Tag Archives: Justice

A small county murder’s nexus with a Puritan

My husband was  counsel to the defendant in a murder trial this week. The trial ran from Tuesday morning through today (Friday) around noon. The jury convicted the defendant of second-degree murder after deliberating an hour and a half. The slaying occurred a little more than two years ago.

The defendant, who has Parkinson’s Disease, testified that he feared the victim, with whom he was friends, because, he claimed, the victim had walked into his house, and because, he alleged, the victim had once shoved him (“threw me down”) on the stairs. The defendant also testified that the victim had robbed him at various times.

Things evidently didn’t improve, so when friend victim walked in, friend defendant shot him.  The .45 caliber bullet took quite a tour through the victim’s chest, heart, aorta, and arm. A medical autopsy expert testified and showed grizzly slides showing a very great deal of blood. I attended only Thursday morning; my chief interest in the trial was hearing the expert’s testimony.

Sentencing negotiations are underway. The defendant told me yesterday that he looks forward to prison.

I was reading The Bruised Reed by Puritan Richard Sibbes (1577–1635) today, recovering from the rare occasion of sitting in on a trial, even just one day, for just a few hours. I was there because I like the defendant. He thanked me very graciously for a roll I served him at the jail’s Thanksgiving dinner last year. My husband and I were among several people who helped serve the dinner. It was my favorite Thanksgiving of all time. But Sibbes had something serious to say that seemed connected to friend defendant:

“All light that is not spiritual, because it lacks the strength of sanctifying grace, yields to every little temptation, especially when it is fitted and suited to personal inclinations.” (Richard Sibbes: The Bruised Reed)

“Personal inclinations.” They should probably be treated like flashing signs at railroad crossings. Ignore them at terrible, bloody peril.




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Justice, mercy, and who we are: Some thoughts on the Pistorius trial and the Bible

I don’t think I found the trial, and now the sentencing, of Oscar Pistorius so compelling simply because I have been a lawyer; I honestly think I have followed the proceedings with so much interest because Judge Masipa has an uncommon apprehension of justice and mercy. And I believe she has a Biblical sense of these qualities, which, all too often, are left out to dry until sufficiently abstract.

Without mercy there can be no justice; and mercy demands justice, because without justice, mercy can only be misappropriated. Oscar killed Reeva. That is a terrible harm that can never be undone. But Oscar was not adjudicated to be a murderer. There must be mercy for Oscar, because Oscar is alive and utterly broken and in terrible pain, and Oscar needs mercy, very much.

You forgave the iniquity of your people; you covered all their sin. Selah.
You withdrew all your wrath; you turned from your hot anger.
Restore us again, O God of our salvation, and put away your indignation toward us!
Will you be angry with us forever? Will you prolong your anger to all generations?
Will you not revive us again, that your people may rejoice in you?
Show us your steadfast love, O LORD, and grant us your salvation. — Psalms 85:2-7 (ESV)

Genesis 9:6 unequivocally recites the law of murder being punishable by death:

“Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image.” (ESV)

But Oscar Pistorius was not convicted of murder, but of culpable homicide, equivalent to a conviction of manslaughter in American jurisprudence–and the Word of God established cities of refuge for those who killed unintentionally.

“. . .then you shall select cities to be cities of refuge for you, that the manslayer who kills any person without intent may flee there.
The cities shall be for you a refuge from the avenger, that the manslayer may not die until he stands before the congregation for judgment.” —Numbers 35:11-12 (ESV)

If Oscar winds up under house arrest with forays of community service, it will be a humbling experience for him. He will not be in situations in which he needs to win, or could win, or take control. Other people will structure his time. And yes, he will also be safe from the collateral ravages of an inhumane prison: vindication of antisocial thinking and actions, AIDs and other diseases, rape, etc. All human beings deserve protection from such things, under any circumstances.

Whatever penalty Oscar Pistorius receives for his recklessness, his only celebrityship will be that of a fallen man. And I hope he will shine as a fallen man who, like Nebuchadnezzar, was made to hit the dirt; and, his lessons learned, was lifted up again.

“. . .and those who walk in pride he is able to humble.” (See: Daniel 4:28-37)

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some points concerning presumed guilt

My husband and I have both fielded the same question uncounted times: “How can you stand to represent a client when you know he’s guilty?” My husband is a public defender, and before I retired from the practice of law, I handled assigned counsel felony cases. It was challenging, sometimes frustrating work, but I would never call it thankless.

For one thing, most of my clients ended our publicly appointed alliance with at least a “Thanks, I know you tried,” before being handcuffed for transport either back to county jail or off to state prison.

Nevertheless, the question always prompts me to ask how anyone with the equivalent of a high school education in America, whether public, private, or homeschooling, can ask that. How can they have such a tenuous grasp of fundamental American values and legal processes? But I suppose they didn’t all have the cultural advantage of growing up watching Perry Mason blow the prosecutor out of the water when Perry exacted a confession from the real killer in court. And they didn’t all have the teachers I had for fifth-grade Social Studies and twelfth-grade American Government.

As an aside, the word transliterated “paraclete” in John 14:26 and 15:26, translated “helper” or “advocate,” that refers to the Holy Spirit that Christ will send through the Father, is the same Greek word that refers to someone who comes alongside an accused person summoned to the magistrate for questioning. The word literally means “alongside one called.” The right of support when one stands otherwise alone in a potentially life-changing, or even potentially life-forfeiting situation, is a God-given one.

When asked how a lawyer can take up the cause of someone he knows is guilty, the appropriate initial response is, How do you know he’s guilty? The judge doesn’t even know that yet–and he’s the one who will ultimately pronounce him guilty–or not guilty.

The defendant may or may not have broken the law as he is accused of doing, but he isn’t guilty unless and until the State proves its case beyond a reasonable doubt. Is there evidence that supports his innocence? Does he have defenses that compel a jury to exonerate him from the charges?

Admittedly, the prosecutor prevails more often than not, and the PD is alongside the defendant, now adjudicated guilty, to mitigate the damage at a sentencing hearing. My husband likens these situations to “a controlled crash landing of a burning aircraft.” It should not seem entirely odd that people who use drugs and/or commit other crimes tend to be self-destructive.

Trials are actually fairly exceptional in real life. Generally, the defendant agrees to a guilty plea, the PD and the prosecutor work out deals, and the judge accepts the plea bargain. The defendant receives a lower jail sentence, or goes to drug treatment, or does some sort of community service for pleading guilty instead of going to trial.

The right to counsel inheres in the Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution. The right to have assigned counsel provided was guaranteed in the United States Supreme Court decision Gideon v. Wainwright, 372 U.S. 335 (1963), in which the Court found that counsel must be provided to indigent defendants in all felony cases.

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