13 February 2013

Chris Dorner Deserved to Die - Didn't He?

Chris Dorner, who went on a killing spree in California, was cornered in a cabin in the Big Bear resort area on Tuesday. The cabin caught fire (cause unknown) and Dorner died (cause unknown). Dorner left in his wake two dead police officers, two dead civilians and several injured persons. All but one of the deceased died in ambushes.

I enormously respect Larry Winget. On his Facebook page/blog today, there was a discussion of whether Dorner “deserved to die.” It was a heated discussion. Some folks expressed that eternal optimism that anyone can be rehabilitated. Larry in typical straightforward fashion termed that hogwash and expressed satisfaction that the guy’s dead. (I’m not quoting him exactly – go to Facebook and read it for yourself – it’s a fascinating discussion.)

This sort of discussion let’s passion (and bile) flow. After all, there’s nobody we dislike more than criminals. There is little we regret more than giving criminals rights and protections that they have denied their victims. We love stories of cosmic justice, and sometimes justice (at least in our hearts) has a strong element of retribution.

I remember when I was teaching criminal justice students about the judicial process and the Charles Bronson “Death Wish” series of movies was in the theaters. I really love those flicks and I still catch the late-night reruns. The students would make fun of me when I admitted that on the one hand we had this rule of law but on the other hand, I really liked those movies.  I still love seeing the plastic criminal characters catch a well-aimed bullet. There’s just a certain “all’s right with the world” balancing.

Okay, not really, but remember what is required to enjoy good fiction: A willing suspension of disbelief.

Fiction aside, the whole argument about what Chris Dorner “deserved” is pointless.

For the last 35 years, I’ve dealt with discontent over the (hopefully) objective and (hopefully) low emotion rule of law in America.

A low emotion approach is not at all morally satisfying. It’s dry and at times it’s dull. What it does is it gives us a shot – just a shot – at actual justice.

And what is justice? (Good heavens, I’m channeling Pontius Pilate, “What is truth?”)

Justice in criminal cases, by my lights, is the process of objectively applying necessarily subjective opinions to protect the community covenant into which the citizens have entered. 

In fashioning the result of a criminal case, the decision-makers should consider the feasibility of isolating the offender; the feasibility of rehabilitating the offender; the feasibility of deterring the offender; and the methods of deterring others from similar conduct by making an example of the offender. To do all this, we have to look at what the offender did, why s/he did it, what harm resulted and the foreseeability of that harm. And, of course… here’s the rub… we have to be willing to consider other relevant things because every case is different.  Then, we should fashion a result which is sufficient but not "too much."

There’s always a conundrum about what to do with the victims’ voices. Certainly, they did not volunteer to be victimized. Should they have a voice in the result? Should they have a controlling voice in the result? Almost always, I have found victims to be sincere in their beliefs. Often, I have found them to be irrational in their beliefs. No doubt, some of the victims of Dorner – say, families of the deceased – would have been glad to see macabre medieval tortures applied to him. I can’t say that they are “wrong” and I cannot blame them a bit for that opinion.

I can just say that’s not the law.

And I can say that our rule of law is a better way.

I am not qualified to say what Dorner deserved or deserves. According to my beliefs, he is due an accounting before God. I certainly won’t predict the decisions of the Lord God Almighty.  Dorner’s on his own there.

I can say what our rule of law dictated. And our rule of law was very clear.

Had Dorner dropped his weapons and surrendered, it would have been the duty of the officers to take custody of him without unduly and permanently harming him. Then, he would have been entitled to a fair trial. For that matter, We the People would have been entitled to a fair trial, too. There is no wiggle room there. No matter how justifiably angry the police were or citizens were, the rule of law is absolute.

Someone on Facebook asked if Dorner’s “manifesto” which indicated a specific intent to murder negated his rights.  Answer: Absolutely not.  It just made proving the case against him beyond a reasonable doubt really, really easy.

Until and unless Dorner surrendered, police officers had a duty to stop his depredations. Dorner was armed and using deadly force. Generally, the effective response is going to be deadly force or even overwhelming deadly force. That was not dependent on whether the police officers were angry or apathetic or positively filled with goodwill. It was their duty to stop Dorner from committing further offenses. The bullets would not care what the was in the hearts of those firing weapons. The duty of the police under the rule of law was very clear.

That people were victimized by Dorner’s crimes is a tragedy. The fact that these tragedies happen is the reason we have a criminal justice system. Handling criminals with reasonable efficiency and effectiveness requires that we do this in this terribly aggravating non-emotional fashion. It would be oh so satisfying to let our hatred flow. But that would be an affront to this Republic and would blow up in our faces in about an hour and a half.

I am completely unmoved by the death of Chris Dorner. I’m not going to miss any sleep over it. The results were dictated by his choices.

And I am glad that this justice system of ours clankety-clanks along.  I’m also glad to be a part of it.


1 comment:

Jim N said...

Friend Roger, this is a succinct and precise delineation of the ontology of law. I doubt that I have ever seen as clear an explanation. While I too take delight in seeing some perpetrators brought to justice, and become outraged when they "get away with it," (O. J. Simpson), I do appreciate that the sometimes bumbling judicial process does do the best that is possible on this side of living. Having been disallusioned by jury room experiences where subjective emotionality complicated the decision-making process (inspite of the Bailiff's instructions to the contrary), I wonder how the process could be improved As to the rehabilitation of perpetrators, I doubt that the justice system has what it takes to take on the long, arduous, pain-staking and patient treatment of offenders. There is no such thing as quick fixes (despite jail house conversions); people change very, very slowly, and then only when they are willing to do the hard work to accomplish that end. While I believe that people are the way they are for very good reasons, the attempt to get at the real reasons and resolve the underlying issues is too costly and time-consuming to be handled by the justice system. Then, of course, there are the other maladies that are untreatable: sociopathy, psychopathy, etc. No alternative in such cases other than incarceration (thus protecting society)exists. Thanks for the chance to reflect on a really fine delineation.