One of the first things you come to grips with in criminal law is that bad things happen to good people, and as awful as that realization may be, there isn’t necessarily a crime involved. Sure, there are often people who will immediately react with “someone must pay,” but that rarely reflects a thoughtful understanding of the purposes of criminal prosecution. Is the conduct so reprehensible that it’s criminal? It’s not the outcome, but the conduct, that justifies prosecution. Or at least it shouldn’t be.
Last month, a grand jury in Clayton County indicted LaRosa Maria Walker-Asekere, the head basketball coach at Elite Scholars Academy in Jonesboro, Ga., and Dwight Broom Palmer, the assistant basketball coach, on charges of second-degree murder, cruelty to children, involuntary manslaughter and reckless conduct. The charges were announced this week.
Asked why she called on the grand jury to indict the coaches for murder, Tasha Mosley, the Clayton County district attorney said, “The murder charge is second degree and is based on criminal negligence as opposed to malice.”
It was everyone’s first day of basketball practice, and it was a scorcher. But the coaches had the students run outside.
“Miss Bell attempted to run with the girls for the last lap but was unable and did a fast paced walk,” the report read. “One of the coaches noticed Miss Bell was tired, so he started walking the last lap with her and encouraged her.”
The coach accompanied her, encouraged her, and might have physically helped her up the stairs, authorities said.
“As Miss Bell neared the top … [she] leaned into the rail and then went limp,” the report said.
Imani Bell died of heat exhaustion. It was a needless, tragic death. But was it second degree murder?
A person commits the offense of murder in the second degree when, in the commission of cruelty to children in the second degree, he or she causes the death of another human being irrespective of malice.
In other words, if death results from the commission of cruelty to children in the second degree, it’s a second degree murder even though it falls short of Georgia’s malice element.
Any person commits the offense of cruelty to children in the second degree when such person with criminal negligence causes a child under the age of 18 cruel or excessive physical or mental pain.
But what’s “criminal negligence“?
Criminal negligence is an act or failure to act which demonstrates a willful, wanton, or reckless disregard for the safety of others who might reasonably be expected to be injured thereby.
Was the coaches’ conduct “willful, wanton or reckless”? There’s a strong argument to be made that they were negligent in having Bell run steps in such heat, especially on the first day of practice. But the legal remedy for that is a civil suit, which the family has brought. But was this reckless, “consciously disregarding a substantial and unjustifiable risk that his act or omission will cause harm or endanger the safety of the other person and the disregard constitutes a gross deviation from the standard of care which a reasonable person would exercise in the situation”?
“This is very big,” said Justin Miller, a lawyer representing the family in a related lawsuit. According to Mr. Miller, who is also Imani’s cousin, the murder charges are the first ever brought against coaches accused of negligence.
It is “very big,” but is it right? The coaches walked with Bell, encouraged her, gave her water, not because they harbored an “an abandoned and malignant heart,” but because they were trying to be good and decent coaches. They just did it wrong and made a tragic mistake. These were not bad people, evil people for whom punishment was demanded, but two coaches who failed to sufficiently take into the outside possibility that harm would come to Bell.
But is the murder charge “serious,” or just a manipulation tool to get the coaches to plead out to lesser offenses?
Jessica Gabel Cino, a law professor at Georgia State University, suggested that the murder charges might be intended to encourage a plea deal. “A murder charge strapped on to a child endangerment/abuse charge isn’t obviously inappropriate,” she wrote in an email. “But I do question whether the prosecution can prove it beyond a reasonable doubt.”
While the top charge of Murder 2 is obviously the most serious and carries the most harsh punishment, the same concerns apply to the lesser charges, still very much criminal. If the use of criminal prosecution cannot be justified for well-intended but negligent conduct by these coaches, the use of such an excessive charge as Murder 2 to compel them to cop a plea to a lesser is even less justifiable.
It’s understandable that the family feels that criminal prosecution is worthy here. They lost a child and they are devastated. What family wouldn’t want someone held accountable, even if it won’t bring a beloved child back?
Eric Bell, Imani’s father, called the charges a “bittersweet” development. “It doesn’t get any easier,” he said of his daughter’s death.
But the use of criminal laws to punish poor decisions, mistakes, because the outcome was particularly tragic is excessive and unjustified.
“Common sense not being common can literally kill your child,” Mr. Miller said at the news conference on Wednesday. “You have coaches that want to win more than take care of these children.”
Many things can “literally kill your child.” That is certainly tragic, but doesn’t make them criminal.