The Appeal of Retaliatory Justice

The Appeal of Retaliatory Justice

Once in a while, a case that appears in the news serves as a reminder that victims and their allies can go too far and unleash violence to avenge past wrongs—and still garner public support for their misdeeds:

A man in court is accused of molesting several young boys at a camp. Detecting a smirk on his face as he walks forward to take the witness stand, the mother of one of the boys pulls out a gun and shoots him in the back of the head five times. When she is put on trial for murder, some people rally to her side. Pic- turing her as a heroic figure who rose up in righteous indignation in defense of her child, they send tele- grams offering support and raise money for her defense. But others are skeptical of her portrayal as an anguished parent pushed to the breaking point by an arrogant offender who was about to be coddled by an ineffectual judicial system. When they learn that she waited two years for the chance to shoot the alleged molester, was high on methamphetamine that day, and had a past conviction for auto theft,

they view her more as a drug-addled ex-con with a score to settle. Convicted of voluntary manslaughter, she is sentenced to 10 years in prison by a judge who categorizes her courtroom gunplay as an exe- cution that was an intentional and intolerable assault on the justice system. The sentence is hailed by the prosecutor who interprets it as affirming the message that victims must not dish out street justice. But her supporters urge clemency so she can be freed to lead a crusade to toughen the way child molesters are handled by the legal system. After three years, her sentence is overturned and she is released. A movie is made about her case, but she does not become a reformer. Several years later, she is imprisoned again, this time for selling metham- phetamine. Her son, who was molested at age 6, turns 23, stomps a man to death, and is sentenced to 25 years to life. (Kincaid, 1993; and Associated Press, 2008d)

A 48-year-old auto body repairman harasses and bullies his neighbors for two years, tailgating and threatening to ram their cars, and terrorizing them with taunts like, “I know where you live.” Residents organize a “safe streets action group” and send complaints to elected officials, documenting more than 150 incidents affecting 42 people. Eventually, he is prosecuted for assault but is acquitted. A retired navy commander who has played a major role in collecting evidence for the community group confronts the bully one day near his home. The veteran testifies that the bully drives by and then boasts, “You and your family are as good as dead.” Those are the last words he ever utters. The 51-year-old man pulls out a revolver, opens the passenger side window of his car, starts shooting, reloads, and fires a total of 13 rounds, killing his feared but unarmed opponent. Although many callers to talk radio shows during his nationally televised trial support his actions, saying things like, “He should get a medal,” and “Put me on that jury, and he’d get off,” the retired commander is convicted of second-degree murder. His wife writes to the judge, arguing that her husband is “neither a vigilante nor a hero.” The judge, declaring that the deceased got what was coming to him, overturns the jury’s verdict,


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reduces the conviction to manslaughter, and cuts the shooter’s sentence in half. He is released from prison after nine years. ( Jones, 2004)

A man calls 911 and tells the dispatcher about two men who appear to be breaking into his neighbor’s home. He says he has a shotgun, but the emergency operator urges him to stay indoors, declaring “Ain’t no property worth shooting somebody over, okay?” The dispatcher insists that officers will arrive on the scene soon and warns the man, “You’re going to get yourself shot.” The man replies, “You wanna bet? He then goes out his door, yells out, “Move, you’re dead!” and unleashes three shotgun blasts at the duo, hitting them in their backs as they retreat across his lawn with a bag of stolen goods. The police arrive 80 seconds after the 911 call ends. The 62-year-old neighbor who intervened to pre- vent burglars from getting away is hailed as a hero by many local residents. When a small group assembles near his home to protest the killings as an act of vigilantism, they are shouted down and driven away by neighbors and bikers chanting, “U.S.A.! U.S.A.!” A grand jury declines to indict him for the slayings of the men, who turn out to be “illegal aliens” with false IDs and criminal records. (Thornburgh, 2008)

A father and his two sons are pushing their truck along a country road because it ran out of gas. A drunken 20-year-old plows into them, killing both boys, ages 12 and 11. Shortly after the crash, someone shoots the drunk driver. The father is put on trial for murder because, according to the prose- cution, he allegedly ran to his nearby home to get his gun so he could carry out a “roadside execution” of the man who killed his sons. But the murder weapon is never found, and the ballistic and forensic evidence is inconclusive, so the jury deliberates for a mere three hours before acquitting the father. (Lozano, 2014)

Retaliatory violence seems to appeal to many people on a gut level. A steady stream of extremely

popular movies have capitalized on the theme of personal vendettas and getting even. Even though the plots are transparent and the thirst for revenge is quenched by the end of the story, audiences stand up and cheer for the victims who strike back and make vicious thugs pay in blood for their cruel misdeeds.

