Civics 101: In For a Dime, In For a Dollar

In 1994, Cesar Sarausad drove a car slowly past Ballard High School while Brian Ronquillo fired into a group of students, then sped off. One of the bullets hit and killed Melissa Fernandes. According to court records the murder resulted from a dispute between rival gangs 23rd Street Diablos, Sarausad's, and the Bad Side Posse, based out of the school. A jury convicted Ronquillo and he is now serving a 52-year sentence for the murder.

Sarausad argued during his trial that he had no idea Ronquillo planned to actually shoot anyone, though according to records, Ronquillo actually readied a gun while they approached the school. The prosecutor argued that Sarausad knew Ronquillo planned violence and had every intention of helping him as far as Ronquillo took it, whether that was mere fisticuffs or deadly violence--"in for a dime, in for a dollar." On top of that, by slowing down to allow Ronquillo to fire the shots, then speeding away, Sarausad helped Ronquillo commit murder, the prosecutor argued.

A jury convicted him of second-degree murder, attempted second-degree murder and second-degree assault. A judge handed down a 27-year sentence. A passenger in the car was acquitted after a jury failed to make a decision on his involvement.

Eventually, an appeals court overturned Sarausad's conviction, but today, more than 14 years after the shooting, the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated it.

Sarausad repeatedly attempted to get the conviction overturned and in 2001, a federal district court

ruled that the jury was unclear on what burden of proof they needed to

have to find Sarausad guilty--was mere knowledge of an assault enough

or did he have to be aware that they were going to the school to kill

people? Essentially, the district court said "in for a dime, in for a

dollar" is not a valid reason to convict someone of murder. The

conviction overturned, the state appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court,

which today ruled 6-3 that the conviction stands.

In the

majority opinion, Justice Clarence Thomas, argues that even though the

prosecutor erred somewhat in her "dime for a dollar" explanation of

Washington state accomplice law, the jury received additional

clarification from the judge making it sufficiently clear that they

were convicting Sarausad based on whether or not he knew about the plan

to start shooting.

Justice David Souter (joined by Justices

John Paul Stevens and Ruth Bader Ginsberg) authored the dissent. He

aruges the jury was absolutely confused about the standard for

convicting someone of murder and may well have assumed that mere

knowledge of a fist-fight is enough under Washington state law to

convict someone of murder if that's where the situation ends up.

Read both opinions here. [PDF]

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