For those who enjoy watching the wheels of justice revolve, for those folks who call themselves court-watchers, Texas must be something like an amusement park. The state can’t go a month without finding its way into national news. Other than Florida, New York or California, it’s the state most famous for its headline-grabbing judicial system. This time, Texas law has peered into the dark heart of humanity, and asked a supremely pertinent legal question, “Well, who wouldn’t kill that son-of-a-?”
And in their answer to that question, they’ve clearly reiterated the ethics of the state. “This is how we do justice in Texas,” seems to be the greater message. Texans believe sometimes you don’t need lawyers or judges or court reporters, just a few fists to mete out the proper punishment. They seem to still believe in that John Wayne brand of justice. It’s as simple and unblemished as western skies. It’s best captured in a line his character said in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, “Out here a man settles his own problems.” And sometimes death is how they’re settled.
One interesting thing to note is, folks on both sides of the prison walls agree with this judgment. Child molesters are the lowest of the low in prison. Despised more than murderers. It seems, in the minds of most prisoners, death is a fitting and entirely suitable punishment for child molesters. I imagine no prisoner shed a tear of empathy when Ariel Castro hung himself.
This represents a very interesting new wrinkle in the legal interpretation of our land when prisoners and regular citizens firmly agree. As you probably know, the state of Texas is known for its fast-moving death row. It’s like a steady conveyor belt headed toward lethal punishment. And the state just reinforced the citizen’s right to mete out death as a punishment for certain heinous and violent crimes. Even if, for the moment it’s only in Texas, and it’s just their interpretation of self-defense laws, it still raises the very legally peculiar question: When is it justifiable homicide?
In no way should we intellectualize this crime or the suffering of those involved. Nor should we reduce their pain to grist for speculation. This story is flat-out horrible.
If you don’t want to read the grisly details, please skip the next paragraph.
According to the HuffingtonPost, a neighbor told the unidentified father that a man who worked at the father’s horse ranch was seen forcibly carrying his little girl toward a barn. Running in the direction of his five-year old daughter’s screams, the father found the molester and his daughter, both with their underwear off. The father flew into a rage and beat the molester in the head and neck with his bare fists. After he nearly killed the man, the father phoned 911. In the video embedded on HuffPo you can hear his scared, emotionally shaken voice as he pleads with the dispatcher, “Come on! This guy is going to die on me! I don’t know what to do!”
The 911 dispatcher had trouble locating the rural ranch on a map, slowing response time. The frightened father cursed at the dispatcher and roared about how he wanted to throw the man in the back of his truck and drive him to an emergency room. Eventually, the molester died.
A Texas grand jury was left with the unenviable job of deciding whether or not to indict the father on charges of murder. The case was investigated as a homicide. However, the father wasn’t arrested.
Examined at the hospital, the five-year old girl showed signs of sexual molestation. Forensic evidence taken from the deceased, as well as eyewitness accounts, all corroborated the father’s version of events.
Under Texas law, the use of deadly force may not be recommended as the best first response, but it’s justifiable under many of the state’s self-defense laws. More than the citizens of other states, Texans are granted many reasons they might need to legally kill each other. There are all sorts of defensible killings that past muster under the blind eyes of Justice. In this instance, a Texas grand jury decided not to indict the father on any charges. Here’s a report from the local tv news.
It’s easily one of the worst moments a person can imagine. As a man, but not yet a father, I can honestly say I have no idea how I would react in such a situation. I can easily see myself in that father’s shoes, blood on my fists, coming back to my senses, realizing that I’d just beaten a man to death. It’s not something I’d be proud of. It would haunt me, I’m sure. I know I wouldn’t feel good about what I did. But I completely understand how and why that father responded the way he did. I think most of us understand how a father might react when confronted with the sight of his child in distress. And let’s not forget the primal adrenaline-fueled wrath boiling out of him when he saw a half-naked man molesting his underwear-less five-year old daughter.
We may have civilization and lawyers and jurisprudence and lots of other apparatus to keep us from imposing our wrath on other people, but our moments of fulminating anger is one reason why we have all that legal structure. We all recognize that just below the surface we have animal instincts, irrational needs to protect others, especially the ones we love, the ones who are ours to protect. Like some Mama Grizzly bear who savages anyone who threatens her cubs, any human beings has the potential to transform into a creature far removed from judges and law professors.
But, even if I can empathize with the father, even if I biologically understand his impulse to inflict violence in that moment of protection and rage, I still must wonder… Is it justice? Should we make room under the law for moments of blind rage?
I admire the court for their interpretation of the man’s mindset at the moment of his crime. I’m glad we have Texas to constantly reconsider laws many of us felt were settled long ago.
It is an important question, one that nighttime television dramas and legal thrillers consider, but we don’t often think about: Could we expect a person to rationally overcome their impulse for violence when they’re lost in such a storm of emotions? Who could hold back that hurricane of their soul?
In Texas, the law believes few, if any, could be expected to manage their rage. And according to a FoxNews poll, nationwide, 88% of Americans agree that deadly force is justified in such a case.
Here are the choices of answers FoxNews offered their viewers and the poll results:
I feel for the rancher, but he also acted as judge and executioner: 2.52%
He was protecting his daughter, plain and simple, I’d shake his hand: 87.85%
Can anyone judge the emotions that drove this poor father: 8.86%
Allowing for the FoxNews viewer’s conservative bias, that’s still a very high percentage of respondents who feel the father is legally blameless. I don’t often find myself agreeing with Texas justice, FoxNews polls, their viewers, or even most Americans, but on this one, I’m squarely with the majority of respondents.
This wasn’t murder. It was justifiable homicide. It was self-defense because he interrupted the molestation. And in such circumstances, the right of self-defense extends from the child to the parent.
It’s equally rare that I’d suggest the rest of the nation’s judges take their cues from the courts of Texas, but in this instance, I’d hope more judges and grand juries considered the state of mind of the perpetrator. Often folks, find themselves at the worst moment in their lives, and react emotionally resulting in disastrous consequences. As much as possible, it serves us all to routinely and legally welcome such one-time offenders back into society without them having to serve jail time just to satisfy the letter of the law.
Occasionally, compassion is the best response. Melville had Billy Budd to prove his point that justice must sometimes destroy a good man if he mistakenly kills a bad man. For the contrary point, we have this Texas father. In this instance, I have to choose Texas justice over Herman Melville. As uneasy as that makes me feel, I still think justice was served, even if it was momentarily set aside to do so.
How do you feel? Is it ever justifiable to kill a person? Does a citizen have the same right as the state to kill someone? What if it’s in defense of someone under attack? Or if it’s in self-defense? Or, as it was in this case, in defense of a child? When is it okay to kill a person… in the eyes of the law?
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