Jordan case shows all that's wrong with our system

MIKE LITTWIN

August 18, 1993|By MIKE LITTWIN

We seem to have answered all the questions in the murder of Michael Jordan's father except the really important one: What are we going to do about it?

I don't mean short-term what-are-we-going-to-do-about-it. That's easy. You have two kids charged with first-degree murder who, if found guilty, will get all the law allows. This will be a celebrity trial, meaning no plea bargains, no reduced sentences, no business as usual.

Whoever did it killed the wrong guy. The world will be watching. And, certainly, the case has all the elements of great criminal theater.

The victim, James Jordan, is the father of one of our richest, most famous, most beloved celebrities. We are left to wonder: If Michael Jordan's money and fame can't protect his family, who among us is safe?

The alleged murderers are a pair of 18-year-old punks with a history of trouble. One is white, one black.

Red, though, turns out to be the really important color. The police say the killers shot Jordan for the car, a red $46,000 Lexus. Every story I've read mentions the price tag. This is a greed case, where the have-nots simply take from the haves and with deadly force.

The punks were described by police as looking for someone -- anyone -- to rob that night and stumbled upon Jordan, asleep in his car in Lumberton, N.C. The police say one of them put a .38 caliber bullet in Jordan's chest. They traded his life for a few days of joyriding. These are the predatory sociopaths we hear so much about involved in the crime of carjacking, which we hear so much about.

When you look more closely, the story grows even more disturbing. You find that these two alleged murderers, adults and yet children, probably shouldn't have been free to prey upon Jordan.

In the case of Larry Demery, he had been charged in at least four crimes that had not yet been brought to trial.

In the big one, he was charged with slamming a 61-year-old woman in the head with a cinder block and taking $7 in cash and another $400 in jewelry. That was Oct. 6, 1992, and the case was so unremarkable even in rural North Carolina that it hadn't yet been tried. The prosecutor said about 1,000 cases were pending. Meanwhile, Demery was free.

Daniel Green, who is Demery's friend and alleged partner in crime, got out of prison just two months ago after serving two years of a six-year sentence. All he'd done was hit a man in the head with an ax, leaving him in a coma.

Two years out of six is normal in a nation that has more prisoners per capita than any industrialized country in the world. Green simply had to make room for the next bunch of criminals.

What you have is two dead-end kids, largely ignored by society even when they flout its laws, who kill an innocent man for no real reason. In one case, you have virtually all that's wrong with American criminal justice.

Are you outraged? Scared? Moved to take action?

Action-man Bill Clinton, who lives only to take on problems, has just introduced his crime package. Among the highlights: He wants $3.4 billion to put 50,000 cops on the streets. He wants military bases converted into "boot camps" for first-time offenders in the hopes they won't become repeat offenders. He wants more death-penalty crimes and fewer death-penalty appeals. And he wants the Brady bill, which would require a five-day waiting period for handgun sales.

Wait till Congress gets hold of this baby. You'll see some great speechifying. All our lawmakers, you'll find, are firmly against crime and can be wonderfully eloquent, particularly when the cameras are running, in fulminating against evil.

Then, somehow, the bill gets watered down. There won't be enough money to pay for ambitious programs. The good folks at the National Rifle Association and their toadies in Congress will assure no serious gun control is passed.

What Congress will ask for instead is tougher sentencing when our prisons are already overflowing, largely with druggies sent there under the present, misguided mandatory sentencing guidelines.

In any case, the bill attacks the problem only at the back end. It should be clear to everyone by now that crime must be fought at its roots -- where poverty and hopelessness and drugs and a culture that no longer values life exist.

There are no easy answers here. No quick solutions. And speeches won't help. We know we live in a violent society. At some point, we have to decide we won't accept that level of violence anymore. Until then, nothing will really change.

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