So here in Rochester we just completed one of the most high profile trials of the last year or so, involving the prosecution of a woman who now stands adjudged guilty by a jury of having ‘falsified business records’.
Ordinarily, of course, falsifying business records charges don’t generate a lot of copy, but this particular business record was a form filled out when buying guns that were later used to kill two firefighters and wound two others in a particularly depraved act on Christmas Eve 2012. The killer shot the first responders when they came to help, there having been a fire no doubt started intentionally by the killer himself. Who had just killed his sister.
He had been released from prison years before. He was in prison because he had killed his grandmother.
I’m not making any of this up.
The basis of the case against Dawn Nguyen is that she had stated on the business record that she was the purchaser of the guns, when in fact the guns were intended for the killer, named William Spengler. The puchase of the guns occurred, apparently, in June 2010.
That’s two and a half years before Spengler went on his perverse Christmas killing spree.
Let’s assume she’s guilty as charged on the business record thing, just like the jury said. What’s really animating the prosecution, what made it “high profile”, is not what Nguyen did; it’s what Spengler did. To drive the point home, Nguyen’s trial was very well attended by fire fighters from the relevant department and cops from the relevant village police department. Indeed after the guilty verdict the firefighters and police chief were breathlessly interviewed by local media for their opinions, which were uniformly that they had been extremely interested or involved in the prosecution of Nguyen, that they were ‘gratified’ by the verdict as far as it went, that they were upset that the 1-1/3 to 4 year maximum sentence was woefully insufficient punishment, and that they looked forward to a federal prosecution arising from the very same facts and circumstances that would entail as much as 30 years in prison.
And then they would set about the business of changing the state law to provide for more severe penalties for doing what Dawn Nguyen had done. One of the wounded firefighters commented that as far as he was concerned, Dawn Nguyen was a conspirator in the murder of his comrades.
Now. A few more observations.
Ms. Nguyen’s lawyer, Matt Parrinello, did a fine job and knows a lot more details than I do. It’s a very tough thing to do: stand up and defend someone when the most important possible constituency – law enforcement and their fellow travelers in the fire/EMT communities – is out for blood very publicly. Matt is my hero today. Let’s be clear about that.
Second, this was as clear cut a case as you could ever have of what might be called a substitute criminal prosecution. The guy everyone would really like to see hanged is dead, having killed himself. Good riddance, but it does leave law enforcement bereft of that particular remedy. Not to be left unsatisfied, they go looking for an alternate target, and lo they find one: a twenty something Vietnamese heritage (maybe an immigrant but I don’t have that information) woman. The fury they would like to unleash on the deceased miscreant they unleash on her instead. Its searing intensity is wildly, insanely disproportionate to the wrong alleged, but that’s one of those things you mention at your peril, from a community point of view.*
I don’t know how you could get a much more attenuated moral fault than filling out – or maybe just signing – a form some two and one-half years before a crime you had no involvement with took place. I mean, this is one of the problems here. Spengler’s sister must have known that he illegally possessed weapons. He lived with her, each and every day of that two and one-half years. She bears much more responsibility for what her brother did than Dawn Nguyen. But of course Spengler’s sister is dead, too – Spengler killed her.
Beyond Spengler’s sister, how many neighbors knew Spengler had those guns but never reported it? According to the village police chief, Spengler was a braggart about the neighborhood, in addition to all his other sterling qualities. That’s one of the reasons the police chief figures Dawn Nguyen must have known all about what a bad guy and felon he was.
Of course the problem with that is, lots of other people must have known, too. Figure out something they did or didn’t do that violates some law or other within, say, merely one year as opposed to two and a half, and maybe you’ve got yourself a better case than the one against Nguyen. File into the courtroom every day of their trial and glare at the jury until they convict, as by now almost any jury in the United States has been conditioned to do through decades of relentless law enforcement propaganda.
What’s to stop you from doing that, from roping in many, many other people to pay for Spengler’s crime? Why, nothing.
A third observation: Dawn Nguyen is an attractive female. The jury dynamics for attractive female criminal defendants are atrocious. There’s almost no way to win: other women hate her; men, of course, side with law enforcement.
Fourth: that attractive female defendant thing also seems to generate a fevered intensity all by itself, to say nothing of combining it with a homicide. Throw in the victims are law enforcement, or at least quasi law enforcement. Throw in that it was Christmas. Ugh.
Fifth: Will anyone – other than me and her lawyer, that is – venture to state the obvious, that at this point a federal prosecution is overkill? Will the local media give any air whatsoever to this, or is it a thought crime?
Sixth: Dungeons, racks, screws, stockades, the pillory. When someone is facing 30 years over lying on a form, these medieval tortures begin to look comparatively humane. Something is seriously wrong when that happens.
But we already knew that, didn’t we? Why do you think this blog and others like it even exist?
* Note, that is an obviously correct observation, and that makes it all the worse. There’s no answer for it, so it interferes with the desire to wallow in simmering hatreds and desires for revenge. Woe unto the cooler head pointing out such an obvious moral consideration in the midst of a collective frenzy.