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Poor examples of law and man

Daniel Cucher

By Daniel Cucher
Arizona Daily Wildcat
Monday Feb. 4, 2002

Let's say, for a moment, that I beat you to death. I slam through the doorway, shove a woman out of my path, and accost you with thick red veins bulging from my forehead. You anticipate my attack and throw a punch, but I outweigh you by a hundred pounds of flesh and boiling adrenaline. Unscathed, I grip your shoulders and effortlessly fling you down to the concrete, then slam my heavy knees upon your chest and begin pummeling you with my fists. You squirm under me - at first fighting back and then only trying to block my punches.

Bloody and defeated, you lay under me, a motionless mass. But I'm on fire. I take your head and slam it repeatedly against the ground. In the background, people are yelling at me to stop: "You're going to kill him!" But I'll never stop. I continue my assault on your flaccid body until someone grabs me from behind and pulls me off you. I catch my breath, then storm out, as children, including your own, circle around you in horror.

We are at ice hockey practice and our children are on the same team.

This scene is not hypothetical. Eyewitnesses say Thomas Junta killed Michael Costin, a single father of four, in this manner on July 5, 2000 following their children's ice hockey scrimmage in Reading, Mass. Junta began the altercation by cursing at Costin for not refereeing on-ice roughness.

On Jan. 25, Junta, a 44-year-old father of two, was convicted of involuntary manslaughter and sentenced to... how many years? What length of time should Junta spend behind bars for killing a man in a violent rage?

First, let's look at the mitigating factors. Junta did not wake up that day intending to kill anyone, nor does the evidence suggest he approached Costin with intent to kill. Costin verbally provoked Junta and probably threw the first punch. The two men mutually engaged in combat, and one suffered the most extreme consequences. We cannot know what was going through Junta's mind - he may have meant only to injure, although his tremendous use of force caused a major artery in Costin's neck to rupture. In court, Junta shed tears and expressed remorse over his actions.

Now, a damning bit of background. Junta has a lengthy criminal record. Once, he was cited in a domestic violence complaint for beating his wife, worse yet, in front of his children. The details are even more condemning, but never mind more graphic description. One doesn't need a magnifying glass to see Junta's violent, lawless disposition.

How would you punish this man?

Junta's lawyers were shooting for no jail time, while the Costin family sought a 20-year sentence. Ultimately, Judge Charles Grabau sentenced to Junta six-10 years in prison. It seems to me like they split the difference. This is not justice - it is courtroom negotiation.

Twenty years is the maximum prison term for the conviction, and Junta should serve every second of it. He's lucky the prosecution didn't push for voluntary manslaughter, which carries an even heavier sentence. An involuntary manslaughter conviction assumes that, at the time of the beating, Junta had no murderous intentions. So what were his intentions? What was going on in his head at the time of the beating? We'll never know. All we can do is analyze his actions.

At the very least, Junta intended to severely injure Michael Costin. When he continuously slammed his victim's head against the floor after decisively overpowering him, Junta at least intended to injure him. But at what point does intent to brutalize become a resolution to kill?

If I push you off a cliff, did I intend only to make you fly? What if I sever your tongue? Is my intent just to moisten a stamp? And if I tear out your heart, is it only my intent to see what lies beneath? Maybe. But in all of these cases, I must be held responsible for the highly probable outcome of my actions. When Junta hysterically thrashed his victim, he took upon himself the likely risk of committing homicide.

Junta slaughtered a man and should have been tried for doing so voluntarily. That he was convicted of killing by accident is a travesty, and Judge Grabau exacerbated the court's failure by not delivering a maximum sentence for an insufficient conviction.

The judge rationalized it best himself: "My sentence is not meant to be a message to anyone in the outside world." But in his self-conscious attempt to portray the legal system as something unaffected by national coverage, Grabau accomplished exactly the opposite.

The message he conveys is that the American legal system is less of a means to justice than to compromised, gutless resolutions.


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