The most publicized and sensational violent crimes that have been committed recently, such as the attack on the children of Newtown, Connecticut and the shootings at the Batman movie screening in Aurora, Colorado, have been committed by persons who appear to be mentally ill and perhaps additionally suffering from drug addition. The significant overlap between mental illness, drug addiction, and violence is well documented and thus the criminal justice system has put resources behind trying to solve this problem with programs such as drug and mental health courts (Rossman, 2012). In contrast, persons with mental retardation, also known by the terms mentally challenged or intellectually challenged, have been largely overlooked in this focus on mental issues and violent crime. This lack of attention is despite an over-representation of persons with these disabilities within the prison system (Nevins-Saunders, 2012). Although there is no consensus in the literature, estimates of mental retardation in the prison population have ranged from the lower end of 2% to as much as 40% (Jones, 2007).
In this case all three issues may be present, as Rivers was found incompetent to stand trial but was later found to be competent due to recovery from substance abuse. However, he has been acknowledged as mentally retarded previously, something that he could not have “recovered” from. Thus, it is difficult to separate all of the effects upon the mental ability of Rivers to be found guilty as well as his mental ability to stand trial and where the dividing line between competent and incompetent should be drawn.
A recent point of controversy specific to the punishment of violent crimes committed by those who are found to be mentally retarded is the role of the death penalty. There is a Supreme Court case, Atkins v. Virginia that holds that “death is not a suitable punishment for a mentally retarded individual“ (2002). This case has is being examined in relation to the execution of Warren Lee Hill, Jr. in Georgia. He has been found to be mentally retarded by a number of doctors, but is scheduled to die on July 15, 2013, due to an over-ruling of his claims for mental retardation by the Federal Court of Appeals of the Eleventh Circuit (Lee, 2013). Ironically, the state of Georgia actually has a law that prohibits execution of prisoners with IQs of 70 or below, which is Hill’s precise IQ, but mental retardation must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt. The Eleventh Circuit held that this very high standard had not been met. This case has been appealed to the Supreme Court (Lee, 2013).
The CSI effect is a false expectation on the part of jurors for the need for plentiful scientific evidence in order to support a conviction (Thomas, 2006). This expectation arises from watching crime shows on television, such as CSI, where the focus of every crime is on the gathering, presentation, and conviction ability of scientific evidence. One issue the CSI effect could cause for the prosecution is that there is only the one piece scientific evidence in this case, the DNA evidence. In contrast to television, this is a common situation due to budget constraints. This may make it more difficult for the prosecution to get a conviction, even when deserved. Another issue for the prosecution would be if the jury focuses too much on the scientific evidence and therefore believes the defense’s assertion of accidental contamination, even though the chances of the encounter asserted by the defense is in reality extremely low and it could be just a desperate measure by the defense.
An issue that the CSI effect might cause the defense in this case is the jury could find their client guilty, even though the evidence is challengeable. A further issue for the defense would be if there is a member of jury who watches a lot of CSI type shows, their opinion could be given too much sway over the other jurors’ opinions. This situation would likely result in more, rather than less, convictions because of the high rate of conviction on the television shows. Thus, the CSI effect can be an issue for both the prosecution and the defense in this trial.
Credibility and integrity of law enforcement officials is an issue that on first glance appears secondary to a criminal trial, but can easily be made central to the situation when the officer provides testimony. A police officer’s off-duty behavior, like the domestic violence conviction of the officer involved in this case, is considered character evidence for the officer and can greatly damage the credibility of his testimony (Reiter, 2010). This part of the Jones case has some similarities to the Kaufman homicide in Miami, Florida. There, the lead CSI investigator admitted in court that she had been having an adulterous affair with the lead homicide detective on the case at the time of the investigation into Kaufman’s alleged murder of his wife (Cop’s credibility on the line, 2012). In both of these cases, these acts do speak to the character of the witness and thus the truthfulness of the testimony. In the Kaufman murder, it could also be argued that the affair somehow made the CSI officer “biased” in performing her duties, although she would have likely been on the prosecution/law enforcement side in her biases with or without the affair. However, these considerations do not remove the possibility of the jury discounting the evidence presented by the CSI officer if they feel her acts were serious enough to question her truthfulness in general.
