Vigilante Justice OK in Philadelphia
An eleven-year-old girl was brutally raped here in Philadelphia last week. The details hardly matter to the heinousness of the crime, but surgery was required. When the suspect was cornered by a couple of local guys who identified him from a news report, he was “held” for the police. At least that’s the description that was given by Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey, who has so far decided not to press charges against any of these vigilantes, who beat the man so badly about the head that he, too, was hospitalized. Here’s the AP’s story:
“We don’t condone violence”?? By declining to press charges, that’s exactly what Ramsey is doing, his blather about “a use of force continuum” notwithstanding. I think everyone knows that, whatever the niceties of the limits of permissible force, “pummelling a man for several minutes” exceeds them. The Fraternal Order of Police President John McNesby was at least honest: “He got what he got.” And two of the attackers also “got” to split a handsome reward for their actions: Almost $6,000 each. McNesby forthrightly stated that “there wasn’t even a second thought” about giving this award. I wonder if the two men were chosen based on the level of injuries inflicted on the suspect.
In this story, Ramsey offered this additional justification for the mob’s actions: “You have to think about the emotion involved in this.”
But that’s exactly why charges should be filed, if appropriate investigation and evidence so warrant. As a parent, I would also want to tear this creep apart. That’s why we are a nation of laws, where even understandable emotional responses are punished if criminal. What if the mob had killed this guy? Would the commissioner take the same position? But it might only be a matter of luck that he was “only” hospitalized and not killed. It’s precisely for those cases where the temptation towards vigilantism is greatest that the criminal law system is most needed. Otherwise, we can expect the next case to bring a Clint Eastwood level of unchecked retribution.
And the thirst for summary justice can even be slaked against the wrong guy. In this case, one of the vigilantes apologized to another man who was mistakenly beaten, in what I’m sure the police commissioner will regard as an understandable exercise of “citizen’s enthusiasm.” At least the mob got to hone its technique before using it on the true rapist. At least let’s hope they picked the real criminal this time. If not, perhaps the third time will be the charm.
None of this is to say that the emotional component can’t be taken into account. This is a proper consideration in a number of places throughout the criminal law system, including: which charges are brought (the law distinguishes between different levels of culpability); the jury’s ability to find guilt on lesser crimes where circumstances warrant; and the judge’s discretion in sentencing. But declining to bring charges at all sends a terrible message: Those charged with enforcing the law will ignore it when politically expedient.