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Ambrose Bierce, whose wit and prose would have made him one of my heroes if he hadn’t been such a doggedly morose s.o.b., had a great definition of imagination. I can’t find it anywhere, but it was something like, “Imagination is a warehouse of facts, with a poet and a liar in joint ownership.” The liar part came to mind today when I found myself reading a newspaper article which brought home to me just how woefully ill-equipped I would have been for a life of crime. Some of these people have absolutely astonishing imaginations. In fact, I sometimes think the thing that kept me from a life of crime was not moral fiber or economic opportunity or good role models or parental support or any of the things sociologists usually point to. It was lack of imagination. I pick up the paper some mornings and I just know I could never have thought up some of these crimes. For example: According to The Orange County Register, “A 39-year-old Salinas woman was cited last week after trying to slay her husband’s tomato plants with his .38 caliber revolver.” Honest. I don’t make these things up. And I don’t think The Registerdoes either, although they need to fill a lot more space than I do. Apparently, this lady was arguing with her husband “over the length of her hair.” (I’m betting he wanted it longer — most men want it longer; that’s a misdemeanor. Or he said he didn’t care — a lot of men don’t care, but that’s a felony, so they cop out to the misdemeanor of wanting it longer.) To prove to him that her hair was the right length she blew his tomato plants to smithereens. I find this convincing. I dare say he did, too. But it never would have occurred to me in a gazillion years. Which, as I understand it, just happens to be the statute of limitations on vegetable crime. Or take Christina Mack (you weren’t really expecting to see the word “please” here, were you?). According to the Peoria Journal Star(for the really big stories, I need to go to the newspaper of record for the entire central Illinois heartland. Or the Weekly World News), “She greased up her kitchen floor, intending to send her one-legged boyfriend tumbling to his demise. Instead, she fell and was knocked unconscious. When she came to, police charged her with attempted murder.” See, I never would have thought of that. I would have just bashed him over the head with a frozen turkey and taken my chances. Paucity of imagination. But the criminal mind approaches even the simplest task much more analytically than I do. The criminal mind is capable of using inventiveness to solve problems I would find insurmountable. For one thing, I wouldn’t have known what to use to get the floor good and slick. All the things I spill in the kitchen seem to make the floor sticky; I would have been completely at a loss for a way to make it slippery. Turns out the lubricant of choice is “a light household oil used for door hinges and other routine maintenance.” So apparently we’re talking 3-in-1 oil or that sort of thing. Canola oil and olive oil have just been done to death, and make-your-boyfriend-fall-to-his-death oil is the type of thing that a clever prosecutor can twist around in such a way as to make it sound pretty incriminating if it shows up on your delivery list. And you have to be careful where you put it. Certainly you have to be more careful than Christina was. She put it at the top of the stairs to the basement. The plan was that her 50-year-old boyfriend, Chester Parkman, who gets about on crutches, would slip at the top of the stairs and bounce down to the bottom like a slinky on coke. It was an almost-foolproof plan. Unfortunately, Christina is not an almost-fool, she’s a full-on fool. That’s why she ended up a few hours later, flat on her back, looking up the nostrils of the paramedics and trying to remember what planet she was on. Had she been able to stay out of her own oil slick, she probably could have pulled it off. A fall down the stairs could conceivably have killed Chester. And I’m sure, had he survived the fall, he never would have suspected foul play. He would, like most men, have just chalked it up to the arcane mysteries of kitchen life. Besides, by the time he gathered his crutches and climbed back up, Christina would have mopped up the oil. She would have been standing there shaking her head disapprovingly in that way members of the superior gender have of expressing contempt while denying any such feeling. “What? All I was doing was shaking my head! I was thinking how bad I felt that you got hurt, not what a hopeless, slew-footed clod you are! I can’t imagine how you could have slipped. Poor baby. Here, have a cup of oleander tea; it’ll make you feel better.” And they never could have pinned anything on Christina if she’d just kept her mouth shut. True, when the police found her unconscious on the linoleum, stretched out like yesterday’s yellowfin in a puddle of sewing machine oil, she’d have needed to talk fast, but I think she could have handled it. I’ve had a lot of experience with police. They come across a tableau as weird as this one had to be, they’d much rather just accept your explanation than take a chance of having to do all the paperwork an attempted murder case requires. I think she could have looked around frantically for a few seconds and then begun screaming, “My lawnmower! Where’s my lawnmower? I was sitting here oiling my lawnmower when I heard a noise behind me, and next thing I knew, Officer O’Malley was asking me how many fingers I saw.” I’m pretty sure they would happily have written it up as a burglary and lawnmower theft and gone on their way. But Christina violated The First Rule of Criminal Law: “Never cop out.” Also, The Second Rule of Criminal Law: “Especially, don’t blab to the neighbors.” According to the Journal Star, her neighbor, Juanita Esders, said, “They were in a fight, that’s all I know. She said she was going to grease up the floor so her boyfriend would fall.” Ouch. That’s pretty damaging testimony. I figure Christina’s toast unless she can show that Juanita and Chester had a thing going, and thereby undermine Juanita’s credibility. Or maybe she could plant a little 3-in-1 oil in Juanita’s apron. But this seems unlikely, since Chester wants her back. That’s right. The intended slippor (a word inexplicably left out of my spell-check program, but clearly more appropriate than “slipper”) now insists, “I honestly think she was trying to wax the floor,” which indicates to me he may previously have hit his head on the floor a few times. He says he’s distraught over the prospect of losing her. He says, “She probably will come back eventually, but it’s going to take some time.” Yeah, I suspect it will. Because I suspect time is what she’s gonna get. You’ll be happy to hear that the local prosecutor has backed off the attempted murder charge. The Journal Starsays Christina “was held Tuesday on $10,000 bond on charges of aggravated battery, attempted aggravated battery, and domestic battery.” I can understand the attempted aggravated battery charge: Had Chester been a good little victim and bounced down the stairway to heaven like he was supposed to, it would have been an aggravated battery — at least. (At least I assume it would. Incredible as it may seem to you, I know even less about Illinois law than I know about California law. I just figure by almost any definition of “aggravated battery,” sending someone down a flight of stairs qualifies. Sure as hell would aggravate me.) And it appears she’d taken enough steps toward the commission of that crime to go beyond mere preparation and constitute an attempt. Ergo, attempted aggravated battery. But I must admit I’m having trouble fathoming the theory behind the charge of completed battery. As near as I can determine, Christina was the only person hurt. So if battery charges are gonna be filed, the prosecution has to come up with an absolutely miraculous theory of transferred intent. The syllogism has to set up something like, “If I’d done this and hurt you, it would have been a battery on you. Instead I did it and hurt me. Therefore it must be a battery on me.” I had some classmates in college who would have understood such logic (we won a national championship in football that year). But in almost 30 years in the criminal law, I’ve never heard of someone being charged with battery — or any other crime — on herself. My understanding of the three sine qua nons of battery are (1) actus reus, (2) mens rea, and (3) haplus schmuckus. And I don’t think it counts if (2) is in the skull — however numb — of (3). But what do I know? Maybe Christina’s on her way to Joliet (I have no idea why, but I have it in my mind there’s a prison in Joliet, Ill., and I’m just way too busy to look it up. If there isn’t, I’m sure somebody will tell me.) for battery on herself and I have just spent 1,500 words demonstrating once again the abject poverty of my imagination. I’m lucky I’ve got a job where all the creative heavy lifting is done by the people at the counsel table. And their attorneys. William W. Bedsworth is an associate justice at the 4th District Court of Appeal in Santa Ana, Calif. He can be reached at [email protected].

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