Saturday, January 14, 2006

Is a Rock a Destructive Device?

A 23 year old was given a life sentence this week for throwing a ten pound rock over an overpass here in Knoxville and killing a 69 year old woman:

Morgan was convicted under a seldom-used provision in Tennessee law that makes it first-degree murder if death results from the throwing or placement of a "destructive device" or bomb.

Defense attorney Russell T. Greene said he was disappointed by the verdict but was not completely surprised because jurors had asked questions during deliberations about the "device" charge.

He said he would appeal.

I find this statement from the defendant interesting:

"Morgan testified that what he did was stupid but he never intended to hurt anyone." didn't? I wonder what this guy can cook up when he does mean to hurt someone? What do you think--is a life sentence too long for this guy or not?


Anonymous Anonymous said...

He wasn't given a life sentence. It was 51 years before the possibility of parole. At 23, this will make him 74, but it's not a life sentence.

1:51 PM, January 14, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

1. He'll get off on appeal. The case will be remanded to the lower court with directions from the appeals court to reconsider. Sentence will be reduced to 30 minutes sitting on an uncomfortable bench, already served.

2. This is the worst kind of offender. He doesn't care whom he hurts - or kills.

3. In prison, he can't reproduce. Can he?

4. The guy is 23. He's old enough to know better and clearly doesn't. A ten pound rock traveling at relative highway speed is not a childish prank. It's a weapon.

5. I sleep better knowing people like this don't get a second chance - to kill someone else.

6. Let's not forget the victim (in this case a true victim) and her loved ones.

2:12 PM, January 14, 2006  
Blogger Gary Cruse said...

Aren't some of our bunker-buster bombs nothing but guided concrete, ie, rock? Are they destructive weapons? Here, hold muh beer, and watch this...

2:41 PM, January 14, 2006  
Blogger Loquitur Veritatem said...

The sentence is much too long. He should be executed.

3:31 PM, January 14, 2006  
Blogger reader_iam said...

You play, you pay. Intentions don't really count in this sort of case.

That said, the sentence seems excessive to me in light of what other sorts of murders have gotten. This does seem more like manslaughter to me, but then what do I know? I'm not saying, by the way, that I don't manslaughter sentence can be abused in the opposite way--that is, too short.

I have to very respectfully disagree with the characterization of this man as the "worst kind of offender." I can think of a bunch of categories off the top of my head that I'd put first.

3:58 PM, January 14, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Intent does matter, as I read it. My understanding is that first-degree murder depends on the conjuction of two concepts - guilty thought and guilty action.

Did he intend to kill someone by tossing that rock? Most likely not. He did act, however, in an irresponsible manner that lead directly to the death of another, necessitating no higher a manslaughter charge, I believe.

It seems to me that there has been an injustice committed here. The Prosecutors should never have brought a charge of first degree murder, especially under this provision of theirs. That being said, not knowing all the facts puts my opinion on shaky ground.

4:15 PM, January 14, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Crows should eat his liver.

4:32 PM, January 14, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

To answer the question substitute a modern equivalent such as "shot into a crowd" with the ancient technology of throwing a large rock. Clearly there is no reason to do this other than to harm someone randomly. It was not accidental. The direct purpose of the action was to cause harm. It was not in the heat of the moment of an argument. Yeah. He should burn.

6:03 PM, January 14, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I wonder if the folks who think manslaughter is the appropriate charge would favor manslaughter if he had fired a revolutionary war era 10 pounder at the van. Both the rock and the cannon seem to have a similar potential or ability to do leathal harm. Also, there have been a number of such rock dropping/throwing incidents over the past 10 years that I have a hard time believing that he was unaware of the potential for causing death. So, my thought is that it is much the same as killing somebody in the course of a felony which is generally treated as a very serious crime rather than a prank that would merit manslaughter.

6:11 PM, January 14, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Rocks don't kill people, people kill people with rocks.

Look, if this guy was stupid enough to toss a ten pound rock off an overpass he should be put away on principle.

There’s no difference between him unloading a gun into this woman and his tossing the rock from the overpass. It was a deadly weapon, and he used it to kill someone.

6:19 PM, January 14, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Does "life" mean "life" in Tennessee?

1:07 AM, January 15, 2006  
Blogger Helen said...

anonymous 1:07,

This defendant must have received a life sentence with the possibility of parole. A life sentence in Tennessee with the possibility of parole now requires that a minimum of 51 years be served before the prisoner can meet with the parole board.

