HAVRE de GRACE -- Why do so many people think the American judicial response to the most vicious and predatory crimes is totally out of whack? The recent case of James Howard Van Metre III is a pretty good example.
It is not in dispute that this gentleman raped and murdered a woman in Carroll County three years ago. But because it took more than 180 days to bring him to trial, his conviction was voided, and he cannot be retried. As a practical matter he'll be in prison a good while for other offenses, but for his murder the state of Maryland has awarded him a free pass.
Such an outcome isn't unfamiliar these days, and it offends the moral sense of much of the law-abiding community. That community, which also tends to believe in capital punishment and long prison terms, is often excoriated by its critics as primitive and bloody-minded, but that's not the case. It does, however, have a strong sense of basic fairness.
In England in 1830, you faced execution if convicted of forgery. The bankers of London, who detested forgers, petitioned for a change in the law. This was because so many known forgers were being acquitted by juries which refused to send them to the gallows.
Similar sentiments have motivated American juries since the founding of the republic. The New Hampshire constitution of 1784 warned against ''sanguinary laws'' under which ''the same undistinguishing severity is exerted against all offenses.'' A fair-minded juror's response to such laws is often to vote to acquit even the obviously guilty.
But cases such as the voiding of the Van Metre conviction push the fair-minded in the opposite direction -- in favor of the death penalty and mandatory prison terms for certain crimes, against efforts by reformers and professional civil-libertarians to make maximum-security prisons more comfy for their inmates.
The prison reformers cite what they call constitutional flaws in the accommodations provided for demonstrably dangerous prisoners. But the community at large finds much more tangible flaws in any system which facilitates the return of such prisoners to the everyday world.
In the Van Metre case, if the Carroll County courts had simply piddled away six months before bringing the defendant to trial, the voiding of his conviction might make some sense. But most delays of criminal trials are the result of procedural tactics permitted solely to benefit the defense. And it seems a bit much for defendants who have used these tactics to the limit to then claim that they have been deprived of their right to a speedy trial.
Insulated from the problem
It's axiomatic that much of the impetus for liberal reforms to the criminal-justice system comes these days from people who by reason of affluence or professional environment are seldom exposed to the realities of crime.
Their favorite reforms include the festooning of police and court procedures with imaginative new pro-defense complexities, abolition of capital punishment and emphasis on the supposed rehabilitation of dangerous convicts rather than their secure incarceration.
These are touted as desirable on the basis of their sponsors' intentions. They will make a theoretically better society, it is argued, even if it turns out to be a more dangerous one. Naturally, people who lead less protected lives tend to take a different view of such reform proposals.
The NBC television drama ''Law and Order,'' which once prided itself on presenting a realistic picture of the work of police and prosecutors in New York, completely rolled over for the reform perspective in a ludicrous season-ending episode this past week.
It began with the execution by lethal injection of a murderer. Most of the prominent characters in the series, cops and district attorneys, were in attendance. And of course they were all shattered by this terrible experience, and spent the rest of the allotted hour in various forms of psychological disintegration.
A couple got drunk, one was unfaithful to his wife, one considered giving up the practice of law and then got killed in a car crash while driving one of the drunks home. The message had all the subtlety of a sandbag dropped from the ceiling. All this human wreckage was caused by the execution of one quite detestable criminal.
Actually, it seemed to one viewer that the New York system as depicted in the show had worked quite well. It had reduced the predator population by one, and the number of future victims by an unknown amount. And it had jumped through all the many legal hoops, even managing to provide a sufficiently speedy trial.
Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.
Pub Date: 5/26/96