The Washington Supreme Court got it right recently, and I thought I’d tell you why. In a criminal case called State v. Hall, handed down January 31, 2008, the Court performed its most important job: to protect the people from the power of government.
Here are the facts of the case. In 1994, Mr. Hall was convicted of felony murder after a man he assaulted died; he was sentenced to 13 years in prison and was due to be released at the latest in February 2007.
The felony murder rule has been part of our common law since the 12th Century when it was first applied in England: if someone dies in the course of a felony crime the perpetrator is guilty of murder even though he lacked the intent to kill. Like much of life in the Middle Ages, it’s a harsh rule; but try telling that to the mother of the young man who died in Pioneer Square one out of control Mardi Gras night.
In 2002, our Supreme Court narrowed the rule substantially in a case called Andress, ruling that a felony assault could no longer serve as the underlying felony offense. As a result of the Court’s decision in Andress, over 200 convictions became invalid, much to the dismay of police, prosecutors and crime victims all over the state; but that is not the issue here today.
In order to “fix” the problem, the Department of Corrections sent notices to all of its guests who might be entitled to change their criminal record following the decision in Andress. Mr. Hall was one of the state’s guests, and he received the state’s notice; but because he was by then 69 years old, disabled and soon to be released after serving his time, he chose to leave the issue alone.
Unfortunately, the King County Prosecutor had a different idea, and a month before his release date they filed a motion, over Mr. Hall’s objection, to vacate the conviction and retry him for the crime – even though the maximum sentence on the new charge would have been less than the time he had already served. I’m not making this up.
The trial judge saw no problem and granted the motion to vacate the conviction but, fortunately, the Supreme Court did see one or two fundamental problems with the case, starting with the Constitutional principle of double jeopardy. And the essence of their ruling demonstrates one very fundamental principle which is at the base of my judicial philosophy. The most important role of the courts is to protect the people from the power of government. And in the Hall case the Court did its job well and protected one old man from the power of the government.