7:35 AM, January 15, 2006  
Blogger jau said...

A person throwing a rock down a hill toward moving vehicles cannot possibly think the rock will slip quietly between cars and quietly roll away. If they did, why would they throw it in the first place? They clearly intend to wreak havoc; they also hope to escape identification. Thank goodness some of them are held accountable.

8:00 AM, January 15, 2006  
Blogger Frank from Delavan said...

Anyone remember the old song?

"I didn't know the gun was loaded
And I'm so sorry my friends
I didn't know the gun was loaded
and I'll never never do it again."

I'd say this guy has the morals of a snake, but we've got a couple of Pythons in our house, and I don't want to insult them. He perfectly demolishes the classic liberal idea, "oh if only we'd gotten to him sooner..."

8:25 AM, January 15, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

As someone who had a rock the size and shape of a large potato rip through my ragtop 4 inches from my head on a highway here in Baltimore, I confess to a great deal of satisfaction over the sentence. Too long? I don't know. I just know I find it satisfying. In my case I don't know that the police did anything, or could do anything, other than take the report.

1:09 PM, January 15, 2006  
Blogger pst314 said...

Such creative interpretation of "destructive device" should be a concern to anybody who values the rule of law. That said, I wonder if such improper interpretations of the law stem from a frustration with a legal system that frees criminals to prey again on the public. (Just as it is often argued that we would not need new laws if the existing ones were properly enforced.)

Legal questions aside, I have no sympathy for the killer. "Never intended to hurt anyone"? He's almost certainly lying and should be locked up because he is a vicious criminal. If he's telling the truth then he should be locked up because he's too stupid to be safely allowed to roam free.

1:45 PM, January 15, 2006  
Blogger Helen said...


I do think that part of the frustration for juries is that they do fear the legal system will let criminals back onto the streets. I think one reason that the Insanity defense fails so often is that juries trust the mental health establishment even less. They fear that criminals will be let go from hospitals early--research shows that prisoners are often kept somewhat longer in mental hospitals as opposed to prisons but neither time seems particularly long to me. Typically nine years on average for murder in a hospital if one is found insane at the time of the crime vs. seven years in a prison setting.

2:42 PM, January 15, 2006  
Blogger reader_iam said...

No different than shooting into a crowd with a "revolutionary war era 10 pounder," or for that matter, another kind of firearm.


I'm neither anti-gun, nor touchy-feely about criminal behavior in general, nor inclined to take an excuses-based approach to criminal justice for teens/young adults (or kids).

That said, if my son threw a rock in the yard in the direction of the dogs' kennel, I think that I'd view that a little differently than if he aimed a shotgun or even a BB gun. Even if the results were the same. Are you telling me that you wouldn't?

Doesn't mean he wouldn't be in danger of, metaphorically, "being taken out by the person who brought him in," so to speak, but it strikes me that there is, in fact, a difference in how most people would evaluate the difference--even those who aren't libs.

Vicious? A child-rapist/child killer is vicious. Tookie Williams was vicious, at least at one time. And so forth--supply your own examples. This is vicious? You can be tough on crime and make reasonable distinctions, after all.

As for too stupid to walk around, that's not a crime. And we couldn't build enough prisons to incarcerate everyone who someone else has designated as such, and there wouldn't be enough people left to staff them even if we could.

Now, if you want a black-and-white law that's also deeply harsh, we could go with sha'ria, for example.

Me, I'd prefer a system with more nuance than that.

2:52 PM, January 15, 2006  
Blogger pst314 said...

"part of the frustration for juries is that they do fear the legal system will let criminals back onto the streets."

Yes indeed. And in this case I suppose we are looking at frustrated prosecutors.

3:53 PM, January 15, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

If your son could throw a 10 pound rock at 65mph+, you'd better be more concerned. Only someone ignorant of the laws of physics could make that comparison.

4:57 PM, January 15, 2006  
Blogger Assistant Village Idiot said...

It does tend to feel bad when one moment of stupidity, even vicious stupidity, can ruin a young person's life. But all of life is like that. Drive drunk, you might be paralyzed; screw the wrong person, get AIDS; hunt while wearing camo, bleed to death, etc. Actions have consequences. In this instance, the action ruined the entirety of the driver's life. So what if the young man did not really think it through, and just planned to be a disruptive, bad dude?

6:50 PM, January 15, 2006  
Blogger Grim said...