No statistics purporting to measure the preva- lence of retaliatory violence are available—no government agency or private research group keeps track of such outbreaks. Cases of vigilante violence seem to be relatively infrequent. But if vigilantism is defined broadly as “taking the law into one’s own hands” by physically punishing suspected transgressors, then it may be more com- mon than initially realized. Many, if not most, instances of vigilantism are never detected, recorded, investigated, or prosecuted because vic- tims and their allies (relatives, accomplices, or members of a crowd) don’t want the authorities to find out their real motives. Additionally, many schoolyard fist-fights and barroom brawls probably are touched off by a victim’s desire to settle a score with some bully or aggressor. Surely, some inci- dents of domestic violence are fueled by a yearning for personal vengeance. Some battered wives who fight back or even kill their tormentors go beyond the legal limits of self-defense by launching pre- emptive strikes to forestall another beating or by unleashing retaliatory violence to get him back for a previous assault. A few cases even have come to light in which physically and sexually abused chil- dren grow up and slay their parents. Perhaps some incidents in which officers use excessive force to take resisting or unruly suspects into custody (com- monly referred to as police brutality) might really be outbreaks of “police vigilantism” (Kotecha and Walker, 1976).

Criminals act as vigilantes all the time: They routinely resort to brute force to settle their disputes precisely because they cannot bring their personal problems and business quarrels to the police, prose- cutors, and courts without incriminating them- selves. Vigilantism breaks out whenever street gangs engage in drive-by shootings to retaliate for an ambushing of one of their members, when

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mobsters hire hit men to “whack” some rival or “rat,” or when drug dealers eliminate someone who cheated or stole from them.

Vigilantism also has an overtly political side. It has been part of the ideology of right-wing extremist groups—such as the Ku Klux Klan, neo-Nazis, racist skinheads, and certain militia movement groups—that openly proclaim their intention to “rid society of undesirable elements,” “troublemakers,” and “traitors” (see Madison, 1973; Burrows, 1976; Lasch, 1982; King, 1989; and Dees and Corcoran, 1997).

The emotional attraction of the vigilante solution to street crime rests on the notion that retaliation-in-kind is what justice is all about. Offender rehabilitation, restitution, and reconcil- iation are out of the question. Because the legal system cannot impose far-ranging punishments that directly match the suffering inflicted by offenders, it consistently fails to deliver payment in blood. As the gulf widens between the harsh punishments some people call for and the incar- ceration penalties the system metes out, street justice gains appeal in some circles as being more appropriate than the sentences imposed by judges.

When individuals accused of retaliatory vio- lence are not arrested, not vigorously prosecuted, or acquitted by a jury after a trial, commentators try to decipher the meaning or symbolism: Was the person who allegedly dispensed street justice vindicated by public opinion as doing the right thing? Was the prosecution, representing the crim- inal justice system and the government, repudiated? Were the laws restraining the use of force rejected? Various interpretations are possible when those charged with retaliatory violence are not held accountable for their questionable deeds (see Bahr, 1985; and Dershowitz, 1988).

The impulse toward vigilantism is held in check by two counterideologies. Law enforcement officials and responsible figures in government, embracing the tenets of professionalism, reject vigi- lantism from the conviction that experts, not ordi- nary citizens, ought to control the criminal justice process. They urge citizens to allow the proper

authorities and courts to handle cases and to reject any do-it-yourself impulses.

Civil libertarians marshal even stronger argu- ments. They insist that due process safeguards and constitutional guarantees must be adhered to faith- fully to make sure that innocent individuals are not falsely accused and then subjected to the passions of mob rule. “On-the-spot justice” has been criticized as too swift, too sure, and too informal. Victims and their accomplices dispense with all the rules of the criminal justice game. They assume the roles nor- mally played by the police, prosecutor, judge, jury, and ultimately, executioner. The delicate balance between the rights of victims and of accused per- sons, hammered out through centuries of competi- tion and compromise, is overturned, and suspects are presumed guilty, no matter how much they assert their innocence. The history of vigilantism is filled with cases of mistaken identity, when the wrong person was made to pay for someone else’s misdeeds, as the following four worst-case scenarios show:

A furious father corners a 17-year-old boy whom his 14-year-old daughter claims raped her on the roof of their apartment building. The father shoots the teenager and then bashes his head with a hammer. But later the girl admits she lied about key parts of her unfounded rape charge. The father is convicted of first-degree manslaughter and is sentenced to 7 to 14 years in prison for his terrible over-reaction. (Barrett, 1998)

