Bully in a robe

Last June Michael Giacona got behind the wheel of his van after drinking and ended up in an accident that claimed the life of Aaron Pennywell. Mr. Giacona was charged with a misdemeanor DWI because investigators could not determine who was at fault for the accident.

As part of a plea, Mr. Giancona was sentenced to one year in the Harris County Jail. After 90 days, Judge Michael Fields ordered that Mr. Giancona be released from jail and placed on probation. The terms of that probation included standing at the intersection where the accident occurred on four consecutive Saturdays wearing a sign that said “I killed Aaron Pennywell while driving drunk.”

On the first Saturday of his public humiliation, Mr. Giacona was confronted by hostile passers-by and passing cars. It seems that Judge Fields’ idea of punishment was to expose Mr. Giacona to bodily injury. Sanity later prevailed in County Criminal Court at Law No. 14 and Judge Fields suspended the public humiliation.

As part of the terms of probation, Judge Fields also ordered Mr. Giacona to write a letter to Mr. Pennywell’s parents apologizing for killing their son. This past Wednesday, Mr. Giacona told Judge Fields that he would rather return to jail than apologize to Mr. Pennywell’s parents.

Now let’s remember that the Harris County District Attorney’s Office didn’t charge Mr. Giacona with intoxication manslaughter because they couldn’t prove that the accident was the result of Mr. Giancona driving while intoxicated. In other words, no one could determine – beyond a reasonable doubt – who was responsible for the accident. While his refusal to apologize does not make Mr. Giacona a sympathetic figure, following the judge’s order would result in an admission of fault for the accident. That admission of fault would (all but) guarantee a recovery in a civil suit for wrongful death.

But that’s nothing to ordering a man to humiliate himself and expose himself to injury. Judge Fields’ order that Mr. Giacona must stand at the intersection holding a sign announcing that he killed Mr. Pennywell does nothing to further justice. The purpose of punishment in our criminal (in)justice system is to rehabilitate, deter or punish. It is not to humiliate a person. The order to carry the sign was gratuitous. It was a way of telling a defendant that I can make you do whatever I want you to do – and you can’t do a damn thing about it. Judge Fields was angry that Mr. Giacona couldn’t get more than a year in the county jail. Oh well. A judge’s job is to act as an impartial arbiter at trial and, if requested, to order a punishment that is appropriate under the circumstances.

Whether the judge approves of the charge filed against the defendant is of no concern. Imposing a harsher punishment because you think someone should have been charged with a more serious crime is wrong. Ordering someone to humiliate themselves is the act of a bully.

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