Themis’s Law

This article was originally published in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on February 11, 2014.

Themis’s Law

Beware tilting the scales of justice when emotions run high

Feb 11, 2014
12:00 AM

The legal system inspires theatrical and cinematic drama because it captures the full palette of human nature in all its emotional colors: grief, virtue, revulsion, courage, conflict, dishonesty, triumph. The police procedural features a cast of villains, victims and steadfast avengers, while the courtroom is a theater, replete with an opening act, a director, critics upon whose judgment the drama will hang, a gallery, intermission, a climax, an ending — and, sometimes, an epilogue in the form of a new law that will shape future cases.

But while law makes for great drama, great drama seldom makes great law. And there’s the rub with reflexive, emotionally charged demands that an outrageous crime be answered by the swift creation of new category of crime that enshrines the memory of a victim.

We have Jacob’s Law, Jessica’s Law, Leandra’s Law and several Lauren’s Laws. (Megan’s Law, which requires the public registration of released sex offenders, is an informal appellation given to a wide range of state laws.) Almost all are named in the memory of our most vulnerable citizens, children.

And comes now an emotional groundswell for “Rocco’s Law,” to honor the memory of a police dog stabbed to death by a fleeing fugitive the week before last in Lawrenceville.

The proposed law, announced by state Sen. Matt Smith, D-Mt. Lebanon, would enhance the penalty for killing a police K-9. It would make killing a police dog a second-degree felony with a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison and a $25,000 fine. As with every new law, its implementation and execution will come with costs and, very likely, unintended consequences.

Is Rocco’s death an affront to the community? Is his human partner deserving of our compassion and condolence? The answer in both cases is a resounding yes.

But the killing of Rocco is no more outrageous than a dozen other crimes that occur in our community over the course of a year, or a month or even a week. In fact, most crimes are far worse by virtue of being perpetrated against human beings, such as the disturbing case reported recently of a mentally handicapped Arlington man allegedly beaten to a pulp by family caregivers.

So let’s ask two more questions: Is there an epidemic of crimes against K-9s — which are cast as willing “heroes” but cannot truly give consent to be placed in harm’s way? Will creating a special law to address crimes against K-9s make people like John Rush, the accused stabber and reportedly a schizophrenic, think twice before lashing out? The answer in both cases is no.

The realm of law is supposed to serve as a refuge of reason. The law is supposed to be blind. The Goddess Themis holds high the scales of justice, not her heart.

Fact determines law. And law determines policy. But when emotion drives this process, politics and ephemeral causes, rather than reason or enduring justice, are served.

When we name a law for a victim — no matter how worthy of our compassion or empathy — dispassionate public justice is transformed into personal validation. As individuals and as a community, we should mourn the horrific abuse of a child or the appalling murder of an innocent by a perpetrator wrongly released on parole, or the killing of a police dog during the commission of a crime. Politicians and activists do no harm when they employ an individual as the emotional emblem of a legal injustice or social ill that must be addressed.

When the emblem becomes the formal basis for a law, however, the awesome power of justice can be misapplied and misdirected. There is a reason that criminal cases are titled “The People” vs. the alleged offender. The criminal courts do not exist to settle personal scores.

Stalin said famously, “One death is a tragedy; one million is a statistic.” That perceptive observation is tantamount to a commandment for activists, dramatists and even journalists, who are instructed to “put a human” face on stories so complex or vast in scope that they defy easy comprehension. But to apply Stalin’s dictum in the realm of law and reason and be driven by a single victim is to overlook the sentiment of its premise, and the cynicism of its author.

As citizens we should be wary of empowering aggrieved individuals, opportunistic politicians or even idealistic activists — no matter how well-intentioned their motives — to co-opt the legal system to satisfy the (very understandable) desire to enshrine loved ones or promote causes. The intense emotional heat of sensational crimes is antithetical to the cold reason that shapes equitable laws whose wisdom transcends the passions of a moment in time.

Naming a law after the victim of a crime does not diminish the harm they or their loved ones have suffered. And refraining from doing so does not increase it.

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