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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 sureĀ  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.

  1. Stephen
    June 9th, 2009 at 16:30 | #1

    Agreed. The law must be enforced against vigilantes, even though a suspect may indeed deserve whatever street justice is administered. Charges need to be filed in this case in order to send a message that there’s a legitimate way to make a citizens arrest by detaining a suspect. Police in Philly are overwhelmed and could use the help, so why not use the opportunity to explain what should be done in such cases. This situation, with no charges filed, only promotes the lawlessness that permeates the city, as I know as a nearly life-long resident. It may not be popular to file charges in this case, but it should be done.

  2. Kris
    June 10th, 2009 at 08:58 | #2

    There was an interesting article about this in the Philly Metro on Monday written by a young African American professor from Columbia names Marc Lamont Hill. His take on vigilante justice in this instance was that it was warranted due to the race and gender of the victim. His theory was that this type of behavior is not only justified, but also needed. He focused on his opinion that black female victims of rape are not often vindicate in the courts, so street justice must take the place of a feeble criminal system. He ended his commentary with the line: “Until the broader society gets it, the community’s brand of justice is both appropriate and necessary.” I am sorry Mr. Hill, but that is a hideous statement. No one should be encouraged to break the law, especially not by someone who is clearly educated. As a former criminal prosecutor, I know that any assault stems from two people who do not like each other in close proximity. One of the two acts on their anger or dislike and the other is injured. This situation is no different from any of the hundreds of assaults I saw. Here, a group of people saw someone they did not care for and acted in a violent nature. I do not care who you are or why you are doing it, vigilante justice is nothing better that an organized assault on someone, even someone as stomach turning as a child rapist. I admit, when I prosecuted child rapists, I would have LOVED to jump across the table and wipe the smug look of some of their faces. But I didn’t because I know that I would have landed in that same seat a week later for assault. And trust me, if this man is convicted and sent to jail, he will think the beating he took on the street was a Swedish massage.

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