It appears that, if L.A. Times columnist Steve Lopez had his way, the State of California would spring from prison a man repeatedly convicted of assaults and death threats, in order to make room for a drug dealer.
Lopez had a column yesterday bemoaning the fact that a man with a history of assaultive and threatening conduct will be headed to prison for 25 years to life for once again assaulting and threatening the life of a victim.
Lopez’s desire for lenient treatment of this victim is interesting, given his previous clarion call for prison time for a man convicted of possessing eight ounces of cocaine.
Let’s look at the subject of yesterday’s column: Stephan Lilly.
In 1997, he was convicted of assaulting his wife with a pipe. In 2005, a criminal threat against his wife went down on the books as strike two.
Lopez does not tell us the details of those crimes. How badly was Lilly’s wife hurt in the attack with the pipe? What threats did he make against his wife in 2005? Was there any violence associated with that incident? Was there an ongoing pattern of domestic violence? We don’t learn this.
But Lopez does tell us that the Deputy District Attorney who prosecuted Lilly wrote a sentencing memo that
noted that Lilly’s criminal record stretched back to 1981 and included a conviction for aiding and abetting in an assault, driving while impaired, possession of a controlled substance and misdemeanor battery.
In Lilly’s latest case, he was convicted of — guess what? — assaulting and threatening someone. Who woulda thunk it?
According to Lopez, a security guard testified at Lilly’s trial that, a short time after Lilly was paroled on his latest criminal threats case, “Lilly slammed him against a wall several times, lifted him off his feet and threatened to kill him.”
But, Lopez tells us, Lilly also has psychological problems. He is a paranoid schizophrenic. He hears voices. He’s suicidal. Apparently Lopez seems to think that this all means that it is wrong for Lilly to be going to prison for a long period of time. But all previous efforts to treat Lilly’s mental illness didn’t prevent him from assaulting and threatening someone. And when you tell me that someone is suicidal and is hearing voices, it doesn’t make me think: gee, this person doesn’t sound dangerous. It makes me think of David Berkowitz, and the dog that he believed had advised him to commit several murders.
Lilly has apparently had treatment for his problems in the past. And that treatment didn’t stop him from: committing battery; aiding and abetting an assault; attacking his wife with a pipe; threatening his wife; or threatening and attacking the victim in the present case.
What is Lopez’s point? I’m not really sure. He sympathetically describes the efforts by Lilly’s attorney to have his sentence reduced, or even to have his conviction reduced to a misdemeanor — an act that would put Lilly back on the street in short order, to assault and threaten even more victims. Lopez even suggests that perhaps the law should be changed so that people like Lilly could raise a defense of diminished capacity, saying that:
it seems preposterous that [Lilly] and countless others go on trial with virtually no consideration given to the demons that led to the violence.
What seems even more preposterous is for Lopez to make that claim after describing how Lilly’s defense lawyer put on a witness at his trial who
described how Lilly was “a diagnosed schizophrenic” who had been hearing voices and had been trying unsuccessfully to get medication at the time he attacked Dominguez.
Since the crime of making criminal threats is a specific intent crime, Lilly’s mental illness is something the jury was entitled to consider in determining whether he had formed the requisite criminal intent. From Lopez’s column, it appears “preposterous” to argue that “virtually no consideration” was given to this issue at Lilly’s trial. I’m certain that it was the only real issue at the trial — and guess what? The jury found, unanimously and beyond a reasonable doubt, that Lilly had the required intent.
The defense of “diminished capacity” used to address that very reality, and although it was abused, some refined form of it seems appropriate.
Yes, it has been abused, most notably by the fellow who used the “Twinkie defense” against charges of murdering the mayor of San Francisco and a county supervisor. Does Lopez want to see diminished capacity and the Twinkie defense return? How would he draft legislation that would not be abused? He doesn’t tell us.
The only thing that would get Lilly into a mental institution would be a successful plea of not guilty by reason of insanity. But Lilly and his attorney apparently didn’t pursue that option, even though it was available.
What I find especially ironic is that, while Lopez implies that this repeatedly assaultive and threatening person should get a misdemeanor, or even a walk due to his mental illness, Lopez is the same fellow who in September was screaming about the fact that a dope dealer with eight ounces of cocaine wasn’t going to prison.
We get the message, Steve. If someone repeatedly assaults and threatens members of the public, we should give them a pat on the head and a trip to the psychiatrist. But if they deal some dope, throw the book at them.
Is is sad that someone with mental illness is going to prison for a potential life sentence? Sure, on some level. But the system has to protect the public from people like Lilly. It sounds like that happened in this case. If Steve Lopez has a alternate suggestion that would actually protect the public, he should tell us what it is. He sure doesn’t do so in yesterday’s column.