For every odd sentence, there are hundreds of real ones that are rendered and are not reported in the press. It's also true that the public can have a warped sense of justice from a misunderstanding of sentencing in some cases, and a disproportionate reporting of unique sentences.

In the venerable home of the common law, head-scratching statements of the law can come from judges wearing white wigs. In the House of Lords, Justice Harry Woolf ("Lord Woolf"), held in 2002 that home burglars should not get prison terms!

Out of Jail Free card"The initial approach of the courts should be to impose a community sentence.1

And now, some truly Unbelievable Sentences...

New Car Smell

In July of 2010, Martin Erzinger, 52, a manager at Stanley Smith Barney, was driving his Mercedes when he hit a cyclist from behind. The cyclist flew forty feet over Erzinger's car.

Elzinger sped away while the cyclist, a medical doctor, lay on the side of the road. According to the Denver News:

"When an Avon police officer tracked down Erzinger behind the Pizza Hut a few miles away, he was putting a damaged bumper in the trunk of his Mercedes and had placed a broken side mirror in the car."

At trial, Erzinger's defence team alleged that Erzinger was sleep-deprived - a condition neatly packaged by his defence team's medical expert as sleep apnea - and that he was intoxicated by the new car smell of his 2010 Mercedes Benz.

All that is just lawyering until Eagle County District Judge Frederick Gannett enters the scene. He bought it and gave Erzinger no jail time. All the offender has to do is 45 days of community service.

David Gabriel "Gabe" Watson The Honeymoon Killer

Watson weddingThe offender and the victim were both American but it was within Australian waters (Yongala shipwreck near Townsville, North Queensland) that David Gabriel "Gabe" Watson and his wife Christina "Tina" Watson dove into on October 22, 2003. They had been married for 11 days and this was their honeymoon (wedding picture shown).

Only Gabe Watson resurfaced.

Tragic accident or perfect crime?

At first accepting of the tragedy as it was told to them by their son-in-law, Christina's parents began unravelling the story and it did not add up. Finally, the Australian government convened an inquest in 2007. The coroner of Townsville noted "many inconsistencies" in Gabe Watson's statements and concluded:

"David Gabriel Watson, I formally charge you that on the 22nd day of October 2003 at the site of the historical shipwreck Yongala, forty-eight nautical miles south east from the port of Townsville in the state of Queensland, David Gabriel Watson murdered Christina Mae Watson."

Dubbed the Honeymoon Killer, Gabe Watson quickly hopped on a plane to the United States. He eventually returned "voluntarily" in June of 2009 to face trial; a smart move as Alabama has the death penalty; Australia does not.

On June 5, 2009, after admitting that allowed his wife to drown, he plead guilty in a terrific plea bargain to a remote offence, criminal negligence but which still gave Justice Peter Lyons of  Supreme Court at Brisbane the option of a life in prison sentence. The prosecutor asked for 6-years. Even Watson's own lawyer, according to a story on ABC News, was suggesting a 4-year jail term with parole after 16 months, to be served at Borallon Correctional Centre at Ipswich near Brisbane.

But but Lyons gave Watson a 12-month jail term: four and a half years, suspending all but 12 months.

The parents of Tina Watson were understandably furious as were Queensland Premier, Anna Bligh and Queensland's Attorney-General, Cameron Dick. The sentence was promptly appealed but all the appellate court added was a further 6 months, with one of the Court of Appeal judges remarking:

"Minds may well differ as to whether the suspension of the four and a half year sentence after 12 months was overly generous."

The State of Alabama launched its own case against Watson. A grand jury charged him with one count of capital murder in the course of kidnapping and one count of capital murder for pecuniary gain. As soon as Gabe Watson was released in early November, 2010, he was sent to an immigration detention centre and handed over to American authorities on the condition that he not face the death penalty if convicted in Alabama, where he was acquitted in February 2012 of a lack of eligible evidence.

Scott Free Barker

Cory Barker was drunk and driving around Nanaimo, British Columbia (Canada) with a 15-year old girl, Ashley Aeibig.

Barker crashed his car at 10:30 p.m. on July 10, 2007, killing Aeibig. He had been drinking alcohol; his blood alcohol level was twice the legal limit.

This is where good lawyering takes over (Martin Screech). First, Barker plead guilty to impaired driving causing death. Then, Judge Eldon Iverson of the Provincial Court of British Columbia was made privy to Barker's use of marijuana “to cope with schizophrenia and depression”.

According to a story in the Nanaimo Daily News, Screech told the judge, Mr. Barker:

"...is awaiting word from Health Canada to see if he can become a licensed medical marijuana user."

On August 18, 2010, Judge Iverson made his way into Unbelievable Sentences when Barker was given a 2-year house arrest sentence and a 5-year driving prohibition.

No jail time!

Though the life of Ms Aeibig was taken away by Cory Barker's abuse of alcohol, the 25-year old received no jail time. It must of been a masterpiece pre-sentence report because, Judge Iverson, apparently a master of understatement, remarked that the case was "somewhat exceptional”.

Lost to the wind of that August 2010 day in Nanaimo were the words of Ms Aebig's mourning family:

"He hasn't spent a day in jail since this happened. I can't believe our legal system. It's all wrong. They talk about how bad impaired driving is but he gets house arrest for killing my granddaughter."

Death ... Twice.

Travis Lee GibsonNo-one argued that Travis Lee Gibson was an evil-doer. All doubts were erased when, on March 12, 2000, in Eugene, Oregon, he shot Joshua Copp and his roommate Steve Johnson, Joshua dying in the result and Johnson seriously wounded.

