Legal dawdling was on the list of oppressions that Hamlet complained of in his soliloquy. Lucky it was Denmark and not Southern California, lest the melancholy Dane might have overcome his reservations about an afterlife and off’ed himself well before the final curtain.
Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas is keeping a nation on tenterhooks about his decision in the Alejandro Avila murder case, Avila the man accused of kidnapping, violating and murdering 5-year-old Samantha Runnion. It’ll be about two weeks, Rackauckas says, before he decides whether he will seek the death penalty in the case. Incredulous television interviewers often ask the D. A. if he has had capital cases before, supposing they may have a death penalty opponent on their hands. No, not the case. Rackauckas says he has prosecuted several capital cases and successfully. Of course, none has been executed yet, but await their destiny on California death row.
If that’s not it, what is it? What occasions the delay in deciding to seek what even Avila’s mother has said is the just desert for a man who would do a thing such as that done to Samantha? Well, there is this committee, explains the D. A., and he would like to meet with it and to interview Samantha’s family and… Wait. This is not a medieval time in which families are consulted about penalties. The crime is against the state, the people, their sense of acceptable conduct. Bothering Samantha’s family is not or at least should not be a part of the process. What if they had some particular compunction about the ultimate penalty? What if …? The imponderables are legion.
True, in assessing penalties after guilt has been established, there has arisen an atavistic procedure in which relatives of the deceased are allowed to vent and pals of the defendant are allowed to offer affirmative testimony. All of it a bad idea, considering that the criminal offense is against the state, the public order, and not the survivors of victims. The lone murder victim with no mourners to weep before the bar is no less regarded in law.
Rackauckas’s reluctance is dangerously reminiscent of another southern California case: the knife-murders of Mrs. O. J. Simpson and Ronald Goldman, the fellow on her doorstep. The then-D. A. Gil Garcetti made an early move that pre-ordained disaster for the prosecution. He actually met privately with local “civil rights leaders” and gave them his promise that he would not seek the death penalty for O.J. Simpson. It was downhill from there. Garcetti and company flailed away in that sand trap for nine months and lost the case. The long hesitation of Rackauckas in deciding what penalty to seek for an alleged child molester-killer can only lead to doubt as to the validity of evidence, doubt that can be revivified in a juror’s mind come trial time.
So we have the odd couple, seen together time and again. The Orange County Sheriff proclaiming the evidence is irrefutable, making him 100 percent sure he has the right man in Avila. D. A. Rackauckas not disputing this, but insisting on a committee meeting to determine what course to take.
Mother Avila recalls watching the story on television with her yet to be arrested son and remarking that whoever did that should be “burned.” She, with Hamlet, understood that part about “the oppressor’s wrong… the law’s delay.”