In the evening following a jury’s verdict assessing the maximum prison sentence and maximum fine in State of Texas vs. Patrick Shawn Layton, I was informed that some fair questions and concerns had been raised on social media concerning the punishment for shooting and paralyzing Jamie Richards.
I then learned that a number of legal experts who studied at the Mark E. Zuckerberg School of Law had confidently provided analysis that concluded either 1) the jury got it wrong, or 2) the police and prosecutors sought a light sentence on the perpetrator but could have and should have sought life without parole for the offense.
I would like to contribute the actual law applicable to the case. In short, the police proved the maximum charge available under the law, the prosecution sought the maximum sentence available under the law, the jury assessed the maximum sentence available under the law, and the judge imposed the maximum sentence available under the law.
First of all, the offense of murder, which is a first degree felony carrying a range of punishment of five to 99 years or life in prison, requires a perpetrator to cause death.
Under the Texas Penal Code, the offense of Criminal Attempt applies to an act intended to commit another offense (such as Murder) which “tends but fails to effect the commission of the offense intended.” The Penal Code provides that a Criminal Attempt “is one category lower than the offense attempted.” For example, Attempted Murder is one category lower than Murder, making Attempted Murder a second degree offense carrying a range of punishment of two to twenty years in prison. Contrary to social media pronouncements, life without parole is not an available punishment for Attempted Murder. The maximum sentence for Attempted Murder is twenty years in prison and a $10,000 fine.
Aggravated Assault with a Deadly Weapon is also a second degree felony carrying a range of punishment of two to twenty years in prison. Conviction for this offense requires proof beyond a reasonable doubt that the perpetrator “intentionally, knowingly, or recklessly” caused bodily injury to another, and that he used or exhibited a deadly weapon (for example, a knife or firearm) in the commission of the assault.
An important aspect that goes into the charging decision relates to how long a person would actually serve in prison once convicted of crimes such as Attempted Murder and Aggravated Assault. The offense of Criminal Attempt is not automatically an “aggravated” offense; Aggravated Assault with a Deadly Weapon is inherently an “aggravated” offense. This is significant because that, upon conviction of an “aggravated” offense, it is automatic that a person must serve more of the sentence before he or she becomes eligible for parole. For non-aggravated offenses, such as basic Criminal Attempt, a convict can be eligible for parole when his good conduct time and calendar time, added together, equal one-quarter of the sentence. For aggravated offenses, such as Aggravated Assault with a Deadly Weapon, a convict must serve a minimum of one half of the calendar time of his sentence. This is a very significant difference.
I will also say this: Prosecutors and law enforcement work with the law as it is written. Separation of powers means we do not get to write the law we seek to enforce. However, it is not lost on us that when an assault permanently disfigures or causes perpetual hardship and pain, a second degree felony range of punishment is grossly inadequate.