Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Alcohol is not an excuse

Guy walks into a gas station and calls the sheriff. “I’d like to report a murder, and I did it.” Open-and-shut case, right?

Saturday afternoon in Door County Circuit Court, we found out it was not as simple as that. At least one and perhaps two members of a jury brought in from outside to ensure a fair trial bought the defendant’s argument that he did not intend to kill that woman and her unborn child, even though he spent two agonizing minutes with his hands on her throat literally choking two lives away, and the juror refused to budge from that position.

The defense grasped at the straw that Brian M. Cooper was so, so drunk that he was unable to form the intention to kill, and intent is a key component of the legal definition of first-degree intentional homicide. After all, his blood-alcohol content was measured at 0.39 percent hours after he killed Alisha and Ava Bromfield, nearly five times the current legal limit.

Sitting back in the office I was stunned. I had only been in the courtroom for one afternoon of the weeklong trial. I’d ignored the cautions of the three staff members who saw Cooper testify on Thursday.

He was very convincing, truly remorseful, they said. Over the years working in other communities that have intentional homicide trials more often than once every 11 years, I reassured them that defendants are often sincere and remorseful on the stand, but what kind of a defense is “I was so wasted I can’t remember what I was thinking” for slaughtering someone you purport to have loved?

My colleagues weren’t surprised when the jury foreman said they couldn’t reach a decision. I was surprised. I was angry, then frustrated. Finally I realized he only had to convince one person out of 12, and it appears that’s what he did.

And it wasn’t a complete miscarriage of justice. Even the 12th juror, after all, agreed to find him guilty of sexual assault for his unspeakable actions after he killed them. He can spend up to 10 years in prison for that. And he wasn’t found not guilty — by making no decision, the jury gave the state another chance to put him on trial.

Just out of curiosity I put this question on our online poll: What would you have decided if you were on the jury? Ironically, a few minutes later 12 people had voted; 11 said “guilty on all three counts” and one said “not guilty.” Perhaps it wasn’t a fluke.

And that points to the difficulty of trying to hold people accountable for crimes they commit under the influence of alcohol. There’s always going to be that element in the jury’s minds of “Wow, he was probably as drunk as I was that one night in my life — there, but for the grace of God, go I.”

Friends and supporters of Alisha Bromfield’s family took to Twitter during the jury deliberations, tweeting a simple message over and over: “Alcohol is not an excuse.” Of course, people locked in a jury room don’t have access to Twitter, but let’s hope the message was heard everywhere else.

Being wasted may be an explanation —we might understand how someone who is horribly intoxicated could do horrible things — but it’s not an excuse for taking lives, and people who do horrible things under the influence still must be held accountable, whether the weapon of choice is a vehicle or bare hands.

Even Brian M. Cooper knows that. He didn’t call 911 and say, “I’d like to report a horrible mistake” or even “I’d like to report a terrible accident.” He said, more than once, “I’d like to report a murder.”

Cross-posted to Door County Advocate

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Perhaps it was a mistake for the prosecutors to seek a 1st degree murder sentence.
Is a drunk driver who kills someone "intentionally" trying to harm another?
You are right that it is not an excuse, but it is, indeed, an explanation.