Last week, Palm Beach State Attorney Micheal McAuliffe made headlines after announcing in a flashy news conference that he was charging a pill clinic doctor and owner with second-degree murder. Such a charge in this type of case is unprecedented.
Although it's an excellent way to highlight an epidemic that's killing thousands of people, some are not big on this strategy.
"I think it's overreaching," says Nova Southeastern University law professor Robert Jarvis. "The facts have to fit the charges."
The murder charges stem from the 2009 overdose of a 24-year-old patient of the defendants' clinic.
When most people think of murder (we hope not too often), it usually goes along the lines of someone pulling out a gun and intentionally shooting someone. In prosecuting someone for hawking a product that may result in death (or zombie-ism, as is often the case), it may be tough to show the pill slingers' intent to make someone die. "Why would you set up a business where the goal is to kill your customers?" Jarvis says.
He says lesser charges would make more sense if the state really wants a conviction, but there may be another reason the prosecution is going this route. Sure, charging someone with the biggest and baddest crime around obviously might be a plea negotiation strategy. "Prosecutors do it all the time," he says. On the other hand, even if they don't land a murder conviction, at least there's going to be more public awareness of the problem, right?
"We live in a society where we are suffering from information overload," Jarvis says. "To cut through the clutter, you have to engage in hyperbole."
However, there may be a much ickier reason they're risking it. "There is always a political calculation that factors into it," Jarvis says. "Remember that prosecutors are elected officials. Sometimes the public is the one that is demanding 'murder.'" Let's call it the Nancy Grace effect. According to the Palm Beach County Supervisor of Elections website, McAuliffe is running for reelection in 2012.
Jarvis says he's not a big fan of state attorney being an elective post to begin with. Still, even if there's no murder conviction in this particular case, it's not like there's a shortage of dicey prescription drug purveyors to bust in South Florida. Though there is an off chance it might actually work and change our criminal justice system as we know it. After all, we do have a precedent-based system. Maybe this'll be another. Who knows?
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