Criminal Law

Summary: Sharing my thoughts on crim law final.

I took my final exam for my introductory criminal law class. This is a standard class for nearly all first year law students. I do not intend to take any more criminal law classes, nor to practice criminal law after I graduate. This class was one of the more complicated and confusing classes this year, but I am glad that I took it.

What I learned is that US criminal law is very complicated. It is a mishmash of laws from different eras, from judge-made laws from 1600s England to modern statutes that have been adopted different ways in different jurisdictions. There are the rules, then the exceptions to the rules, then the defenses, then the exceptions to the defenses (e.g. grading of homicide from murder to involuntary manslaughter, and the defense of duress, unless entered into negligently, which may or may not matter.) Some of the problem may be attributed to judicial ineptitude, some to jurisdictional inertia, and some to cross-purposes of the criminal law (is it to punish, to deter, to rehabilitate, or to incapacitate?)

But the real problem is that criminal law matters. It touches lives in a deep and fundamental way. A wife stabs her husband, who has regularly physically abused her the past 14 years. A male college student mistakes his female classmates “No” as token resistance and is charged with sexual assault. An 11-year old boy, growing up in a violent and unstable family, takes part in a gang-related shooting. These people, and those whom their actions affect, enter into the criminal law system, with its myriad contradictions and illogical mechanisms. For them, criminal law is not just some confusing doctrine that needs to be spun out into a workable answer on a 3 hour test. It marks a fundamental shift in their lives and their place in society.

I was listening to a radio show about a man who had an argument with his wife and killed her in a fit of rage. He was 40 years old. By the time he left prison, he was 70. He spent 30 years in prison. He spent more time in prison than I have been alive. It would be as if I had been born in prison and had spent all of my life there. The man himself said that he believed he deserved it, since in that brief moment, he had wanted to kill his wife. Yet reflecting on his sentence gives me pause.

I’m glad to be done with the class, so that I can move onto other things. Yet it was a reminder that behind the outlines, the cold calls, and the finals, there will be real people affected by the work that I and everyone at the school will do.

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