Gibson was charged with two counts of aggravated murder and the jury returned guilty findings on both counts. The judge convicted him to be put to death ... twice!

Gibson appealed pointing to the fact of a single victim: how could he be sentenced to death twice?

Justice Balmer in writing this unbelievable sentence:

"We agree that the trial court erred when it imposed two convictions and two sentences of death for Copp's murder, and that that error is apparent on the face of the record. We remand the case for entry of a corrected judgment of conviction reflecting defendant's guilt on the charges of aggravated murder. The judgment should merge the two convictions for aggravated murder into a single conviction and should enumerate separately the aggravating factors on which the conviction was based. The court then should impose a single sentence of death."

As of December 9, 2010, Travis Lee Gibson sits in Oregon's death row at the Oregon State Penitentiary near Salem awaiting his single appointment with the death penalty.

But It's OK in Saudi Arabia?!

Aset Magomadova, a Muslim woman from Chechnya, but living in Calgary in 2007, did not like that her 14-year old daughter, Aminat, refused to listen to parental direction.

So on August 26, 2007, she confronted her daughter and when things got out of hand, the parent put a scarf around her daughter's neck and pulled hard.

For five minutes, while her daughter, slumping in her mother's arms, breathed her last.

Her daughter died. It looked like a callous, horrendous murder of a child.

The Calgary judge who heard the case, Sal LoVecchio, was asked by the prosecutor for a 12-year jail sentence.

LoVecchio gave Magomadova a suspended sentence and 3 years probation!

LoVecchio, to the courtroom on sentencing:

“At first blush (this sentence) may sound like a get out of jail free card. It is not.”

Again, whoever wrote the pre-sentence report deserves some merit. Consider that the woman who killed her own daughter with her bare hands in Calgary, Canada, was ordered by LoVecchio to get treatment for anger management!

She never did and, now, never will spend a day in jail for this act.

50 Years For 4 Videotapes

Ironwood PrisonLeandro Andrade got caught up with the wrong crime in the wrong place. In 1995, he stole five videotapes worth $84.70 from a Kmart store in Ontario, California. He had a long wrap sheet but California had an answer for that: a three strikes law, where any felony can constitute the third strike, and thus can subject a defendant to a term of 25 years to life in prison.

State prosecutors charged him with felony petty theft and Andrade's lawyers desperately fought to have the charges reduced to misdemeanors but that application was denied. Leandro Andrade was convicted and sentenced to two consecutive terms of 25 years to life in prison.

The sentence was appealed but dismissed, again and again until iot fell before the United States Supreme Court where it was heard on November 5, 2002. There, Andrade's lawyers played the gross disproportionality principle card but to deaf ears. Justice O'Connor wrote the decision of the 5-4 majority Court in blessing the 50 year sentence, saying that the California judgment was not an extraordinary case nor "an unreasonable application of ... clearly established law". The four dissenting judges noted that Andrade would get out of prison at 87 and:

"... will have no real life left, if he survives to be released at all.... If Andrade's sentence is not grossly disproportionate, the principle has no meaning."

Andrade is now 52 and housed at the  Ironwood State Prison in Blythe (pictured).

Other "victims" of the three strikes law:

  • Santos Reyes lied on his driver's license application and was charged and convicted with a felony. He had two prior convictions: a burglary charge and a robbery charge. He was sentenced to 25 years.
  • Nathan Thomas received a 25-year-to-life sentence for stealing three packs of undershirts from a Northridge, JC Penney store in 1997.

Nothing for Melle

88-year old Melle Grietinus Pool lost his drivers license in 2001 because of vision problems. That didn't stop him from driving and risking thousands of lives until February 25, 2008, when he drove right into traffic-flagger Terry Mitchell, who died at the site.

La-la-land-law struck New Westminster law courts when, on March 3, 2011, Pool was convicted of dangerous driving causing death and given a sentence of ... next to nothing! In fact, he got a 1-year probation order, a suspended sentence, 15-hours of community service and a 10-year driving ban!

The judge; B.C. Supreme Court Justice Catherine J. Bruce. Unfortunately, as it might explain, if not justify the sentence, the press rarely report on the content of the pre-sentence report but understandably, Mr. Terry's widow was shocked by the sentence.

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References:

  • Alabama Attorney General Press Release, A.G. King Will Pursue Capital Murder Indictment Against Gabe Watson, Sept. 19, 2009
  • CBC News, "Calgary mom who killed daughter gets probation", July 15, 2010
  • Cordery, Walter, Family of B.C. Teen Enraged as Drunk Driver Avoids Jail", Nanaimo Daily News, August 19, 2010
  • Duhaime, Lloyd, Legal Definition of Probation
  • Duhaime, Lloyd, Legal Definition of Conditional Sentence
  • Gathright, Alan, No Jail For Hit-And-Run Driver Who Plowed Into Cyclist, 7News, Denver, Colorado, Dec. 16, 2010 re Martin Erzinger.
  • Ham, Paul, "Tina Watson: the bride who drowned at the Barrier Reef", the Sunday Times (London), September 28, 2008
  • Lockyer v. Andrade, 538 US 63 (2003)
  • McInerney & Anor v R, [2002] EWCA Crim 3003 [NOTE 1]
  • Office of the Townsville Coroner, Inquest into the death of Christina Mae Watson known as Tina Watson, April 24, 2008.
  • R v Watson, [2009] QCA 279
  • State v Gibson, 113 P. 3d 423 (Supreme Court of Oregon, 2004)
  • Times-Colonist Newspaper, “No Jail Time For Drunk-Driving Death of 15-Year Old”, August 20, 2010, page A8