Monday, November 30, 2009

On Hitting Back First

The manhunt apparently continues.

Police spent hours, it seems, negotiating with an empty house in the effort to capture Maurice Clemmons, the man we're told is a suspect in what the press reports as the seemingly purposeful albeit unexplained shooting to death of four police officers in a coffee shop in Lakewood, Washington. (All those qualifications emphasize that I don't actually know any of this. It's all gathered from press reports which may or may not be accurate.)

Scott Greenfield, following up on the week's worth of discussion of what we do and who we are (latest entries here and here and here) reminds everyone that if Clemmons is captured alive, it is a criminal defense lawyer who will be standing beside him and defending him. Because that's what we do.

And when that lawyer stands beside Clemmons, we'll be asking the hard question: What now?

Let me be very clear: I'm not a Washington lawyer. I don't have a clue what the range of homicide and other offenses could be charged against Clemmons. I'm also not an Arkansas lawyer, and although press reports suggest that he may be wanted on an Arkansas warrant, I don't know anything about that, either. I could do some research to try and dig out the answers to these things, but I'd probably miss something important, or misunderstand something that seems clear but is in fact counter-intuitive. Law is like that, filled with small but important traps for the ignorant. It's why people, particularly people facing state charges, need lawyers who know the relevant local law.

Anyway, since I don't know the local law, I'm not going to try and explain how it works or what might happen under it. But there are larger questions we can address.

The act, if the press reports are even close to right, is horrific. Clemmons is alleged to have gunned down four police officers who were sitting in a coffee shop doing some computer work before their shift began. No preliminaries. No robbery. Just cold-blooded execution. And, it's said, Clemmons has a lengthy criminal history including other crimes of violence.

Complicating things still more is the spectre of Willie Horton. Clemmons, it seems was paroled in Arkansas after his sentence was commuted by then-Governor Huckabee. And it seems Clemmons was out on bond from charges that he assaulted a police officer and sexually molested a child.

So we can count on three things. Renewed calls for the death penalty, fewer people getting their sentences commuted, restrictions on bond.

The cries for the death penalty will be loudest. Indeed, they're already coming from bloggers and in comments to newspaper stories. So there's this:
Huckabee may not be the only individual guilty here and neither is Arkansas the only state. But why we keep returning this kind of scum to the street is a crime all by itself. They say the Constitution isn't a suicide pact. Well, neither should be trumped up Constitutional Rights. Degenerates like Maurice Clemmons should be shot in the head and left for dead whenever they get caught.
And this:
This is exactly what happens when you have a Liberal gov who won't follow the law and allow the death penalty to do its job. Criminals have no fear. I put this squarely on the Liberal gov's desk. She has emboldened criminals and flooded our society with early release. In 5 years, she has not sought one piece of legislation that toughens our laws. Instead by refusing to stand behind the death penalty she has put courageous crime fighters in harm's way.
And this:
They need to track this guy down and kill him dead. If he goes to prison he'll just be a hero living a pretty decent life watching tv, roof over his head and free food.
But it's never really that simple.

Apparently Clemmons was delusional. CNN says that a report from a sheriff's deputy indicated that Clemmons "believed he was Jesus and could fly."

Huckabee got it mostly right. A statement on his Web site, notes that Clemmons has a history of criminal acts but also psychoses and says that if Clemmons is responsible for these acts,
[I]t will be the result of a series of failures in the criminal justice system.
(Our social safety net systems, too, though good Republican that he is, Huckabee doesn't want to go there.)

Of course, this is but the latest. There was the Thanksgiving day massacre in Jupiter, Florida. There was the Halloween killing of a Seattle police officer and the firebombing of four police cars. And of course there's the serial rape-killer in Cleveland. There's a never-ending stream of these things.

Let's face it. Ours is a violent society. We're not going to end that by executing a few more people or keeping non-violent drug offenders behind bars or denying bond or having the police check on sex offenders more frequently. The tough on crime stuff hasn't worked and doesn't work.

I'm not saying we shouldn't have criminal laws or that there should be no consequence for those responsible for horrific acts of violence (or for those responsible for relatively minor offenses, for that matter). What I am saying is that the knee-jerk response to these crimes -
Kill everyone, and lock the rest up forever -
is not fruitful. Criminal sanctions won't end violence any more than gun control will. That's not to say it hasn't a place. But it's to recognize a reality.

Horrific crimes lead to bad law pretty much always. Just ask the vicitms of Megan's and Jessica's laws and the Adam Walsh Act. It's the double whammy: They don't achieve their inteded aim (keeping us safer) and they serve as distractions from the real business of doing what will keep us safer and what will make it easier actually to nab the folks who hurt others.

Let's go back and look again at Clemmons and his psychoses. What's an appropriate punishment for someone who acts from delusion? How do we hold him accountable for what he didn't understand or couldn't control? What will we accomplish by spending the millions (and it will cost that much before all is said and done) to try to kill him when we can achieve as much, for far less money, by confining him for the rest of his life?

Will we be better people? More moral? More noble shining examples of how to live? So we'll have hit back first. Good on us.

See, we have it backwards. We react viscerally to the horrific. Something must be done. So we do something. Anything.

What we should be doing is pausing. Rather than energizing, the horrific should stop us in our tracks. How? We should ask. Why? Sober reflection and analysis. We don't do that. And it likely won't happen now. Which is a damn shame.

Pause and consider:
  • Sgt. Mark Renninger
  • Officer Ronald Owen
  • Officer Tina Griswold
  • Officer Greg Richards

I don't know them. I don't know anything much about them. Were they good cops? I have no reason to doubt it. In their deaths, we'd do well to assume they were.

So do we honor their memory with more killing, more punishment, more violence? Or do we honor them with serious efforts at treatment and prevention?

He struck first, they say. Perhaps. But that's a problem, not an invitation.