That’s what I want to focus on: why the jury asked for the lesser verdict but could not get it. The short answer? Because the prosecutors made a big miscalculation in charging in this case.

How Charging Works in Florida

The decision on whether or not to formally charge someone with a crime is up to the prosecutor. Many people think you can be charged by a police officer or a judge, but in reality only the prosecutor can decide whether to charge you with a crime following your arrest.

The prosecutor can also choose which crime to charge, which creates situations where a person is arrested on one crime, and ends up being charged with another.

In high-profile or serious cases prosecutors frequently make the mistake of charging the harshest crime available, instead of the one that best fits the facts. This creates situations where a defendant is charged with first-degree premeditated murder, even though the evidence doesn’t stack up to prove that crime.

An example: Casey Anthony. She was charged with first-degree murder even though (arguably) the evidence wasn’t sufficient to prove that crime.

Another example: Michael Dunn. Prosecutors charged him with premeditated first-degree murder, resulting in a hung jury.

So Why Overcharge?

Prosecutors overcharge crimes for two general reasons:

  • They want to pressure defendants into a plea deal by hanging the possibility of a harsh conviction over their heads; and
  • The lead prosecutors (District Attorneys) are usually elected officials. By charging defendants with harsh crimes they can tell voters that they’re being tough on crime.

There are several problems with this mentality:

  • Prosecutors end up punishing people who can’t afford a good enough lawyer to sort through the evidence disproportionately;
  • Innocent people are sometimes pressured into pleading guilty to a lesser crime just to avoid the possibility of a harsh conviction at trial; and/or
  • Guilty people avoid a conviction because at the end of the day the prosecutor doesn’t have enough evidence for the crime charged.

Back to the North Carolina Case

So why did the North Carolina man walk free, even after strangling his son? The prosecutors made a judgment call to charge him with only first-degree murder, a charge which requires something called “specific intent.”

Specific intent refers to the mental state a person must have to commit certain crimes. They must specifically intend to commit that crime. Because he was charged with first degree murder, the prosecutors had to prove beyond and to the exclusion of every reasonable doubt, that he specifically intended to kill his son. If there was evidence he was drugged, sleepwalking, or hypnotized then that makes proving his specific intent very difficult at best.

What they jury was saying by asking the judge if they convict the man of manslaughter was this: “We know he did it, and we think he should go to jail. We just don’t think the prosecutors proved he intended to do it. So can we please convict him of something?”

To me, at least, this was a very clear message that the prosecutors overcharged.