Twenty-three is old enough to be a sergeant in Iraq, and commanding a team of men with far more deadly weapons than any stone. "Youth" is no excuse.

On the other hand, a rock isn't a "device," because it was never devised. It was there in just that form when the guy picked it up. Overzealous lawyers, who bend the law to their own ends, are probably a greater threat to our society than all the reckless youth put together. It ought to be a separate offense for prosecutors to overstretch in this fashion.

I remember a case in Forsyth County, Georgia, where a guy got into a fistfight with his neighbor while the two were at some local honky tonk. It was a fair fight: the two of them went outside like gentlemen, squared off man to man, and one punch got thrown. The fellow hit his neighbor in the jaw, his neighbor fell down, cracked his head on the curb, and died of the wound.

The DA charged our fellow with Felony Homicide, which is a capital crime. It requires that you commit your homicide while carrying out another felony. What was the felony? Aggravated assault.

But how could this be aggravated assault, when the guy only used his bare hand to deliver a single punch in a fair fight? Aggravated assault requires an aggravating factor. Well, the DA explained, our boy had used a deadly weapon -- as proven by the fact that his neighbor died. QED.

The DA was never required to prove that the fellow had used the curb as a weapon, however. Because he had a capital case, he was able to get a death-qualified jury, which type of jury is proven to be much more likely to return a conviction on any charge. She (the DA) then offered the man a chance to plea to Aggravated Assault, and take the maximum 20 year sentence, in order to avoid going to the chair. Seeing the writing on the wall, and being too poor to afford a lawyer better than the public defender, he pled.

I've always thought that was a total travesty of justice. He was guilty of simple assault, which is a misdemenor -- but he wasn't trying to kill, or even seriously hurt, his neighbor. The DA went completely overboard, and put him up for the death penalty. She should have been stripped of her office and prosecuted for abusing it.

Instead, she was elevated to a judgeship by the governor a year or so later.

7:51 PM, January 15, 2006  
Blogger Grim said...

Correction to the above: I see I remembered halfway through the story that the DA was a woman. The fact isn't terribly relevant to the story, which is about bad lawyering and not any sort of gender-related issue. Still, just for the sake of clarity, all references to the DA should be in the feminine.

7:54 PM, January 15, 2006  
Blogger reader_iam said...


That wasn't my point and I hope you know it. If you don't, comparing our relative knowledge of physics is a pointless exercise. But assume all you want, even in that area ... we'd likely agree that your assumptions aren't my purview.

8:55 PM, January 15, 2006  
Blogger reader_iam said...

TW Andres: Exactly!

9:02 PM, January 15, 2006  
Blogger reader_iam said...

Sorry: "Andrews".

9:02 PM, January 15, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Murder is unlawful killing with malice aforethought.

Malice aforethought exists where there is:
1. intent to kill; or
2. intent to inflict great bodily injury; or
3. reckless indifference to human life; or
4. intent to commit a felony.

Intentional use of a deadly weapon is an inference of intent to kill.

In contrast, voluntary manslaughter is a killing that occurs with sudden, intense provocation (heat of the moment).

There is no provocation here - the guy just decided to chuck a bowling-ball sized rock off an overpass.

This guy seems to meet at least the third definition of malice, and possibly all of them. Therefore a murder conviction is appropriate.

9:55 PM, January 15, 2006  
Blogger CCMCornell said...

Does this mean I gotta go in the backyard and register with BATFE all my rocks as 'destructive devices' under the NFA?

7:06 AM, January 16, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The sentance doesn't trouble me but the misapplication of law that was used to arrive at the sentance does.

A good law used badly to a good purpose is STILL bad.

and with that I need to lie down until my head stops spinning.

(who is worried the guy will get off scot free when the appellate court overturns the stupid 'device' charge)

4:08 PM, January 18, 2006  
Blogger CCMCornell said...

If someone's conviction was overturned/vacated because of a misapplication of law, is a new trial for the crime possible under a different law or legal argument or does double jeopardy come into play?

8:24 AM, January 19, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Whoa, not a lot of compassion shown by the commentors here. In my view, capital punishment (life sentence or execution) is usually reserved for those guilty of premeditated murder. Don't see any premeditation here. Sure he did something stupid and needs to pay for it but I think the punishment is a little extreme. Everybody has done at least one incredibly stupid thing in their lives and perhaps more by luck than design nothing really bad like the death of a person happened. The young man should not have to spend his entire life in prison for a momentary lapse in judgement.

2:59 PM, January 20, 2006  
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