Wednesday, April 14, 2010

A comment on efforts to "create" attempted murder in Mississippi

I've heard several Mississippi politicos (generally Republican) complain that we don't have a crime entitled "attempted murder" in our state. In fact, some Mississippi legislators even try every year to create a code section that would "fix" the problem. (Just this year, Reps. Bill Denny, Tracy Arinder, and Jessica Upshaw tried to amend SB 2923 and authored HB 273 & HB 547.)

The gist of the efforts each year is to bifurcate our aggravated assault statute, which currently provides for a 20 year maximum penalty for an individual who either a) "attempts to cause serious bodily injury to another, or causes such injury purposely, knowingly or recklessly under circumstances manifesting extreme indifference to the value of human life" or b) "attempts to cause or purposely or knowingly causes bodily injury to another with a deadly weapon or other means likely to produce death or serious bodily harm." The attempted murder legislation cited above would make the "attempt to cause or purposely or knowingly cause bodily injury to another with a deadly weapon or other means likely to produce death or serious bodily harm" part the definition for attempted murder, and proscribe a mandatory sentence of 20 to life.

There are two substantial problems with legislation like this, described after the break.

First, the proposed definition of attempted murder doesn't take into account that there are multiple situations in which someone may have attempted to commit a homicide other than murder (heat-of-passion manslaughter, culpable negligence manslaughter, imperfect self-defense manslaughter, justifiable homicide, etc.) Imagine a situation in which John shoots Jim when he sees Jim in bed with Jane, John's wife. It's a classic manslaughter situation if Jim dies, but it would certainly fit the proposed definition of attempted murder if Jim lives to cheat another day. So John would be punished for his poor aim with a minimum sentence of 20 years, instead of a maximum sentence of 20 years.

Then there's the other glaring problem: we already have an attempted murder statute. It's 97-1-7 of the Mississippi Code, which states:
Every person who shall design and endeavor to commit an offense, and shall do any overt act toward the commission thereof, but shall fail therein, or shall be prevented from committing the same, on conviction thereof, shall, where no provision is made by law for the punishment of such offense, be punished as follows: If the offense attempted to be committed be capital, such offense shall be punished by imprisonment in the penitentiary not exceeding ten years; if the offense attempted be punishable by imprisonment in the penitentiary, or by fine and imprisonment in the county jail, then the attempt to commit such offense shall be punished for a period or for an amount not greater than is prescribed for the actual commission of the offense so attempted. (Emphasis mine.)
Under Mississippi law, we define "capital" crimes as those with a sentence of either death or life in prison. Deliberate design murder and depraved heart murder both have mandatory sentences of life imprisonment, and are therefore capital crimes under this statute.

So what we have in the attempted murder legislation that keeps making rounds at the Capitol is an attempt to fix a non-existent problem with extremely problematic language.  If Denny, Arinder, and Upshaw wish to do something about the penalty for the already existing crime of attempted murder, that would, in my opinion, be a better approach.  While I don't think I'd support any increases in prison sentences in our state in light of our current budget situation and tendency to over-incarcerate regardless of the crime, it certainly would be better than what is currently being put forward.

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