With the second point of damage to the investigator’s credibility in the scenario, the possibility that he was involved with Jones before her death and maybe stalking her, the issue is much more connected to the actual event than either the domestic violence or the affair issue of Kaufman. If the stalking situation is true, it would give the officer motive to perhaps be Jones’ killer, thus calling into question whether or not the detective somehow framed Rivers for the homicide. He could have done this in an effort to cover up his own involvement in the crime. As a result, this situation is much more serious. In contrast, in the Kaufman case in Miami, there was no question of the CSI officer somehow being actually involved.
Based on the current trends in the criminal justice system, it is more likely that Rivers will be convicted than that he is not. If he is convicted, the sentence he may face is the death penalty. This is due to the inconsistent application of the rule in Akins, as shown in the discussion of the impending execution of Warren Hall, Jr. discussed above. Additionally, mentally retarded defendants are perhaps at a disadvantage with juries because of fear and other ignorance (Jones, 2007). Furthermore, the CSI effect when viewed overall also tips the probabilities in favor of a conviction as it is more likely the DNA will be seen as conclusive of guilt and the defense argument as hand-waving than otherwise.
The one aspect of the case that is counter to this outcome is the ability of the defense to attack the testimony of the law officer on two fronts – both domestic violence and possible stalking. The effectiveness of this approach will depend on the strength of the evidence behind the two accusations against the officer. Particularly if a strong case can be made that the purse handle had the possibility of being contaminated by the detective and the defense provides other support for the officer’s direct involvement in the murder, that approach could be a possible route to a successful defense. Otherwise, Rivers will likely be found guilty.
The California sentencing guidelines are set forth in CA Penal Code Section 187-199. The first question is what degree of murder Rivers would be convicted on. The factual scenario does not provide any support for anything other than a first-degree murder, which requires “malice aforethought” or “willful, deliberate, and premeditated killing.” For first-degree murder, the punishment is death, imprisonment in the state prison for life without the possibility of parole, or imprisonment in the state prison for a term of 25 years to life. A sentencing hearing is used to decide between those three choices. River’s prior arrests can be used in the sentencing hearing if they involved violence. There is also long list of other factors that can be taken into account in the sentencing, as well as a long list of “special circumstances” that could support the death penalty. One special circumstance for this scenario is the “lying in wait” situation, as Rivers may have done that before attacking Jones in her car the grocery store parking lot. Thus, the death penalty appears the most likely sentence for this scenario.
The California sentencing guideline contrasts to Florida’s sentencing guideline where the only two choices for first-degree murder are death or life in prison without the possibility of parole (Findlaw, 2013). This lesser of these two punishments happens if “the prosecution does not seek, or fails to convince the court to impose, the death penalty” (Findlaw, 2013).
Atkins v. Virginia, 536 U.S. 304 (2002).
CA Penal Code, Secs. 187-199. Retrieved from
Cop’s credibility on the line in Kaufman murder trial. (2012). CBS Miami. 17 May. Retrieved from
Findlaw (2013). First degree murder penalities and sentencing. Thomson-Reuters. Retrieved from
Jones, J. (2007). Persons with intellectual disabilities in the criminal justice system: review of issues. International Journal of Offender Therapy & Comparative Criminology. 51: 723-34.
Lee, T. (2013). ‘Mentally retarded’ killer denied stay of execution. Msnbc.com. Retrieved from
Nevins-Saunders, E. (2012). Not guilty as charged: The myth of mens rea for defendants with mental retardation. University of California, Davis Law Review. 45: 1419-86.
Reiter, L. (2010). Brady: The next step for law enforcement. Public Agency Training Counsel. Retrieved from
Rossman et al. (2012). Criminal justice interventions for offenders with mental illness: evaluation of mental health courts in Bronx and Brooklyn, New York. Retrieved from http://www.courtinnovation.org/sites/default/files/documents/Criminal_Justice_Interventions.pdf
Thomas, A. (2006). The CSI effect: Fact or fiction. Yale Law Journal Pocket Part. 31 January. Retrieved from