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How is Bail Set in a Criminal Case? Bail for Suspect in Justin-Jinich Murder Raised to $15 Million

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By Javier Lavagnino, Esq. on May 08, 2009 4:30 PM

Stephen Morgan, the 29-year-old man accused in the fatal shooting of Wesleyan University student Johanna Justin-Jinich had his bail raised by a judge to a whopping $15 million. Considering bail had previously been set at "only" $10 million, some people might be wondering just how a judge makes these kinds of decisions about bail and if there are any guidelines or limits in general.

The Eighth Amendment of the Constitution protects individuals from "excessive bail", but in practice that means different things for different people, as well as for different offenses. Bail is intended to allow people to live their lives relatively freely until they are found guilty in a court of law. After all, if you were accused of a crime you didn't commit you'd want to go to work and try to live your life as best you could until you were found not guilty, right?

Anyway, because our justice system presumes that everyone is innocent until provent guilty, bail isn't supposed to be used for government fund raising or to punish individuals accused of crimes. Instead, bail is supposed to be an amount not higher than an amount "reasonably calculated" to have a defendant show up for their trial.

So...how can $15 million bucks not be "excessive" (unless we're talking a Bernie Madoff-like figure), and wouldn't $10 million do the same job? Well, that's where the practical realities of criminal law and constitutional ideals collide. With minor, common crimes it's usually no problem to pay a set amount, sometimes before bail is even determined by a judge, and get out on bail. However, when serious crimes are involved, there's not going to be a pre-set amount of bail that fits each crime, and judges sometimes have no problem setting bail at impossibly high amounts or in some cases denying bail (which is referred to as preventive detention). This has been permitted by courts under the justifications of individual and public safety.

So, going back to the Justin-Jinich case, it's certainly no surprise that Stephen Morgan's bail was set so high considering both the severity of the crime, plus the significant public safety threat he was thought to be in the days leading up to his arrest. After all, the entire Wesleyan campus was basically on lockdown, and police found a journal at the crime scene saying "I think it okay to kill Jews, and go on a killing spree at this school." That'll pretty much do the trick any day.

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