The Market in Human Souls

I sometimes wonder whether the truth really matters at all, especially in criminal courtrooms, where we play at the solemn work of justice while wearing blinders. Consider, for the moment, the case of State v. Dr. Lishan Wang, now percolating in the New Haven Superior Court. In what parallel universe do you offer a 48-year-old man a sentence of 40 years in prison and call it a bargain?

Dr. Wang, a medical doctor, stands accused of murder for gunning down another physician, Dr. Vajinder Toor, in Branford, in 2010. On the state’s theory of the case, the shooting apparently had something to do with frustrated professional ambitions.

Just the other day, the state offered Dr. Wang the chance to plead guilty in exchange for an agreed sentence of 40 years. If he loses at trial, the court could sentence him to 60 years. The wonder of it all is not that Dr. Wang said no to the offer, but that the judge did not question whether the prosecutor was playing with a full deck.

Under current sentencing laws, a man found guilty of a crime of violence — murder, manslaughter and the various forms of assault, must serve at least 85 percent of their sentence before becoming eligible for parole. Parole eligibility does mean that a person will, in fact, be released from prison; it means merely that he will have the right to be heard by the parole board.

Dr. Wang was arrested on April 26, 2010. If and when he is found guilty, either by way of plea or verdict, he will get credit for time served because he has been held in jail without being able to post bond, which is set at $900,000. On a 40-year plea, he would be eligible to be considered for parole after serving 34 years, at the age of 82. It’s small wonder the deal offered has little appeal. It’s easy to decide to try a case when you have little or nothing to lose by doing so.

The overwhelming majority of criminal cases are resolved by way of plea bargains. Indeed, the United States Supreme Court recently noted that our criminal justice system is a system of pleas, not trials. The result is an unregulated market in human souls, where prosecutors and defense lawyers place a numeric value, measured in years, on human suffering and potential. Judges superintend the dark art of plea bargaining, sometimes trying to broker deals by recommending to both sides a disposition neither may like.

Dr. Wang has decided to represent himself, which is a right guaranteed to any individual accused of a crime under the Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Why anyone would choose to do such a thing is a mystery to me. Courtroom procedure may not be neuroscience, but it takes years to acquire a feel for what goes on in a courtroom. It’s not enough to read about trial; putting on evidence, withstanding the assault of a case directed at your client, hones a form of battlefield judgment.

Dr. Wang’s pre-trial tactics give good grounds to wonder whether his self-representation is just another form of suicide.

The law of murder is simple. The state must prove that a defendant had the conscious objective, or specific intent, to take the life of another, and that the defendant did, in fact, take the life of another. Implied is proof of identity, meaning that the state must prove it was the defendant himself, and not some other person, who performed the bad act with a guilty mind.

The criminal law does not forgive certain forms of failure.

For example, if you shoot to kill, and miss your mark, you might still be charged with a serious crime, in this case, attempted murder. In most cases, the attempt to commit a crime carries the same sentence as the successful crime. Only in the most serious felonies, such as murder, to do you get a nominal discount in years behind bars.

Another wrinkle in the crime of murder involves the law of transferred intent. Suppose you shoot to kill John, but end up killing Sally, a third person you never thought about. You can’t claim that you never had the conscious objective to kill Sally, and are therefore not guilty of murder. Being a bad shot is no defense to the crime of murder.

Dr. Wang seems to have something like this in mind. In a recent court filing, he sought to raise questions about whether the man he is accused of killing is really Dr. Toor. Why? Because Dr. Wang recalls Dr. Toor being less than 5 feet, 10 inches tall, the height reported in the medical examiner’s report. There is doubt, in Dr. Wang’s mind, about whether the dead man is Dr. Toor at all. Wasn’t there doubt about whether the man who killed President Kennedy was really Lee Harvey Oswald?, Dr. Wang asks. 

That doubt and a dollar might get him a small cup of coffee at the courthouse coffee shop.

The trial of a murder case is a terrifying and grievous experience. A verdict of guilty does not bring the dead back to life. An acquittal brings relief to the accused but renews the despair of the victim’s family with double vengeance when even the illusion of closure is dashed. I cannot image what a family endures watching a defendant transform a criminal proceeding into an existential freak show.

I’ve not read the arrest warrant or police reports in this case. I don’t know if the state can prove that Dr. Wang is a killer. But I do know that Dr. Wang is doing a pretty good job of demonstrating that he’s not pulling with both oars in the water. The only sensible thing he has thus far done is reject a ridiculous plea offer.

The criminal courts are places of great drama, with our darkest moments displayed in a public forum. In theory, we search for truth there, or so it is said. In fact, as Dr. Wang’s case reflects, the courts are often used simply to demonstrate human folly.

Also listed under: Journal Register Columns


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