May 11, 2004
Public Therapy vs. Punishment
May 11, 2004 05:21 PM
In his post about the Justice Department's decision to re-open the investigation of Emmett Till's murder, Nick says, "Surely the remaining perpetrators (if any) should be brought to justice, and I support a renewed prosecution for its symbolic value (the 'public therapy' view of criminal justice is particularly keen here)."
Depending on what "brought to justice" means, I may have to disagree with Nick. Certainly if there were people involved in the crime other than the two men, now deceased, who were arrested, tried, acquitted and who then sold the story of how they lynched Till to a magazine, their guilt should be determined and publicized.
But now, when crimes like Till's murder are formally recognized through hate crime statutes to be particularly heinous and deserving of extra punishment, I doubt that much purpose will be served by putting senior citizens in prison for a 50-year-old killing. The public shaming should be enough.
Did I say "brought to justice"? I meant "brought to Guantanamo Bay" :)
Yeah, I guess jailing some really old people isn't quite like sending Charles Manson to the slammer, but there are two points worth making here: First, I'm referring to the "public therapy" of enforcing the laws, not merely having them on the books (which is also very important--see Lawrence). Second, Till's murderers were aquitted by an all white jury after one hour of deliberation, and after being preached to by the defense lawyer that their ancestors would roll in the grave if they sent these folks to jail. Till's murderers later confessed to the murder publicly, but no one corrected this utterly gross miscarriage of justice. Because Till's murder and the failure to vindicate it is something of a paradigmatic miscarriage of justice and equality, I can say that I would personally enjoy the "therapy" of reopening investigation to complete any unfinished business, and I would also appreciate the symbolic justice of fed-state cooperation to vindicate a tragic crime that has come to nearly symbolize racist hate itself.
Although it does, on one level, seem like a waste of resources, I'd have to agree that it's worth doing.
Not only would it seem necessary to try to bring some peace to any living relatives of Till, but also to reinforce for other citizens that the rule of law means something and, for criminals, to show that it means they can never rest, so long as they live.
I don't have much faith in the reasoning capabilities of most criminals, so the first two reasons are the ones I think really matter.
I'm really unmoved by the fact that the defendants are now senior citizens. If they committed the crime of murder, they should be punished for it by being deprived of their freedom for whatever time they have left on this earth. That they were allowed to live and enjoy their lives this long without being punished is a travesty and injustice.
Technically, they are unlikely to have been involved in the actual murder; the current evidence points toward the murderers having had assistance in the kidnapping.