The level of guilt associated with a crime can often differ according as to who makes that decision: the prosecutor, jury, or judge. The degree of guilt determines the criminal penalty the defendant can be sentenced with.
In the United States, crimes have a very narrow definition; therefore, a person charged with a crime knows exactly what they are being charged with, and which elements the prosecutor must prove for him to be found guilty. The defendant also knows what defenses he can use to prove his innocence. Furthermore, should the defendant be found guilty of a crime, any criminal penalty imposed on the defendant must be based on a strict set of standards.
Criminal liability is decided according to precedence; however, a different set of facts can often lead to a different definition of the crime, and thus to different penalties.
Commonwealth v. Woodward
In Commonwealth v. Woodward, an English au pair was convicted of murdering a toddler by shaking the child to death. There was little question in people’s minds that the child death’s was due to the criminal action of the defendant. However, opinions varied as to the exact nature of the crime: was it first degree murder or second degree murder? Or, could it have been manslaughter?
First Degree Murder
The prosecutor wanted the jury to find that the au pair was guilty of first degree murder. For the jury to do so, the prosecutor would have had to show that the nanny, (1) had “intent aforethought;” that is, she thought about shaking the child before she, (2) intentionally shook the child. The criminal penalty for a person found guilty of first-degree murder in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts is life imprisonment.
Second Degree Murder
The jury, on the other hand, found that the au pair did not act with “intent aforethought” when she shook the child to death, but only with “malicious disregard to human life,” and found her guilty of the lesser charge of second-degree murder.
However, on appeal, the judge held that the shaking of the toddler was not an act that was carried out, either with “intent aforethought,” or with “malicious disregard to human life;” but rather to have been but a “reckless act,” and thus the au pair could only be found guilty of manslaughter. The nanny was released from jail for time served and deported back to England.
How Can We Reconcile One Crime and Three Definitions of Guilt?
American law recognizes that there exist fine distinctions between crimes and carefully examines the particular circumstances surrounding each individual crime, so that the degree of guilt can be made to fit the crime that was committed. This approach makes room for leniency that would otherwise be absent in a criminal prosecution.
However, there has recently been a strong move to prevent prosecutors and judges to exercise their discretion in court---certain drug crimes impose "mandatory minimum" sentences that are based strictly on the facts of the crime, and which provide no provisions for “fitting the crime to the criminal.” Most judges are uncomfortable with these new types of laws, but are left with no choice but to comply.