A wife on vacation with her children telephones her husband, who is a lawyer, and tells him that their 2- year-old daughter claims that the man next door touched her inappropriately and exposed himself. The 30-year-old lawyer grabs several knives, walks across the driveway, bursts into the adjoining house, and stabs his 59-year-old neighbor to death in front of his elderly parents. He is initially charged with first- degree murder. But his “extreme emotional distur- bance” is taken into account as a mitigating factor, and he is allowed to plead guilty to first-degree manslaughter and receives a sentence of 12 years in


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prison. According to a police investigation, the wife’s claim about child molestation was bogus: the neighbor had never even been in their home. The elderly parents of the murdered man sue the lawyer and his wife in civil court. (Stowe, 2007)

A crowd of 50 teenagers gather in response to a rumor that a classmate from their suburban high school has been raped. Intent on retaliating, they pile into cars and cruise an adjoining neighborhood, spoiling for a fight. Several fistfights break out, and some youths are injured by rocks and bottles. Then the teenagers, armed with baseball bats, corner about 15 boys from a parochial high school and beat one to death. Six students from the mob, who don’t know each other and have not been in serious trouble before, are arrested, charged with murder, and tried as adults. All six are convicted of conspiracy to commit murder, and three are found guilty of third-degree murder. The rumor about the rape of a teenage girl that trig- gered the mob action later proves to be false. ( Janofsky, 1994; and “Mixed Verdict,” 1996)

An 11-year-old girl is walking to school when a young man accosts her, threatens to shoot her, and then takes her to a nearby backyard and rapes her. When police circulate a poster about a “person of interest,” neighborhood residents go hunting for him. Even local drug dealers ask to see a picture of the suspected child rapist. A group of men catch the suspect and pummel him until the police arrive. After the suspect is released from a hospital, he is arrested, beaten by guards in jail, and then convicted and sentenced to up to 66 years behind bars. (At the trial it is discovered that he was born addicted to heroin, beaten by his mother, and rented out to strangers for sex.) But no charges are filed against those who beat him. In fact, the police commissioner and the mayor remark that the reaction was understandable, consid- ering the heinous nature of the crime. Meanwhile, on the day of the rape, another group of men close in on someone who has the same nickname as the suspect. When a woman begins to scream that he is a rapist, he calls out that he is innocent, but several men in the

gathering crowd kick and beat him with a stick and a bat, yelling, “That’s what you get for raping little kids” before calling 911. This victim of mistaken identity tells the press, “I’m still traumatized” and presses charges against his assailants. He also sues the police department and the city, alleging that officers circulated his photo in the neighborhood and suggested that residents should use any means necessary to detain this suspected child rapist until the police arrive, thereby encouraging them to engage in vigilante justice. A civil court judge rejects the city’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit. (Gambacorta, 2009; Aguiluz, 2011; Fry, 2012; and COTWA, 2013)

Do-it-yourself street justice also has been denounced as far too harsh. Physical punishments, including death, are imposed in the heat of the moment for offenses that merit lesser penalties under the law. The vigilante’s intent is to settle matters in a manner that mirrors the original act— forcefully—but with the roles reversed.

The widely used phrase “taking the law into one’s own hands” does not capture the essence of this reaction to crime. Vigilantes don’t take the law; they break the law. They don’t use force in self- defense, which is legal; they unleash retaliatory vio- lence in order to inflict physical punishment, which is illegal. Their disdain for the technicalities of due process mocks the entire criminal justice process. Unleashed in the name of restoring law and order, vigilantism undermines the legal system and sends shock waves through the social order by trampling the Bill of Rights. In trying to vindicate victims, overzealous vigilantes create new ones.

From an academic standpoint, the study of revenge killings and retaliatory justice leads victim- ology full circle, back to its ancestral origins in criminology. Through vigilantism’s role reversals, victims become lawbreakers, physically harming individuals whom they believe made them suffer. Offenders, formerly enjoying the advantage within the oppressive relationship, are compelled to expe- rience firsthand what it is like to be on the receiving end of criminal violence. But trading places— transforming victims into offenders and offenders into victims—is no solution to the crime problem.

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In an ironic twist, by striking out against the wrong person or by unleashing excessive force, vengeful victims open themselves up to the risk of being prosecuted in criminal court and sued in civil court. There are too many aggressors out there already. Encouraging do-it-yourself retaliatory jus- tice would just add to their ranks.

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