The case went to the jury, after extensive analysis of the personal lives of both the victim and the perpetrator in the popular press. (As one might expect, the victim was, generally, presented as second only to Jesus in the perfection of his life, etc.; while the perpetrator was presented as a most unpleasant individual, who was either having an affair with her married partner, or trying to, and was generally portrayed as someone who probably should never have been allowed to have been a police officer; potentially even, someone who should never have been allowed to be armed.) None of which, of course really has anything to do with this case. In the fullness of time, the jury returned a verdict of guilty of murder and, in the sentencing phase, established that she should be sentenced to ten years in jail and eligible for parole in about five.
Immediately, we started seeing television news stories about the “reaction” of some of the public to this development. As has been all too common in recent years, much of this reaction has been demands for “Justice for (whomever the current victim is)!” We have seen this sort of thing all too frequently in the last few years. I confess that I just don’t understand the “thinking” which appears to be going on in this sort of thing.
I hope that I don’t come off as racist in noting the fact that most of the time the sorts of protests we have seen in relation to this case, and numerous others, have developed in relation to cases of “white” on “black” crime, especially in cases involving white police officers and black victims. I have no intention of arguing that there hasn’t been a long history of, essentially, institutionalized racism in many police forces, as well as many other organizations of a wide variety of types (unions, professional groups, some businesses, fraternal organizations, etc.). I’m pretty sure that there has been, even without spending much time seeking data on the issue. What upsets me, however, is that the term “Justice” is being demeaned and diminished by these types of actions by some people and the press.
So, what IS “justice? According to my dictionary, justice is “… the maintenance or administration of what is just,especially by the impartial adjustment of conflicting claims or the assignment of merited rewards or punishments.”1 In this definition, I believe that “just” means fair to all concerned and/or in compliance with established law, or something to that effect.
So, let’s look at this case in what I think is appropriate detail, and what I believe is factually accurate. The victim, a black man named Botham Jean was killed in his own apartment while watching TV and eating ice cream by a white, female police officer who was coming off a long (15-16 hour) shift and, while entering what she claims she thought was her own apartment. She encountered an unknown, black man, whom she proceeded to shoot at twice, striking him once, and killing him. She, as I understand it, reported this to the police fairly quickly, they arrived, she admitted to shooting the now deceased victim, and was, reasonably promptly, arrested on a charge of manslaughter. A couple of months later, she was indicted by a grand jury for murder.
Eventually, the case came to trial in the appropriate court; a jury was seated (with the participation of counsel for both the prosecution and the defense); and the trial was held, consisting of presentation of the evidence and the examination of witnesses. Counsel for both sides were allowed to make opening and closing statements as to their interpretation of the facts of the case, the jury retired to a private space to consider their decision as to guilt or innocence of the defendant to the charge(s) against the her. A decision was reached by that jury (in this case, guilty). So the trial entered a “sentencing phase,” where arguments as to the appropriate extent of punishment were presented. The jury again retired to make their decision and returned a verdict of ten years in prison (with eligibility for parole after five) as being appropriate in this case. Those are what I believe to be the facts of this case.
As a reasonable person (which I like to think I am, in spite of the fact that I am quite aware of my lack of perfection), I would suggest that Botham Jean HAS received “justice” in this case. Now, I’m not going to suggest that this case was resolved in a way which was pleasing to everyone. I think that I understand that this resolution may not be any more emotionally satisfying to some than the verdict of “Innocent” was satisfying to everyone in the infamous murder trial of O. J. Simpson.
Now, I am human enough to wish that the world always conformed to my wishes. I do think that O.J. probably got away with murder and I think the sentence in this case probably should have been longer. BUT, I didn’t have to make those decisions and I KNOW that I am not in possession of all the evidence which was presented in either of those trials. Nor did I have the responsibility of making those decisions. I’m just reacting to what I heard on the “news” on TV. Note: NEWS is, or should be, the facts as they can be established. Most of what we see on television, especially on the cable “news” channels is NOT, in my opinion, actually news, but commentary, which can be interesting, but is only factual in that it is what someone thinks (or, at least, says she/he thinks) about the facts.
I would argue that “Justice” is a lot like “News,” in that the concept is pretty widely misunderstood. To go back to Webster’s definition; it states that justice is supposed to deal with determining what is fair to all concerned in an impartial manner. That’s why we established in the Constitution that we are supposed to have trials and determine verdicts by a jury of our peers. And, unless it can be established that something improper occurred during that trial, the verdict can’t be rejected and have the defendant retried on the same charge.
That may, or may not, be particularly emotionally satisfying to either the prosecution, the defendant, or the public at large. But it IS justice! Note: the definition of justice quoted above does not say anything about justice being emotionally satisfying to either of the aggrieved parties, or the general public (or any specific subset of it).
There is a reason why the figure of Justice is portrayed as blind or blindfolded and holding a set of scales in one hand and a sword in the other. JUSTICE is blind so that she can be impartial (fair to all without consideration of irrelevant factors). She uses the scales to “weigh” the evidence (facts) of the case, and wields a sword symbolizing judicial power.
Justice isn’t supposed to be about being emotionally satisfying to observers. It’s supposed to be about doing the best we can to be fair and honest in our dealings with each other. When socially acceptable standards are violated by ANYONE, that individual is supposed to be subject to trial and, upon conviction, sentenced to an appropriate punishment. It is, perhaps, worth noting that fully one half (FIVE) of the first ten Amendments to the US Constitution (those ten being what are referred to as the “Bill of Rights”) deal with questions relating to justice, trials, bail, indictment, etc.
That may well be a result of the fact that a fair number of the charges expressed against the English government (the King) in the Declaration of Independence were related to the perceived violations of traditional British law placed on the English colonies in America by that government. In other words, they seem to be saying, “If you expect us to be English citizens, we should have the same access to English law as other English citizens, and the same rights under it.” In any event, the Bill of Rights includes attempts to clarify the rules by which justice would be achieved in the United States. It’s also worth noting, I think, that the Bill of Rights enumerates only restrictions on the government’s ability to interfere with our lives, especially in relation to our ability to seek and obtain justice.
What all this really boils down to is the fact that justice doesn’t have to satisfy our desire for revenge. What it is intended to provide us with is the best attempt that can be achieved at being fair to all concerned and, upon conviction, being equitable in sentencing. Do we always achieve this? Probably not. But I think the case can be made that justice is, generally, served. And when it is not, legal appeals provide a means to correct that situation. While our system may not be perfect, personally, I prefer it to simply letting some individual decide, based on whatever criteria he/she chooses to apply (or ignore). I think that’s what the “Rule of Law” refers to. The best attempt we can achieve to obtain justice for all. I think that is a good thing, even when I may not fully agree with the result.
1 https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/justice accessed, Oct 4, 2019.