Justice for Jessica
The confirmation that a dismembered body found in open space outside of Denver was indeed that of Jessica Ridgeway, a 10-year-old girl missing since last Friday, was a sickening blow.
As a relatively new parent, I am still getting used to unconditional love, and the irrational yet relentless fears that something bad will happen to my child. I think it is safe to say that at the bottom of the darkest pit of dread in every parent lies the horror of some disgusting weirdo snatching their child off the streets and doing unspeakably terrible things before taking the body to a field and hacking it to pieces. Its unthinkable, but we think about it all the time. Today the unthinkable became a reality for the Ridgeways, a family I never knew existed but who live maybe 5 miles away from where I tuck my own sweet family into bed each night.
From that same sunless corner of our souls where lies this most terrible fear, a most terrible desire also lurks.
A group of men, their faces fixed in grim determination. They gather at a house, some in front, some in back. The scene is lit with torch light. A curtain moves a light goes out. Someone throws a brick which shatters the front window. “Come on out or we’ll smoke you out.” Next through the window is a lit match and a pile of oily rags. The back door opens and a man makes a run for it, but he’s roughly grabbed by several very serious people. As the fire inside grows, he is walked over to an old tree, set on a tall stool with a noose around his neck. With tears welling up in his eyes, the father looks up at the pervert’s terror-stricken face. “The sword of human justice trembles over you and is about to fall upon your guilty head.” The father kicks the stool away and the sicko drops, his feet kicking as he departs this world for Hades.
As a law student I know that this way madness lies. The rule of law protects both the innocently accused and the souls of the collective for whom justice is meted out by the state. But I would be lying were I to say: “I hope they catch the guy so he can calmly be tried by a jury of his peers.” The Israeli legal philosopher Joseph Raz said that a fair hearing is one of the most important principles of natural justice. What’s natural about a trial? Isn’t the most natural justice the mobile vulgus? Isn’t it time to put the due back in due process? Abraham Lincoln warned against the “disposition to substitute the wild and furious passions in lieu of the sober judgment of courts, and the worse than savage mobs for the executive ministers of justice.” Lincoln was talking about gamblers hanged in Vicksburg, “a portion of population that is worse than useless in any community; and their death, if no pernicious example be set by it, is never matter of reasonable regret with any one. If they were annually swept from the stage of existence by the plague or smallpox, honest men would perhaps be much profited by the operation.” Despite his harsh words for speculators, he plainly states that “[t]here is no grievance that is a fit object of redress by mob law.” Not even murderous pedophiles?
My college girlfriend’s cousin lived in Texas with her husband we’ll call him Rick. Rick’s sister had an abusive boyfriend. One day the boyfriend murdered the sister and Rick tracked him down before the cops did and shot the guy dead in the street with a hunting rifle. He spent some time in jail, waiting for trial, and a jury sentenced him to time served.
Swift, satisfying, and effective justice does not await Jessica’s killer. This crime was cold and anonymous rather than passionate and personal, so personal retribution doesn’t seem to be an option. If an informal justice committee wanted to find the guy where would they start? If we offered our services as a lynch mob, the Ridgeways would more than likely call the police. History has taught us that so it should be. But across the city on this cold October night, men are angry. They have been forced into the shadowy realms of their imaginations, a dangerous place to be.