Sunday, September 21, 2008

Law and Order in the Ozarks (Part V): A plea bargain in a 2005 double homicide

The only story about crime (or, more broadly, law), on the front page of the Sept. 11, 2008 issue of the Newton County Times features the headline, "Ashworth sentenced to 32 years." It reports that William Ashworth, age 41, agreed to a plea bargain just before he was set to go to trial on two capital murder charges. He pleaded guilty to the lesser charge of manslaughter which, with other charges, means he will serve more than 3 decades in the state prison. He was accused of killing two other Newton County men in October, 2005, one aged 38 and the other aged 22, and then burning their bodies.

I remember when Ashworth was arrested for these murders last fall. That happened after a confidential informant told FBI agents about the deaths. The informant, whose identity has remained confidential, had helped Ashworth move the bodies following the killings.

There are a couple of rural angles in this story. One is the role that federal agents played in helping to investigate the murders, as well as forensic support they provided. It is difficult to imagine the small staff of the Newton County Sheriff's office handling such matters on their own.

The other goes more to the substantive law and how it is likely to be interpreted or applied in a rural context. The Newton County Times story explains that the prosecutor decided to offer this plea deal to Ashworth because he realized that his effort to convict Ashworth of two capital murders might not be successful before a local jury. His perceived weakness in his case is apparently linked to Ashworth's version of events, which implicates both the vulnerability and privacy associated with rural sparseness of population and with rural culture. Ashworth says that on the night of the killings, he heard car doors slam outside his remote residence, and he went outside to investigate, taking a 9 mm pistol and a shotgun with him. He says he hid behind some trees and heard men saying they were gong to get even with Ashworth by burning down his house. (What the men would have been "getting even" for is not specified). Ashworth says that when he confronted the approaching men, he saw that one of them was carrying a gas can. Ashworth reports that he shot only after one of the men raised a "long gun" in Ashworth's direction. After shooting that first man, Ashworth maintains, the other one picked up the "long gun and tried to shoot" Ashworth. Ashworth says he then shot and killed the second man.

In short, Ashworth's claim is one of self-defense. In the particular rural context, where prospective jurors are unlikely to judge Ashworth harshly for having guns and using them to defend himself and his property from those who might have been planning foul play, the prosecutor opted for the plea. Also coming into the equation here is the fact that, if Ashworth called for law enforcement assistance, it almost certainly could not have arrived in time to prevent the crime that the men were purportedly planning. So, jurors who believed Ashworth's version of events would likely have empathized with him.

So, local discretion comes into play in determining what charges are brought, and that discretion in turn relies on an assessment of local norms. In this case, those norms are heavily influenced by rural spatiality and rural culture. And that is an aspect of our criminal justice system that works well, whether or not one agrees with the prosecutor's plea bargain for this particular defendant.

NB: Here's a recent academic article on prosecutorial discretion; the empirical part of the study was done in New Orleans. Nevertheless, there is interesting food for thought here in relation to such discretion, including plea bargaining, nationally.

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