Robbins: What is justice?
A few things stuck in my craw last week.
First, is the Ahmaud Arbery case. In February of last year, just before the pandemic began to rage, Arbery, a 25-year-old Black man, was jogging in a South Georgia suburb —Satilla Shores, outside the city of Brunswick in Georgia’s lowcountry — when he was confronted by a pair of white men, a father and son pair, the elder of whom was a former police officer. The shotgun-armed men, along with a third man who joined in the pursuit, later claimed to have been attempting a citizen’s arrest of Arbery whose only crime, in now appears, was to have been jogging while Black.
The father and son pair told police that they had pursued Arbery because they suspected he was responsible for a string of recent purported burglaries in the neighborhood. When the shotgun was pointed at Arbery at close range, he attempted to defend himself at which time he was shot and killed. Notwithstanding that Arbery had committed no offense, was unarmed, and in no way posed a threat, the vigilante trio now claims self-defense. While at the time of this writing, the case has gone to the jury, and may be decided by its printing, one can only hope — even in the Deep South lowcountry — that justice will be done.
During the recently-concluded trial, there has been one stir after another, perhaps the most alarming of which, that has raised the hackles of potential racial bias, was when despite protests from prosecutors, only one Black member was seated on the 12-person jury. Piling on, one of the defense attorneys then held forth in open court that there were too many “Black pastors” sitting in the courtroom.
Thereafter, the “Black pastors” rallied, which brings me to my point.
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Following the conclusion of the case — after prosecution and defense both rested, but before a verdict was reached — a group, including a united knot of Black pastors — rallied outside the courthouse and one of them raised his voice and said, “We pray for a miracle!”
And that’s what stuck in my craw.
Not that every last scintilla of evidence seems to point to guilt for the senseless killing of an innocent young man, but that it was a “miracle” rather than “justice” that the pastor prayed for. Now, I don’t doubt that in the Deep South — even in 2021 — it might indeed depend on God to intervene for the killers to be convicted — if “justice” rather than divine intervention, upon which our system of laws are meant to be founded.
The second matter that chased gooseflesh down my neck was in the New York case of Christopher Belter, who pleaded guilty to rape and sex abuse of four underage girls. Besides the outrage of sentencing Belter to eight years of probation — and not a moment of prison time — Niagara County Judge Matthew Murphy searched his conscience and in sentencing the young white man from a monied family, that, notwithstanding what the prosecutors called Belter’s “horrible acts of sex assault,” prison time would not be “appropriate.” Mind you, now, Belter confessed to the crimes against four underage girls; there was no doubt about his guilt.
Besides the apparent miscarriage of justice, what stuck in my craw all the more was when the soon-to-be-retiring judge said, “I agonized [over the sentence]. I’m not ashamed to say that I actually prayed over what is the appropriate sentence in this case because there was great pain. There was great harm. There were multiple crimes committed in the case.” That said, Judge Murphy went on, “It seems to me that a sentence that involves incarceration or partial incarceration isn’t appropriate, so I am going to sentence you to probation.”
The “prayed” part particularly stuck out.
Perhaps what the judge was “praying for” was to do the right thing and be guided by the law?
Then there is the outcome in the Kyle Rittenhouse case from Kenosha where a 17-year-old, self-appointed guardsman with an AR-15-style weapon, put himself in harm’s way, killed two men, and grievously wounded a third, was acquitted of all charges, and, in a grandstand move, may be offered a Congressional internship by Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz (who is staring down his own sexual assault and sex trafficking charges).
Which raises the question posed in the title of this column: What is justice?
The dictionary says it is “the process or result of using laws to fairly judge and punish crimes and criminals.” The keystone here is the word “fairly” which is itself defined as “marked by impartiality and honesty: free from self-interest, prejudice, or favoritism.”
Thomas Aquinas, the 13th century Dominican friar, philosopher, Catholic priest, and Doctor of the Church, held that, “Justice is a certain rectitude of mind whereby a man does what he ought to do in the circumstances confronting him.” Benjamin Disraeli, the 19th century British Primer Minister, observed that, “Justice is truth in action.” Founding Father, John Adams, observed that, “Each individual of the society has a right to be protected by it in the enjoyment of his life, liberty, and property, according to standing laws.” In his first inaugural address, none less than Thomas Jefferson declaimed that there must be, “Equal and exact justice to all men, of whatever persuasion, religious or political.”
Behind the concept of justice lies the notion of balance, that people get — or at least should get, at law — what is right, fair, and appropriate, that all, notwithstanding race or privilege, deserve equal and impartial treatment. What is not behind the concept is hope or prayers or appeals for godly intercession.
While the “miracle” that should be prayed for in the Georgia lowlands is that justice will be done, and what Judge Murphy’s appeal in Niagara County to the Almighty should have been geared to is that God’s light be shined on the path of righteous adherence to the law, the guidepost of our system of justice should and must be what is carved in stone above the lintels of the United States Supreme Court: “Equal Justice Under Law.”
Rohn K. Robbins is an attorney licensed before the Bars of Colorado and California who practices Of Counsel in the Vail Valley with the Law Firm of Caplan & Earnest LLC. His practice areas include: business and commercial transactions; real estate and development; family law, custody, and divorce; and civil litigation. Robbins may be reached at 970-926.4461 or rrobbins@CELaw.com. His novels, “How to Raise a Shark (an apocryphal tale)” and “The Stone Minder’s Daughter,” are currently available at Amazon.com, and coming soon, “Why I Walk So Slow.”