Wednesday, August 01, 2007

The Perp and the Copter

I find it fascinating that homicide charges are even being considered in this case. In a nutshell, two news helicopters collided and crashed as they were covering the police pursuit of a suspect fleeing by car. The four occupants were killed. Here's what the story says:

Maricopa County Attorney Andrew Thomas said Tuesday his office will continue reviewing whether to file murder charges against Christopher J. Jones, 23, who police were chasing when the two news helicopters crashed while taping the incident.

Jones will face two counts of aggravated assault, two counts of theft and one count unlawful flight related to the car chase, Thomas announced at Tuesday’s news conference. If found guilty on all charges, he could face 127 years in prison.

Jones, 23, is being held in Maricopa County jail on $1 million bond.

Thomas said his office is continuing to work with the Phoenix Police Department and that the department has insisted he seek murder charges against Jones, who was leading the police chase when two helicopters crashed, killing four news crewmen.

“These people were doing an important job and that is providing news to the people of this community,” Thomas said.

Thomas has not said whether he will pursue homicide charges. He said much will depend on the results of the investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board. “The facts we need to complete this investigation just haven’t been complete,” he said.

Regardless, legal experts cautioned that could be a tough legal road to go down. Arizona law allows a criminal to be charged with murder if someone is killed while committing a felony.

The law assumes the criminal should have known there was a chance someone could have died while committing the crime. For example, if someone robs a store at gunpoint it’s reasonable to assume the gun could accidentally fire and kill an innocent bystander.

Legal experts also said the robber should presume that the cashier of the store could fire their own gun and kill an innocent customer.

I fully support the law (and, in general, harsh sentences for convicts) but not the application in this case. The helicopter occupants were not innocent bystanders. They chose to be in the vicinity of the felony knowing that it was in progress. It's tragic that they died in the crash, but it seems farfetched to hold the perp legally responsible for that.


grog said...

Well, what about a store clerk who had an opportunity to flee, but didn't, because she felt she should do her job and try to protect the store? I don't think you have to be an "innocent bystander" who hasn't been able to get out of the way yet before you will be protected by the criminal law.

If this was a civil case, however, it matter more whether you're just an "innocent bystander." Perhaps we're so used to thinking about torts and negligence and people assuming the risk or being partially negligent themselves that we're seeing this case through that lens.

But in a criminal case, what the victim does or doesn't do isn't nearly as important -- it's all about what the perp does. And here, the perp is held responsible for the foreseeable consequences of his crime, which includes whatever happens when he flees the scene. If he could have known that leading police on a high speed chase could have attracted news helicopters, and that one of those helicopters could have crashed while doing its job, then this guy could be charged with some form of murder.

I think the sticking point will be causation: whether the crash was tied closely enough to the perp's actions. I'm guessing that's why they're waiting for the results from the NTSB investigation. The need to know exactly how the crash happened.

If the crash is linked closely enough to the perp's actions, however, and if all the necessary facts can be proven beyond a reasonable doubt, then I don't have a problem with charging him. This dangerous activity was illegal, he engaged in it anyway, and four people died. Some level of additional criminal liability is appropriate here.

Flip said...

I completely disagree with grog.
The helicopter crash was a sad thing but they are not innocent bystanders getting hurt.
They are after ratings and thats all. They know the job had risk and they intentionally put themselves directly into the danger. I agree that he should be held responsible for his crime but his crime had nothing to do with those copters.
The thing to remember is they were not innocent bystanders they are professionals that knew full well the risks involved with that job.
Besides its a fact that one of those copters broke the law by operating the vehicle dangerously.

So if someone chokes to death on a kernal of popcorn from getting way to excited watching the car chase should the kid be charged with that as well?
The media is not a public servant and had no claim to have been involved with his crime.