“Is Vengeance going to bring back your son to you? Or my boy to me”?

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Legal Fictions / Repairing the System

My father’s father owned a small clothing store in the Chicago Loop. One day someone tried to rob him; he resisted, and was shot dead. I remember once asking my father whatever happened to the man who killed his father. He replied that he had been spent several years in prison and then had been paroled, I asked how he felt about this. “He paid his debt to society.”

This father-son conversation from many years ago came to mind when I read this NYT story about the controversy in Brooklyn over the appropriate punishment for a young police officer who mistakenly shot and killed an unarmed civilian. http://www.nytimes.com/2016/03/25/nyregion/brooklyn-prosecutor-emerges-as-shrewd-victor-in-akai-gurley-case.html?_r=0

The case is a very sad one. The officer, Peter Liang, mistakenly shot and killed Akai Gurley, an unarmed civilian. To make matters worse, he didn’t even immediately go to the victim’s aid when he realized he had shot someone. And, as is too often the case in these police shootings, the victim was African-American.

Mr. Gurley’s family and the African-American community cheered when prosecutor Ken Thompson not only decided to try Laing for manslaughter, but also got a conviction. But now they are quite angry that Thompson has written a letter to the judge recommending that Laing not be sentenced to jail time.

When I went to law school, the official line was that deterrence was the primary goal of criminal punishment. “Retribution” was also mentioned, but it was viewed as a rather medieval approach. But times have changed. We regularly see on television tearful parents pleading that their son or daughter’s killer receive “justice.” And I think it is safe to say they are thinking more in terms of retribution than deterrence.

I don’t know enough about the Liang case to make an intelligent recommendation as to how the judge should rule. But I do agree with my professors that deterrence should drive our penal decisions. Social scientists tell us that the severity of punishment is not as effective for deterrence as the regularity of its infliction.

The real scandal is that so often police officers have beaten or killed an unarmed African-American civilian and received no punishment at all. And this de facto officer impunity encourages repetition. But Liang has already lost his job and been convicted of a serious felony. I am confident that, if every police officer knew that his or her reckless killing of an unarmed civilian would result in removal from the police force and loss of pension benefits, these incidents would become rare.

Will also sending Laing to prison be a more just sentence? It would in the sense of fairness as equal treatment since it is inconceivable that Gurley would not have gone to prison if he had recklessly killed Liang. And Gurley’s family would at least temporarily get some comfort in knowing the man who has caused them so much suffering is suffering himself.

But I am suspicious about the length or depth of that relief. I have never had the trauma of a loved one violently dying because of someone else’s recklessness. But I have, like most people, been the victim of lesser injustices that have caused me to dream of revenge on the perpetrator. My experience has been that this turn to vengeance only prolongs the the process of moving on. Maybe my father’s stoic acceptance of the fact that sometimes we suffer injustices for which there will never be adequate punishment is the wiser course. As that sage moral philosopher Vito Corleone points out in the quote that serves as the title for this post, vengeance can never make good our loss.

Deterrence doesn’t try to even the score; it contents itself in achieving imperfect justice and closure. That may not sound like much, but actually it is a cultural achievement we should be very proud of.

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4 Comments

  1. Quin Denvir says

    wonderful. I never knew of that conversation with Dad

    On Mon, Mar 28, 2016 at 8:07 PM, Guile is Good! wrote:

    > denvirj posted: “My father’s father owned a small clothing store in the > Chicago Loop. One day someone tried to rob him; he resisted, and was shot > dead. I remember once asking my father whatever happened to the man who > killed his father. He replied that he had been sp” >

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  2. The reference at the end to “closure” seems a bit out of place. I find this term to serve usually as a substitute for “retribution” (which as you note “justice” often does likewise).

    Your father’s “stoicism” was a measure of his regard for a parent’s (and lawyer’s) duty to inspire idealism in place of narrower feelings.

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    • Thanks, Howard. I was not aware that there were multiple meanings of “closure,” I was using it in the sense of “resolving” an issue as a precondition for moving on.

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  3. Dede Donovan says

    Having attended law school at the same time as John Denvir, I, too, was taught and for a long time believed that only deterrence was an appropriate justification for imprisonment. However, in my old age I have come to feel that retribution plays a necessary role in maintenance of the legitimacy of the criminal justice system in the eyes of the public.

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