On September 21, 2006 Juan L. Quintero was pulled over by a police officer and arrested for driving without a license. The officer cuffed Quintero’s hands behind his back, searched him, and put him in the back of his patrol car. Then the officer got into the front of his patrol car. Quintero shot the officer seven times in the back, killing him. He was still sitting in the back of the patrol car when more police arrived.
On May 20, 2008 a Harris County, Texas jury, given the choice between sentencing Quintero to death and sending him to prison for life without parole, chose life.
The officer’s family is very upset:
“We’re just very upset,” said Lorraine Crawford, mother of the slain officer’s widow, Joslyn Johnson.
“We wanted the death penalty,” Crawford said. “He had nothing but malice in his heart.”
She added that the jury did not seem to understand the difficulty of a police officer’s job.
The officer’s brother, David Johnson, was in the courtroom with his wife, Donna Mack, when the sentence was announced. He said he and his wife also had wanted to see Quintero sentenced to death.
“He shot him four times in the back, three times in the head,” Johnson said. “I can’t believe that. What’s mitigation?”
You might be very upset too, if your loved one had been killed. Which is why families of complainants aren’t the ones to decide whether killers get death.
The usual gang of idiots commenting on the Chronicle article are understandably outraged at the jury for finding sufficient mitigation in this case. (You might be outraged at the jury too, if you were an idiot.)
But how is it possible, you might ask, that an illegal alien with a criminal record who shoots a Houston cop in the back, killing him, gets life in prison without parole instead of death?
In order to sentence a person to death a jury must unanimously answer “yes” to two questions. First, the future danger special issue:
Whether there is a probability that the defendant would commit criminal acts of violence that would constitute a continuing threat to society.
The state has the burden to prove future dangerousness beyond a reasonable doubt. In Quintero’s case, the State had a pretty compelling argument that a guy who can, while cuffed in the back of a patrol car, kill a cop will always be a danger to society.
The jury answered the “future danger” question in the affirmative, and moved on to the mitigation special issue:
Whether, taking into consideration all of the evidence, including the circumstances of the offense, the defendant’s character and background, and the personal moral culpability of the defendant, there is a sufficient mitigating circumstance or circumstances to warrant that a sentence of life imprisonment without parole rather than a death sentence be imposed.
A unanimous “no” answer to the mitigation special issue would have resulted in a death sentence. Any other answer, or an inability to answer, would have — and did — result in a sentence of life in prison without parole.
This decision — whether there are sufficient mitigating circumstances, all things considered, to warrant a sentence of life in prison — calls for an intensely personal moral judgment.
Mr. Quintero’s lawyers, Danalyn Recer (who was my cocounsel in my capital case in Victoria County last year) and David Lane, prepared the jury for this very personal, almost sacred decision. They compared this decision to the other personal moral judgments that people have to make — what religion to believe, or how to raise our children, for example — and showed both the pro-death and anti-death jurors that it was not okay for one person to tell another what her personal moral judgment should be.
I’m not familiar with the mitigation facts in this case; neither are the Chronicle’s UGOI. Ms. Crawford or Mr. Johnson may have been, but I don’t suppose that any mitigating circumstance or circumstances would seem sufficient to the humans whose loved one had been murdered.
There was evidence in Quintero’s case of traumatic brain injury caused by a fall and a football injury. The evidence was presented at the culpability phase of the trial under the guise of insanity evidence. But Quintero’s lawyers knew that more and more people are willing to consider the effect of brain injury on personal moral culpability; by presenting brain injury evidence in the first part of the trial they front-loaded a key piece of mitigation evidence.
So how is it possible? Excellent lawyering, clearly.
But also this verdict reflects the Harris County citizenry’s growing weariness with the death penalty, and their maturing acceptance of LWOP as an alternative to death — in other words, it reflects evolving standards of decency. UGOI notwithstanding.