Have mercy on the criminalWho is running from the lawAre you blind to the winds of changeDon’t you hear him any more“Have Mercy on the Criminal”, lyrics by Bernie Taupin
On Sunday, Billy and I went to visit his mom, who lives in South Alexandria, Virginia. As we entered her neighborhood, I noticed yellow ribbons tied around trees and mailbox posts. On the corner, someone had put a big sign, like the ones used outside of stores, which read “Hannah you are in our thoughts and prayers.”
It turned out that Hannah’s family lives just one block over from Billy’s mother. The trip to and from Alexandria was sobering indeed.
|The Accused: Jesse Matthew|
|The Victim: Hannah Graham|
For anyone who has not read the news for the last several weeks, Hannah Graham was a student at the University of Virginia who disappeared a few weeks ago. She was last seen in the company of a young man named Jesse Matthew. Her body was found last week. Matthew has been arrested. Murder charges are pending.
How many parents of girls Hannah’s age texted or called their daughters right after Hannah disappeared, to make sure they were safe? Me too. How many parents think that losing a child would be the single most devastating event to have to endure? Me too.
I can’t bear to think about what Hannah’s last hours and moments were like. What does it feel like to know your own death is imminent? How awful for this young woman, so full of promise. So much ahead of her.
And now her parents have to live with this pain for the rest of their lives. Life will probably never hold the same joy for them that it once did. They will suffer more and longer than Jesse Matthew ever will.
If the man who has been arrested is guilty of this, and other crimes, he cut a swath of terror from Lynchburg to Newport News, and as far north as Fairfax. And yet, until Hannah disappeared, no one even knew he existed. If only his victims at Liberty University and Christopher Newport had pressed charges. The subsequent crimes could have been avoided. Not that I’m blaming those women at all; I can understand why they didn’t. But still . . .
In cases such as Jesse Mathew’s, where the guilt appears to be incontrovertible, it is easy to brand the accused as a monster and want to dispense with a trial and just shoot him. Judging by the comments I’ve read on Facebook, there are many out there who hold this view. People want to grab their pitchforks and storm the jail.
I’ve also noticed that when anyone on Facebook expresses any kind of empathy for a criminal, the response is often— what about the victims? Or better yet–what if it was your daughter who was murdered?
To which I respond—what if it was your son who was accusedof murder? You would want him to get a fair trial, wouldn’t you? Or if you were the accused, you would want all the protections the constitution provides to accused criminals, wouldn’t you? As difficult to accept as it is in cases like Matthew’s, in our country, the accused is innocent until proven guilty.
(Ironically, this cornerstone of American justice is not stated anywhere in the U.S. Constitution, but it is stated explicitly in the constitutions of Brazil, Canada, Columbia, France, Iran (?), Italy, Russia and South Africa, plus the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union.)
But why? Why do we presume that the accused is innocent? To protect us all, that’s why. Blackstone said it is better to let 10 guilty men go free than to punish one innocent man. You may not agree with this today, but it is one of the foundations of our judicial system.
Jesse Matthew may be guilty, but the fact is that many people are wrongfully convicted and spend time in jail for crimes they did not commit. According to the National Registry of Exonerations, since 1989, more than 2,000 wrongly convicted people have been exonerated.
For example, after spending 22 years behind bars, in 2004 Arthur Lee Whitfield was released by the parole board when DNA testing failed to turn up his genetic profile in evidence saved from two Norfolk rapes that occurred the night of Aug. 14, 1981. The testing implicated a man already in prison for other attacks.
That’s why we have the presumption, although clearly it doesn’t always work out the way it is supposed to in real life.
I’ve seen comments on Facebook that ask—why should we waste money on a trial when we know he is guilty. Do we know for sure? Isn’t that the purpose of the trial—to determine guilt or innocence? If we dispense with a trial when we know, or think we know, that the accused is guilty, where does that lead? You know very well where it leads. It’s a slippery slope. Therefore, there can be no exceptions.
The comment I take the most issue with, is the one that proclaims “how can anyone defend a monster like that?”
The Sixth Amendment says: “In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to . . . have the assistance of counsel for his defense.” It doesn’t say, “unless you are really guilty,” or “unless everyone thinks you’re guilty.” No, it means every accused person, including Jessie Matthew.
Would I defend Jesse Matthew? In a heartbeat if I had the training and skill. It does not mean that I don’t empathize with the victims. The crimes he is accused of are heinous—some of the worst imaginable. As a parent, it scares me to death to think that someone would defile and kill my precious daughter.
Make no mistake; I would want to hunt the perpetrator down and make him suffer an agonizingly slow and painful death. I would want him to suffer as much, or more, than his victim. As much as I would want to hurt him and hurt him badly (I’m talking Freddie Krueger kind of hurting), I would not do it.
Jesse Matthew may be a rapist and a murderer. If the allegations are true, then he is a sick bastard and he needs to be punished. Yet, as disgusting and distasteful the idea is, he is entitled to be defended and found guilty before he is punished. I know this is an unpopular opinion to express right now. Everyone is reeling from the news. We want justice and we want it now.
But we can’t have it now; not yet. We must wait for our justice system, imperfect as it is, corrupt as it sometimes is, to do what it needs to do. Even if my daughter were one of his victims.