Battlepanda: Hurt, blame and punishment


Always trying to figure things out with the minimum of bullshit and the maximum of belligerence.

Friday, January 20, 2006

Hurt, blame and punishment

This post by Walker of Choosing Hope is very thoughtful and powerful.

This should be obvious, but it seems that some folks just don't get it.

The desire to find and place blame after tragedy is certainly understandable. The assignment of blame where it exists is often desirable. But the existence of tragedy does not mean there is always blame to be found, and when there is blame the extent of culpability is not proportional to the enormity of the tragedy.

There is an instinct among many that the size of the punishment should be proportional to the size of the hurt. But such a standard is clearly unjust. This is easiest to see if we look at the mistakes of children. A two-year-old might knock over a candle leading to an awful tragedy, but we don't blame the child. We might blame adults present for allowing the dangerous situation to exist, but not in proportionality to the awful result. In contrast, an heir to a fortune who is caught attempting the murder of his benefactor is guilty of an imprisonable crime even if no one is actually hurt. He's also likely to lose his inheritance in short order.

So why is it that those of us who insist on evaluating the context of the situation and the background of the perpetrator in determining the severity of a punishment are so often mocked as being soft on crime. For some people it seems, that once ANY culpability is established, then the extent of the punishment should be proportional to the pain of the victim. If we decline to blame the two-year-old at all, then the extent of the blame and hence the severity of the punishment should also depend on the intent and future dangerousness of the perpetrator. This is acknowledged in our laws in many ways, such as the concept of pre-meditation for defining murder in the first degree. The victim of the un-premeditated murder is just as dead, but the intent of the perpetrator should be paramount in setting their punishment. It's often bothered me that there is any legal difference between murder and attempted murder. Perhaps the failed murderer is seen as less dangerous because they are less likely to succeed in the future. I also suppose our jails would be overcrowded fast if driving drunk became the equivalent of vehicular homicide.

But the issue at hand is the growing vindictiveness promoted by sensationalist local reporting which goads the public into a desire for vengeance. I expect juries to use their common sense, but sometimes it is lacking, and sometimes tragically so. This thread is to be continued, but in the meantime read this by Laura Denyes, and explain to me what was going on in the heads of the jurors to convict Cory Maye of any crime, much less sentence him to death.