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One of the glories and burdens of citizenship is serving on a criminal jury. It’s an awesome experience determining the fate of a fellow American; it’s the basis of our judicial system.

Last week, a Napa jury rendered a verdict in a case of misdemeanor vehicular manslaughter without gross negligence. The particulars of the case and the background of the defendant must have made the jury’s experience even tougher. At one point the foreman said, “It’s been an extremely difficult process for us.”

Almost two years ago, on a summer morning, Kimberly Klingman’s car was making a left turn from Deer Park Road. Richard Becker was coming down the hill on his bike. There was a collision and he died shortly thereafter. Then, more than three months later, the district attorney charged Klingman with manslaughter.

The DA’s office concluded that this was not just an accident; it was a crime for which Klingman should be held accountable. In the legal ladder of homicide, the specific charge here was on the lowest rung possible.

We know that the DA’s office moved carefully and slowly. It learned that Klingman is a nurse and was on her way to work at St. Helena Hospital. It would have learned that Becker was an experienced cyclist. And they learned that neither drugs nor alcohol were involved.

The overwhelming number of misdemeanor cases in California are settled with a plea agreement before trial. But Klingman was fully within her rights to protest her innocence and demand a trial before a jury of her peers.

I’ve served on criminal juries, both in Napa and previously back East. Not only is the defendant presumed innocent, there’s something about the atmosphere and culture of a jury room that favors the defendant. The prosecutors must really prove their case. Once I was on a drug trial jury. It was obvious to us jurors that the defendant was guilty. But the prosecutor was inept, and we had no choice but to acquit on the most serious charge. Simply put, the case wasn’t proven.

So we can conclude that this jury had to be solidly convinced that Klingman was guilty of a crime.

The case now moves to the penalty phase. We should remember that the prosecution wasn’t representing the victim’s family; it was representing all of us, the “people.” So not only do we have an interest in the sentence, we can voice an opinion on what the penalty should be.

Scott Snowden, the former presiding judge in Napa County, tells me that Klingman will not be additionally penalized for going to trial (as opposed to a plea agreement). Snowden says no local judge would ever treat harshly a defendant for exerting this constitutional right.

We should view this case with caution and modesty. As more than one St. Helenan said to me, it could have been any of us out there driving on Deer Park Road. A moment’s distraction, hesitation, or confusion, and then two families’ lives are torn apart.

There are multiple purposes for criminal justice, ranging from punishment and retribution to rehabilitation and restitution. We know that in California, punishment ranks first. Just look at our overcrowded prisons. But we also know that most sentences in the state involve some sort of probation.

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There is an emerging legal concept called restorative justice. It focuses on the needs of the victim (or his family) combined with the offender’s acceptance of responsibility. The Becker family, if they choose to do so, will be heard in the sentencing process. But restoration in this case is obviously not possible. It is likely that the family will receive financial compensation from Klingman, either through negotiation or a civil suit.

A longtime observer of the Napa courts says that since a death was involved, it is probable that there will be a jail sentence. And while every criminal case and every judge is different, last year when a motorist struck and killed a cyclist on Silverado Trail, that driver had to serve four months in county jail.

The maximum possible penalty for Klingman is a year in jail. Crucially important to the sentencing will be the probation report given to the judge in the next few weeks. This will provide deep background on her behavior and life to date.

What sentence then serves the public interest? What should happen when a good person does something bad? Perhaps the community could benefit from Klingman’s nursing skills. For several months, she could be assigned to work at Clinic Ole. This service could take place after an inevitable but perhaps brief stay in county jail. That would recognize the impossibility of restoration after that summer morning on Deer Park Road.

I would not have wanted to be on the Klingman jury, but I thank the jurors for their service to the participants in the trial and to the community.

Epstein is a columnist for the St. Helena Star.

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