Weighing property against a human life

April 29, 2001|By MICHAEL OLESKER

THE DAY begins with me identifying with the Geckle brothers. This is not a hopeful sign. Their property was invaded in Glyndon, and so was mine in the city of Baltimore, but the Geckles will spend the rest of their lives wondering if protecting material goods is worth the loss of a human life.

Last month, there was a shooting at the Geckle brothers' concrete plant. Last week, a Baltimore County grand jury said: So what?

So, this: We have one man dead and two more shot, and this should count for something. The Geckles say they were defending their property. The law says you aren't permitted to defend property by taking a life. The grand jury, taking less than 30 minutes to wash its hands of the whole thing, inadvertently leaves us with a disturbing image: of the Geckles lying in the dark like Cro-Magnons at the lip of the cave to protect what is theirs, and of those around them cheering them on.

And it bothers me that I understand the cheering, and that my instincts might have put me in their position.

I am, as mentioned previously in this space, against the use of guns by civilians. The Geckles, having been broken into on two previous nights, decided to wait for any further intruders. When the three alleged burglars arrived - unarmed - Matthew Geckle was asleep, but his brother, hearing noise, yelled, "Freeze," and then opened fire.

I am, like many people, in favor of the police getting involved before such confrontations can take place - while knowing that the police cannot be everywhere at all times.

And, the other morning, I am reading in this newspaper about the grand jury taking a pass on the Geckles, refusing to issue indictments for the shooting, and I am muttering dark imprecations about people taking the law into their own hands when from my back yard comes the voice of my wife.

"They broke into our cars again," she says.

And I put down the newspaper, because words on a page mean nothing when the eyes are blinded by rage. This is the second car break-in of the past few months. We will add these break-ins to the two previous car break-ins, and the two previous car thefts, and the garage break-in.

In the instant I hear my wife's words, blood boiling, I am crouching at the lip of the cave with the Geckles, reaching for a club, or a gun, and making plans to protect my property for all the nights to come from these cretins out there in the dark.

Which is, of course, the precise reason this grand jury took less than a half-hour to decide not to indict the Geckles, despite the clear language of the law. Maryland law says a person may use deadly force if he believes his life is in imminent danger - but not merely if his property is in danger.

But laws mean nothing if they leave us feeling vulnerable, and grand juries are made up of citizens, many of whom feel insufficiently protected by the law, by the police or by anything short of their own weaponry.

One grand juror said this case was all about self-defense. Others, I am sure, issued symbolic pats on the back for the Geckles, whose shots were fired on behalf of themselves and, by modern psychological extension, all those who go to bed each night worrying about the armies of faceless intruders out there.

On March 19, after enduring two previous break-ins, the Geckles slept at their concrete plant instead of at their homes, anticipating the possibility of a third break-in. It is not clear if they knew that the intruders were unarmed. Tony Geckle, hearing the three men, opened fire.

Jonathan Steinbach was killed, and Justin Storto and Enrico Magliarella were shot in the back. All were in their 20s. They had no business being there, and they should have been punished by the criminal justice system for entering the premises and for adding to the sense of fear that hovers over every community today, and causes people to buy guns, and causes them to fire in a flash of instinct.

And I understood that instinct last week, understood the rage felt by the Geckles. It was their business, but it was my home that was made vulnerable.

"I've had enough of this," my wife said as we looked through our cars to see what had been taken.

From hers, they got some coins that she'd put aside for parking meters, but nothing else. From my car, more coins for parking meters - plus a Jackie Wilson greatest hits CD that I'd bought a week before. But that's it. Papers were strewn about, but there was no physical damage to either car.

It's the sense of violation that hurts. Somewhere in the dark are those creeps, waiting for people to let their guard down. They took a few dollars in coins, which is nothing; but they took another piece of our sense of security, which means the world.

And I wondered: How would I have felt if I had caught them out there and I'd had a gun like the Geckle brothers, and I'd acted on my rage? How would I feel if I took somebody's life - over a few dollars in coins, or the theft of any piece of property?

The law is designed not only to protect people from each other but, sometimes, to protect us from our own dangerous instincts. The Geckles are reportedly pretty nice guys. They only wanted to protect what was theirs. But how will they protect themselves, for the rest of their lives, from the endless question: Is a piece of property worth the end of a human life?

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