Evidence, not outrage, must underpin justice

It's one thing to demand justice, another to achieve it

February 12, 2011|By Dan Rodricks

An outraged reader of The Baltimore Sun wants to know why the trial of twin brothers accused of burning a dog received so much attention — indeed, it made national news — while the plea bargain of a woman accused of killing her baby and burying him in Druid Hill Park received Page 6 treatment. Furthermore, why did the allegedly evil twins, Tremayne and Travers Johnson, face three years in prison if convicted of animal cruelty while Lakesha Haynie, the mother who buried her baby, received only probation?

I will take a crack at some answers.

On its own, the case of Phoenix the dog merits the coverage it received because of the remarkable public interest in it and because of its extraordinarily cruel nature. (Prosecutors announced Friday that the case will be retried following last week's mistrial.) This tragic story revealed again the human intolerance for cruelty toward animals — a show of emotion that always seems to surprise us even though it is as natural as tears. It is not new. While there is ample evidence of humans having a natural propensity toward cruelty, one can find among the ancient Athenians, Egyptians and even Romans high regard and worship of certain animals, including dogs.

"I have not been able without distress to see pursued and killed an innocent animal which is defenseless and which does us no harm," Montaigne wrote in the 16th century. "There is a certain respect, and a general duty of humanity, that attaches us to animals, who have life and feeling. … We owe justice to men, and mercy and kindness to other creatures that may be capable of receiving it."

Certainly, when contrasted with most other stories about crime in Baltimore — the vast majority of which involve human beings doing monstrous things to other human beings — the extensive coverage of the Johnson brothers looks inappropriate. It might appear that we (news organizations and our customers) have lost all perspective. But if you have been paying attention to life on Earth, you've come to understand a few things.

You understand that we have developed a high tolerance for the murders of adult criminals by criminals, an internecine warfare that has gone on for years in our midst. A Baltimore police commissioner once noted it as an explanation for why there was not greater public outrage over all the homicides, many of them drug- and gang-related, that occur here.

You also understand that even humans exposed routinely to violence respond strongly to crimes against the innocent.

So I move now to the matter of 29-year-old Lakesha Haynie, charged last March with first-degree murder and child abuse of her 1-month-old baby, Rajahnthon. The boy's skull was found to be fractured after his body was discovered in a bag in a shallow grave in Druid Hill Park. The baby also showed signs of asphyxia.

Ms. Haynie's arrest made considerable news at the time, and not just because of the nature of the crime. We learned that she had had four other children, all of whom had been taken from her by the state because of neglect. Her arrest prompted Maryland social service officials to more aggressively supervise women who had previously lost parental rights. (Social workers did not know of Rajahnthon's birth because it had not taken place in a hospital.)

Ms. Haynie claimed she had found the baby dead in bed and that his death might have been caused by the boy's father rolling over on top of him. She also claimed to have put her hand over the baby's mouth to keep him from crying and that he had stopped breathing.

Mark Cheshire, the new spokesman for the Baltimore State's Attorney's Office, says forensic evidence was not sufficient to establish the exact cause of Rajahnthon's death and that Ms. Haynie's explanations were plausible. It was therefore difficult to prove she intended to kill her baby. Even so, it's unlikely this mother, however irresponsible, would have been given hard time in prison. That's not something American judges and juries generally do.

So Ms. Haynie ended up pleading guilty to involuntary manslaughter, and Baltimore Circuit Judge Charles J. Peters gave her a 10-year sentence, suspending all but the 10 months she already had served and placing her on probation, with several conditions, for five years.

Criminal cases are complex and challenging. Public outrage is a sign of a community's moral health, but public outrage should not result in guilty verdicts; only clear and convincing evidence should. Even then, we don't always see the outcomes that the avenging angels of our nature demand. Justice is about more than vengeance.

Follow Dan Rodricks on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/DanRodricks, and on Facebook. His e-mail is dan.rodricks@baltsun.com.

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