The trials of finding where justice lies

November 16, 1997|By Peter A. Jay

HAVRE DE GRACE -- The season of retribution must have arrived at last. All across the autumnal American landscape, the trials of people accused of monstrous deeds are unfolding.

The baby-shaking au pair is convicted in Massachusetts, the two World Trade Center bombers in New York. The psychotic Harvard grad presumed to have been the Unabomber is on trial in Sacramento. The cases of a suspected Oklahoma City bomber and the accused murderer of four CIA employees have gone before juries in Denver and Virginia, respectively.

What's a person to make of all this horror? As a cold November wind sends wet leaves flying, we huddle indoors, musing on knotty questions of crime and punishment. What we want, of course, is justice. But as experiences close to home remind us, the more we know about a case, the harder it can be to determine where justice lies.

A local case

Here's an anecdote from the recent history of this small and generally tolerant Maryland town. It might have happened anywhere, but it happened here, and so of course everybody has an opinion about it. It involved acts which, though not violent, are illegal and are generally considered abhorrent. There were criminal charges brought. A trial followed, and plenty of publicity.

The defendant, who is well-known in town, has just been found guilty. He could get 65 years in prison. He held a seat on the City Council, and has been removed from it. He ran a couple of nice little businesses he started from scratch, and may lose them, too. His name has been in the local papers, but there's no need to repeat it here. Call him John. Here's the story.

John, who's now 40, is an attractive and charming fellow, but he's had his problems, and because this is a small place where his family has lived for generations, almost everybody knew about them. When he was a teen-ager, there were stories about drugs and alcohol. When he didn't marry, there was conjecture about his sexuality.

For the most part, it's important to understand, this gossip wasn't condemnatory. It was curious, sometimes amused, often perplexed, and more often than not sympathetic. ''Poor John,'' people would say. ''Wouldn't it be nice if he could pull his life together?''

And then, finally, he seemed to be doing just that. He got involved in civic activities, where his charm and energy made him very useful. Not surprisingly, politics soon beckoned, and when the time seemed right, he ran for the City Council, and won. His victory was not a surprise. This is a conservative but tolerant town, willing to overlook the past and concentrate on the present.

The criminal justice system, though, is not so willing to overlook the past. Charges were brought. John was accused of having sex with an underaged boy, and of plying him with liquor and drugs. The complainant is now 28, and the offenses were alleged to have occurred years before, when he was as young as 9.

John's only defense was that the dates were wrong, and that the complainant had been 15 when the events took place. That would have proved mitigating had the members of the jury believed it, but they didn't, taking only an hour to find him guilty of child abuse and other sexual offenses.

Well, what do we think about that? If we know John, as his customers and neighbors and constituents here do, we're saddened and troubled. We wonder what's gained by bringing up something that happened such a long time ago. We see a productive life smashed, seemingly out of little more than spite.

Of course, that's why we wouldn't have been on that jury. We would have had a hard time separating the person we knew from the person on trial. If John had instead been the complainant in the case, charging a hypothetical older defendant with abusing him when he was a child, we would no doubt have felt more enthusiastic about a conviction.

None of which is to minimize the crime. Predatory sex, whether homosexual or heterosexual, is repellent under most circumstances, but when young children are the prey, it's clearly evil. In a self-respecting society, it requires a strong response, even if it happened long ago.

A question of punishment

The passage of time may blur memories and complicate prosecution, but it doesn't lessen evil. The fact that old Nazi torturers may have passed many post-war decades as good citizens of Bolivia or Cleveland doesn't, and shouldn't, absolve them of their crimes. But whether it should mitigate their eventual punishment is another question.

Plato observed 2300 years ago that past wrongs can't be undone, and that in a just society, rational punishment is imposed with an eye to the future. Justice may perhaps be retributive, but it must above all be deterrent. By the same reasoning, though, shouldn't the good behavior of those accused of crimes long past count for anything?

One answer might be that it can count in the hereafter, but not in court. That's a little too easy, though. It suggests that in society's eyes, the reformed and the habitual criminal should be equals. That defies common sense -- a quality not always abundant in courtrooms.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.

Pub Date: 11/16/97

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