Justice for the One And for the Many

 Perhaps you’ve read that something horrible happened in Washington State early Sunday Morning. Here is a brief press release:
PARKLAND, WA (KPLU)A gunman killed four police officers at a Parkland area coffee shop Sunday morning. A massive manhunt is underway in Pierce County to find the shooter. The shooting happened at 8:15 a.m. at Forza Coffee on Steele Street South, near McChord Air Force Base. The four officers were with the Lakewood Police Department. They have been identified as Sergeant Mark Renninger and Officers Ronald Owens, Tina Griswold, and Greg Richards. The four were in full uniform, wearing bullet-proof vests. They were working on their laptops, beginning their day shifts, when the gunman entered the coffee shop and shot them at close range.
Police are seeking Maurice Clemmons, age 37, in connection with this case. Though there is little doubt that he is the killer, even if he is not it is still stunning that a man like this is walking our streets. Here is a brief summary of his criminal record:
  1. Sentenced to 5 years for robbery in Pulaski County, Aug. 3, 1989.
  2. Sentenced to 8 years for burglary, theft and probation revocation in Pulaski County, Sept. 9, 1989
  3. Sentenced to an indeterminate amount for aggravated robbery and theft in Pulaski County, Nov. 15, 1989
  4. Sentenced to 20 years each for burglary and theft of property in Pulaski County, Feb. 23, 1990.
  5. Sentenced to 6 years for firearm possession in Pulaski County, Nov. 19, 1990.
  6. Some sentences were concurrent and some consecutive. But the total effect of all these sentences was a sentence of 108 years.
  7. On May 3, 2000, Gov. Mike Huckabee commuted Clemmons’ sentence to 47 years, 5 months and 19 days, which made him eligible for parole that day. The Parole Board granted his parole July 13, 2000. He was released Aug. 1, 2000.
  8. Clemmons then returned to prison for a July 13, 2001 conviction for robbery in Ouachita County, for which he received a 10-year sentence. He was paroled March 18, 2004.
  9. In May of 2009 Clemmons punched a sheriff’s deputy in the face, according to court records. The Officer was responding to a domestic violence call. As part of that incident, he was charged with seven counts of assault and malicious mischief.
  10. Most recently Clemmons had been in jail in Pierce County for the past several months on a pending charge of second-degree rape of a child. He was released from custody just six days ago, even though he was facing  at seven additional felony charges in Washington state. Clemmons posted $15,000 Bond for release.

So there you have it, 13 felony convictions, including aggravated robbery and theft, third-degree assault, and second-degree rape of a child.

Even should he be found not connected with this horrible murder, there are many questions. What is Maurice Clemmons doing walking the streets? How could Governor Huckabee have paroled him? How did he obtain release from prison so shortly after offending again in 2001? Yet again he evaded serious assault charges and, most grievous of all, he was released from custody after raping a child! Can it really be true that $15,000 is all it takes to walk free after raping a child? Should Maurice Clemmons be walking our streets? Surely not.

So, What does this have to do with a Catholic blog? Simply this. I want to raise with you a consideration of  justice  and well ordered love. In considering questions of justice it has been most common in the past 40 years to have the emphasis fall on the rights and needs of the individual. There is clearly a place for such considerations. Justice cannot always be merely what the majority thinks. But neither can the common good be wholly set aside. This is especially true in matters of public safety. The record above shows that a very dangerous man is currently walking our streets. This is neither just nor is it sensible.  We may all want to show some leniency from time to time. Severe justice for first time offenders may not always be warranted. But there comes a time when greater charity and justice has to be shown to the public and the common good must outweigh any personal charity we may wish to extend.

The current record of our Criminal Justice System is that we simply do not seem to have the will to keep even very dangerous criminals locked up. They walk away from lengthy sentences after very short times. They usually offend again and we still let them go early from subsequent sentences. In the popular mind social justice is usually equated with the rights of prisoners. But true social justice cannot forget the common good and must weigh it in the balance with prisoner rights.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church has this to say:

Legitimate defense can be not only a right but a grave duty for one who is responsible for the lives of others. The defense of the common good requires that an unjust aggressor be rendered unable to cause harm. ….The efforts of the state to curb the spread of behavior harmful to people’s rights and to the basic rules of civil society correspond to the requirement of safeguarding the common good. Legitimate public authority has the right and duty to inflict punishment proportionate to the gravity of the offense. Punishment has the primary aim of redressing the disorder introduced by the offense. When it is willingly accepted by the guilty party, it assumes the value of expiation. Punishment then, in addition to defending public order and protecting people’s safety, has a medicinal purpose: as far as possible, it must contribute to the correction of the guilty party. (CCC # 2265-2266)

It is therefore clear that we do not detain and/or punish to exact revenge. Rather we do so for a twofold purpose: to protect the common good by ending the disorder caused by wrongdoers. And, secondly for the medicinal purpose of correcting the guilty party insofar as possible.

Somewhere it seems we have lost balance. Too often the common good is neglected, even wholly set aside in decisions related to criminal justice. Public authority must discover anew its grave duty to the common good and particularly to the lives of others. Good intentions are not enough. Real people get harmed and killed when we get the balance wrong. Ask the families of the four police officers killed. Ask the many people who were held up at gun point by Mr. Clemmons. Ask the child who was raped by him.

From 2000-2007 I was pastor in a very rough part of town here in DC. We just called it the “hood.” Every week there were shootings. At least once a month a murder took place on our streets. Two of the murders took place right on Church grounds, one during the school day when our school was in session. In every case, the perpetrators of these murders had rap sheets a mile long: armed robbery, car theft, selling and possession, attempted murder, actual murder. But they walked our streets. Arrested on very serious charges they were out in days. When trial finally came, sometimes years later,  they had already offended in other ways. When sentence was passed they served only tiny portions of their sentence and were back out. Nothing, it seemed, would cause a re-evaluation of this revolving door “justice.” And in the hood we lived with fear we should have had. We experienced crime we shouldn’t have.

The common good is not some abstraction. It is about real people. We cannot simply toss the rights of prisoners and accused to the winds. But neither can we simply disregard the common good.  The murder of these fine police officers is just as much a matter of justice as poor prison conditions or overly severe sentencing guidelines. True justice is about balance. Individual rights? Yes. The Common Good? Yes again.

Pray for these brave officers and their families: Sergeant Mark Renninger and Officers Ronald Owens, Tina Griswold, and Greg Richards. Requiescant in Pace.



2 Replies to “Justice for the One And for the Many”

  1. It is very grievous that this man was released from prison a short time after raping a child. But, unfortunately this is the case with many rapists. They either get the charges dropped because of lack of sufficient physical evidence, or it often goes unreported. It seems that the only way a criminal is locked up for good is if they kill someone.

    Our justice system also tends to blame the rape victim, particularly if they are female, no matter how young. The whole process also takes a very long time, and the victim relives the trauma from being required to tell their story to so many people. And even after the victim goes through the process, the rapist still may not get a very long sentence, or even a sentence at all. Rape is the most underreported crime. 1 out of 6 rapists walk free EVERY DAY. And many of the ones caught don’t even get convicted (sorry I have a lot to say about our justice system on this one).

    Great post – it’s definitely an eye opening one. I will pray for those officers.

  2. There is a problem when images of justice are comingled with officers shaking hands and slapping each other on the back on a job well done (in killing the offender). I believe in justice, but we do need to be careful not to cross the line into vengence. The man was dangerous but also obviously quite ill. He needed to be removed from society but celebrating his death is wrong.

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