2008-11-20 / Editorials

Crime and punishment

According to the rule of law, if you commit a crime you must do the time. But making the punishment fit the crime becomes problematic.

Let's say you're with someone during the commission of a crime and that person happens to kill another person. You're both guilty of something, but should you get the same sentence as the killer?

It's tempting to deny mercy for those who commit serious crimes. After all, who cares about the rights of victims?

On May 22, 1995, Judie and Jim Farris of Agoura Hills lost their 16-year-old son to a murderer's knife. Jimmy Farris was killed in a backyard brawl during a teenage marijuana deal that had gone bad.

Brandon Hein, 18, took part in the fight, and so did Tony Miliotti, 17, and Jason Holland, 18. Others were also involved, but only Holland admitted to stabbing young Farris with the knife.

Under the California felony murder rule, all three teens were held liable for the boy's death because the murder was said to have occurred during the commission of a robbery. Holland, Miliotti and Hein were each given life without parole. A court of appeals later reduced Miliotti's sentence to second-degree murder, meaning he'll someday be released, but Hein continues to face the rest of his life in prison for a murder he didn't commit. He's now 31.

Oak Park resident Gene Hein has spent the past 13 years trying to gain a more humane sentence for his son. Tuesday, Hein spoke during at California Lutheran University screening of "Reckless Indifference," a movie documentary that recounted the tragic events of 1995. He said his son's only crime was drinking, smoking pot and getting involved in a teenage brawl. One of the other boys pulled a knife, and now Hein must spend the rest of his life in prison. How would you feel if that were your son?

In a related story today on page 1, a 19-year-old man is being charged with watching his female friend die from an apparent drug overdose and then abandoning her body in a ditch. His sentence could be 15 years to life and, if convicted, he'll likely someday go free. But Brandon Hein gets life without parole for taking part in fisticuffs? Is that fair?

Life isn't fair, but because life cannot be returned to Jimmy Farris, that doesn't mean it should be taken away from Brandon Hein. An attempt to gain revenge for the victim has turned into cruel and unusual punishment for the accused, and that should never be allowed to happen.

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