They’re Heartless, but at Least They’re Incompetent

§ 22.08. AIDING SUICIDE. (a) A person commits an offense if, with intent to promote or assist the commission of suicide by another, he aids or attempts to aid the other to commit or attempt to commit suicide.
(b) An offense under this section is a Class C misdemeanor unless the actor’s conduct causes suicide or attempted suicide that results in serious bodily injury, in which event the offense is a state jail felony.

Texas Penal Code Section 22.08.

“Causing suicide” (or causing attempted suicide that results in SBI) is an element of the felony offense. It’s something that the state has to prove beyond a reasonable doubt to increase the punishment range. The state also has to plead it in order to charge a defendant with a felony.

If the state pleads that a person has, with intent to assist the commission of suicide by another, aided the other to commit suicide, but does not allege that the person’s conduct caused the suciide, the state has charged that person with a class C misdemeanor—a fine-only offense, the equivalent of a traffic ticket.

There hasn’t been a published opinion on an aiding-suicide case in the thirty-eight years that the statute has been on the books, which doesn’t mean that there haven’t been any prosecutions, but means that there haven’t been many. 

Which brings us to this case. When I read about the British man jailed for helping his wife end her own life, I thought, “This guy is getting screwed. He’s already lost his wife, and now the state has stuck him in a jail cell for it. Why don’t they mind their own damn business?” (Rhetorical question. They’re getting paid to stick their noses in other people’s business.)

Then I read the formal criminal complaint filed by the state and discovered that not only was the state prosecuting the man for something that really shouldn’t be a crime, but it was doing so incompetently.

The complaint charges a class C misdemeanor: if the state proves everything it alleges in the criminal complaint, the maximum penalty is a $500 fine. The state filed this misdemeanor charge in the 351st District Court. District courts have no original jurisdiction over misdemeanor charges (except in rare circumstances that don’t even arguably apply here).

In sum, the state of Texas has filed the case in a court that has no jurisdiction.

Yet the accused has been sitting in jail since 30 June 2012, with his next court date set 30 July 2012. He can’t make bail, so he might sit in jail for thirty days—or longer—on a charge with a maximum $500 fine filed in the wrong court. Is it better or worse that the prosecutors who have filed charges against you aren’t capable of reading the damn statute? The state bungles, and the mind boggles. 

Can the state recover from its blunder? If it repleads, alleging that the defendant’s conduct caused suicide (the element that vests the district court with jurisdiction), can it prove it? I know nothing about the facts, but I don’t need to know the facts of this case to know that the causes of suicide are unknowable. Even the sheriff’s department has told the Chronicle that there is no suggestion that the defendant was actively involved in causing his wife’s death.

There is no happy ending in this tragic case. Nobody wins. The best to be hoped for is the minimization of further damage. The DA’s Office made the wrong call in accepting felony charges, but it can still do the right thing by letting this one go.

Place your bets.


5 responses to “They’re Heartless, but at Least They’re Incompetent”

  1. I never thought about this in a criminal context, but would civil plea to the jurisdiction work here?

  2. Franklin, my strong suspicion is that Alicia O’Neill did nto accept charges, but was obliged to hurriedly draft charges that had already been accepted by someone else.
    She doesn’t fit the”heartless” label, being one of the most compassionate prosecutors I’ve met in 30 years of practice. She’s in the post-conviction review section of the DA’s Office, a division which is charged with uncovering wrongful convictions, and has shown me again and again her commitment to the purpose of that division.

    And as to the “Incompetent” part, I doubt they even have a pattern charge for this one, it’s so infrequently used. My suspicion is that Alicia was required to hurriedly draft a pleading from scratch with a line of cops waiting at Intake with other matters. She’s the furthest thing from “incompetent.”

    All of that said, of course the State will have endless opportunities to fix their mistakes
    if they choose to proceed on this one. It is a tragic story. The State should never have compounded this poor man’s heartbreak by turning him into a criminal defendant on top of everything else he’s going through.

  3. This is actually sort of relevant to a situation a good friend found himself in. An arrest warrant was issued by a magistrate in SC for a charge that fell outside of a magistrate’s jurisdiction. He was arrested, arraigned, made bail, and eventually… found himself in that same Magistrate’s Court defending himself. At the time we didn’t really know about subject matter jurisdiction, but after he was duly convicted in the fair trial that saw the Magistrate falling all over himself to deny/rule against anything my friend tried to do (it was really pretty bad, egregious even) the arrest warrant (which serves as the indictment paper here in SC) was signed, a fine commensurate with the original charged/convicted offense was levied, and that, we thought, was that.

    Except later the criminal record showed a conviction for the ‘smallest’ degree of this particular offense, instead of the one that was charged. This third degree offense also carried a maximum fine that was less than half of what my friend had paid. Hmm. THEN we learn about subject matter jurisdiction, and it becomes clear the magistrate never should have heard the case in the first place. When an attorney my friend hired tried to motion to void the judgement, the Magistrate didn’t even allow oration or arguments or discussion – he just flat out denied it. Couldn’t deny the motion fast enough. HMMM.

    An appeal to General Sessions resulted in an affirmation of the Magistrate’s ruling, but my friend works out of town and was represented that day by the same attorney, in the middle of a ‘falling out’ they were having over an unrelated legal matter. I was there that day, and his attorney’s performance was extremely lackluster. We had researched a multitude of cases ranging from SC -specific all the way up to SCOTUS opinions that clearly established it is ALWAYS timely to bring up subject matter jurisdiction, because a void judgement is always void. There were also other cases dealing with other potential arguments the opposition might have made, which they did, and the attorney brought up precisely zero supporting cases – just sort of stammered his way through a half-hearted attempt to get on the record or something.

    My friend had me file a motion to reconsider/reargue which he showed up for himself, and finally he was able to present specific evidence of the original charge, including the fine that exceeded the charge the Magistrate claimed he was convicted of, and the General Sessions judge reversed the verdict.

    A halfway decent attorney probably could have smashed this whole thing during the arraignment process, and definitely would have won the original trial (which was a witch hunt, it’s complicated, but it’s a real travesty.)

    Now I’m left wondering what is going to happen with the Magistrate who clearly knew he presided over a case he had no jurisdiction over and clearly made efforts to cover that fact up. (Again, the charging/indictment paper shows one charge, but the criminal record showed the lesser charge as the conviction.)

    I’m betting nothing. =/

    (I am withholding my last name in the post because of my (minor) association with the case – charges can be refiled, and I may personally be making an ethics complaint to Judicial Committee. If you prefer not to post the comment, I have absolutely no problem with that, but I do ask that that if any of these reasons qualify for your ‘special reasons’ exemption, you leave my last name out of it.)

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