The link was sent here by Mike Paar, who sends over a lot of links, mostly about cops or prosecutors behaving badly. This one was different, and the subject line reflected it: “Call them out when they do wrong, but praise them when they get it right.”
In Carson City, Nevada, District Attorney Jason Woodbury declined to prosecute a murder.
The Reno Gazette-Journal reports that 88-year-old William Dresser was arrested in January 2014 for killing 86-year-old Frances Dresser, his wife of 68 years.
She was at Carson Tahoe Hospital after a fall at home caused permanent paralysis.
Carson City District Attorney Jason Woodbury says Frances Dresser expressed a desire to no longer live and that her family requested William Dresser not be prosecuted.
It’s not that Woodbury couldn’t prosecute, but that he didn’t want to.
“I didn’t view there being any component of evil to his act of killing,” Woodbury said. “We can talk about judgment, and morally whether it was a right or wrong decision, but I didn’t view any aspect of it as evil. That’s truly the component you need to have in a murder case is an evil motive and we didn’t have that.”
There appears to be little doubt that this was true. William Dresser had no criminal history. Frances Dresser expressed her desire to end her life. At 88 years of age, suffering from advanced-stage prostate cancer, what purpose would be served by prosecuting a man whose wife was paralyzed and begged him to end her misery?
For many, William Dresser’s decision would be completely understandable, indeed laudable, and Woodbury’s exercise of discretion deserves praise. He is quick to note that this doesn’t reflect a determination that assisted suicide is acceptable, but only that, in this particular situation, prosecution was not warranted.
“We also wanted to be very cautious to not set a precedent that assisted suicide was tolerated in Carson City,” he said. “My role as a prosecutor is not to make the law or those type of policy decisions. It’s up to the Legislature to take that kind of act.”
This is where an act of praiseworthy discretion runs head first into a wall. By no means does this suggest that William Dresser should be prosecuted. It’s absurd at every level. But as with the exercise of discretion when a prosecutor finds a particular individual under specific circumstances lacks the degree of moral culpability, “evil” as he called it, that compels prosecution, that can flip back on us when he reaches the opposite conclusion.
What if the next guy is, in the district attorney’s estimation, especially evil?
The platitude is that we’re a nation of laws, not men. The significance is that the blunt weapon of government prosecution isn’t to be wielded according to the personal feelings of a prosecutor, to land softly when he feels like it, and hard when he feels like it as well. Or not land at all, as in this case. Because he feels like it.
Much as the facts and circumstances in William Dresser’s case are particularly compelling, that this isn’t the one where society demands a prosecution, where we cry for restitution, there is no question that William Dresser committed murder. Murder. It’s a big crime, pretty much as big as it gets. And here, it was, in essence, forgiven. William Dresser got the proverbial one free murder.
It’s almost impossible to imagine that Dresser will go for two. That’s not what this is about. If anything, his murder was an act of love and mercy toward his wife, potentially sacrificing whatever time he had left for her sake. Only the most heartless animal would want to see him punished.
But what if William Dresser was a cop? Would that give rise to some eye rolls, some cries of favoritism, demands for the equal application of the law to him as it would be to others?
What about the next William Dresser, whose wife was incapable of expressing her desire to put an end to her suffering, but whose husband knew what she wanted, understood her pain, and made the same sacrifice?
And what of the gangbanger who demands to know why his offing some rival gang member by putting a gun to his head is any different under the law than what William Dresser did here? He might argue that the other guy knew what he was getting into when he chose life in a gang, did something that virtually assured his demise under the rules of life on the street, and the shooter merely gave him what he asked for.
Why is a clear, provable murder to be forgiven in one case, where the prosecutor is sympathetic, but not in his case, because the prosecutor doesn’t “get” gang life and, even if he did, wouldn’t be inclined to forgive and forget? Why is one lifestyle fine with the prosecutor, but not another? Why is it up to the prosecutor’s discretion, and he got the losing lottery ticket?
The exercise of prosecutorial discretion to be more lenient, more understanding, is the sort of thing we should encourage and applaud. This was, at least by my sensibilities, a good decision, and one that demonstrates empathy and understanding on the part of the guy who wields the bludgeon. But then, that’s because I agree with his decision.
To exercise discretion toward leniency when the application of the law would be unduly harsh and serve no legitimate purpose is as it should be. It’s a relief valve for an imperfect system, because laws, no matter how carefully crafted, never seem to adequately cover every conceivable act that a person might do.
Yet, discretion isn’t a one way street, only heading toward leniency and never bringing the full weight of the bludgeon down on someone’s head when the prosecutor decides he’s particularly evil, especially deserving. And as much as we may credit Jason Woodbury for the wisdom to let this murder go, we should be wary of complacency about discretion, as it doesn’t always head in this direction.