“Burlington Angry With Sentence” read the headline to a June 20, 1980 New Haven
story. The story noted that Ron W. Neuhausser, 17, pleaded guilty to first degree manslaughter and second degree kidnapping in the death of 12-year old Katherine K. Ebersold and received a 10 to 20-year prison sentence. This sentence meant Neuhausser would be eligible for parole in seven years.
Despite the fact that the Neuhausser family was “one of the oldest and most respected families in town,” most of Burlington seemed to think the sentence was too light. Mrs. Elaine Langley’s view was representative:
It was a premeditated murder and anyone who does that shouldn’t get away with only seven years. The lawyers said he was emotionally disturbed at the time he killed her, and that was the reason he got the lesser charges. Who isn’t emotionally disturbed when they kill someone? I don’t think people who are in their right mind go around killing other people.
Originally Neuhausser had been charged with murder and first degree kidnapping. But Neuhausser and his lawyer were promised reduced charges in return for a guilty plea. In short Neuhausser had engaged in a common though extralegal process called plea-bargaining. Neuhausser saved the state both time and money. In return the state gave Neuhausser a lighter sentence.
Did this transaction represent “justice”? The New Haven
said “no” emphatically. A
editorial the same day decried the sentence. The
was especially critical of the state’s attorney’s failure to try for a murder conviction because psychiatrists believed that Neuhausser was emotionally disturbed at the time of the crime. The newspaper put it this way:
Psychiatry has come a long way since Sigmund Freud, but it is still more an art than a science. What Neuhausser’s state of mind was on that date is more a matter of judgment, on the part of the examining psychiatrists, than any accurate measurement of mental condition, thought processes, brain waves or whatever. All too frequently, as any seasoned court observer can readily attest, psychiatrists who studied the same subject are worlds apart in the judgments and conclusions they reach.
Is mental agitation a mitigating circumstance in a murder case? Is the failure to control one’s feelings an acceptable excuse for violence? Mrs. Ebersold raises a good point when she observes “anyone who murders has got to be emotionally disturbed.” At what point do we begin to hold individuals responsible for control over their outbursts?
The “temporary insanity” defense, by the way, seemed to be having a heyday June 20, 1980. An article in the sports pages reported that the killer of ex-major league baseball star Lyman Bostock was to be released from a mental institution one year after he shot Bostock. The reason? The killer was no longer insane. The reaction of sports columnists throughout the country made the
editorial on Nsuhausser seem mild.
The conservative critique of plea-bargaining and the insanity defense that is, of light sentences in general enjoys great popularity today. The critique goes something like this: “Yes, we realize achieving justice involves balancing the rights of the accussed against the rights of society. But plea-bargaining by its very nature subverts justice by guaranteeing that the criminal will get a lighter sentence than he deserves. What about the rights of citizens to be safe? What about retribution? When you add plea-bargaining to the insanity defense and Supreme Court decisions such as Miranda and Escobedo, how can the result be anything but a skyrocketing crime rate?”
Radical critics of plea-bargaining respond with arguments like these: “The whole criminal justice system is stacked against the poor. The poor can’t afford bail or expensive lawyers. In many cases poor people plead guilty to crimes they didn’t commit simply to get out of jail sooner. The poor deserve prompt fair trials. Better yet, the poor deserve an assault on poverty and racism. Only social and economic changes will lower the crime rate and eliminate the need for plea-bargaining.
On this issue, the so-called vital center of the American political spectrum is almost invisible. But it is powerful. Writing for the Supreme Court majority in
Santobello v. New York
(1971) Chief Justice Warren Burger maintained
The disposition of criminal charges by agreement between the prosecutor and the accused, sometimes loosely called “plea-bargaining,” is an essential component of the administration of justice. Properly administered, it is to be encouraged.
(July/August, 1976, p. 12)
Historian David Rothman would not be surprised by Burger’s statement. In
Conscience and Convenience
(1980) he notes that plea-bargaining developed not to serve society
to protect the rights of the accused, but rather to make life easier for the administrators of the criminal justice system. In this respect, Rothman follows sociologist Roberto Michels, who sees all organizations as subject to an “iron law of oligarchy.” No matter what the organization’s original purpose, its main purpose eventually becomes self-preservation. It would not surprise Michels that the criminal justice system became more concerned with functioning smoothly than with its original purpose—justice.