Malice Aforethought

When Jakiem Wilson was brought before a magistrate early this morning, the unidentified judge made plain what punishment (s)he thought Wilson deserved.

Wilson reached the window at the Wake County Magistrate’s Office around 1:30 a.m., where a magistrate read the charge using the term “malice aforethought.”

“What’s malice aforethought?” Wilson asked slightly above a whisper.

“It means you intended to do it,” the magistrate replied. “That’s a needle in the arm.”

According to the North Carolina Magistrates Association, a magistrate’s “primary function in the judicial system of North Carolina is to provide an independent, unbiased review of charges and complaints by law enforcement officers or citizens.”

In addition to being entirely inappropriate, the magistrate’s reply was incorrect. While it is common for lay people to be confused about the law pertaining to capital murder, one would hope that lawyers and judges would have a clear understanding. One would hope.

There are three kinds of first-degree murder in North Carolina. Presumably Mr. Wilson has been charged with the first: a killing done with malice and a specific intent to kill, formed after premeditation and deliberation. First-degree murder is a Class A felony, meaning that it is punishable by either the death penalty or life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. I will leave for another time the discussion of how the jury goes about choosing between these two options, but for now I want to make one thing clear:

Under no circumstances, no matter how gruesome the crime, no matter how sympathetic the victim, no matter how vile the defendant, does a conviction of first-degree murder mean that a person will automatically be sentenced to death. In fact, life in prison without the possibility of parole is the presumed sentence for first-degree murder.

The magistrate was, or should have been, aware of this fact when (s)he spoke to Mr. Wilson. Mr. Wilson had likely not yet been appointed counsel, and the magistrate was propbably the first “neutral” legal figure he’d come across since his arrest. Mr. Wilson asked him/her for help, but instead he was told that both his guilt and his sentence were already decided. To intentionally engage in such hurtful deception is in itself a malicious act. (For legal purposes, malice is generally defined as “the intent, without justification or excuse, to commit a wrongful act.”)

This sort of comment would not be tolerated if it were made by a regular judge in open court, nor is it acceptable when made by a magistrate in black of night. That it came as no shock to anyone involved is a sad testament to our expectations of the criminal justice system.

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