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Mirror of Justice
This is going to stir up some news on several levels. Mario Claiborne was convicted on drug charges and sentenced to 15 months in prison, less than half the sentence recommended under the Federal Sentencing Guidelines. The prosecutors appealed the sentence as being unreasonable. The Supreme Court accepted the case, along with a companion case called Rita, to address the issue of what standards the courts of appeal should use when reviewing sentences to determine if they are reasonable or not. Claiborne's case was argued before the Court this past February. Scotusblog previewed the oral argument. Tom Goldstein at ScotusBlog predicted that Justice Stevens was likely writing the opinion.
If so, Justice Stevens' work will have been in vain. Claiborne's lawyer has filed a notice with the Court that Mr. Claiborne has died. Under relevant Supreme Court rules, Claiborne's case will now be dismissed. It may take a little longer to establish the rule for determining the reasonableness of sentences which are below the sentencing guidelines. Doug Berman and his commenters are discussing the ramifications over at Sentencing Law & Policy.
But Claiborne's death may open up a whole new set of legal issues. It appears that the Claiborne of the pending Supreme Court case is the same as the Claiborne who died in this shooting, reported by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
Claiborne was driving a car, accompanied by another male, a woman, and a young child. At about 11:45pm this past Tuesday night, the group stopped for gas. While they were at the gas station, a pickup truck, occupied by two men, drove up. The two men got out of the truck and went into the station, leaving it running. Claiborne's male passenger hopped out of Claiborne's car and drove off in the pickup truck, stealing it. Claiborne, with the woman and the child still in the vehicle, followed him.
The two men from the truck ran out of the station. One of them pulled out a gun and fired four shots at the fleeing car, hitting Claiborne in the shoulder. He drove to the hospital, but died within hours. The hospital appears to be right around the corner from the gas station.
As an added twist, the pickup truck actually was leased to the mother of the man driving it (the shooter), and the shooter was not an authorized driver on the lease. Claiborne's family, incidentally, immediately ratted out and identified the man who had actually stolen the pickup truck.
Police have obtained warrants for both the truck thief and the shooter for murder. The truck thief may well be guilty of murder under the felony-murder doctrine, which provides that you are guilty of any homicide which occurs in the course of a felony which you committed. It often comes into play when more than one person is involved in an armed robbery, but only one of them actually shoots the guard. All the robbers are guilty of murder under the felony-murder doctrine, even if killing was not part of the plan. You occasionally see the doctrine crop up when hostages are accidentally killed by police during a stand-off.
The charges against the shooter may cause some stir among gun rights and self-defense folks. Like most jurisdictions, Missouri law does not allow the use of deadly force to protect mere property. Missouri revised statutes 563.031 provides:
2. A person may not use deadly force upon another person under the circumstances specified in subsection 1 of this section unless he reasonably believes that such deadly force is necessary to protect himself or another against death, serious physical injury, rape, sodomy or kidnapping or serious physical injury through robbery, burglary or arson.
Here, both the pickup truck and Claiborne's car were driving away from the scene of the crime. There were no other people in the pickup truck who might remain in danger as kidnap victims. There was no reason for the shooter to believe that deadly force was needed to protect against his (or another's) death, serious physical injury, rape, sodomy, or kidnapping.
I hope that few will try to justify the shooter firing down a public street at a stolen vehicle being driven away from him. Murder itself may not be an appropriate charge, but manslaughter (in the heat of passion from the theft) or reckless homicide would be entirely appropriate charges.
Are there any St. Louis readers out there? My experience with urban hospitals suggests that they are usually located in relatively bad neighborhoods. This one is located near the interstate and a railroad yard, but the houses and other properties nearby seem mostly occupied and well maintained according to the Google satellite images, so it's hard to say.