AN EYE FOR AN EYE
They are battered women, grieving parents, and burglarized homeowners who responded to criminal violence by taking the law into their own hands. Their cases have struck a deep chord in American society. Are they victims of a failing judicial system or criminals themselves? True crime writer Gary Provost examines the stories of ordinary citizens who have taken on the roles of judge, jury and — sometimes — executioner. Are their acts a higher form of justice...or merely revenge? You decide:
Fascinating, penetrating, and chilling, Into Their Own Hands is a controversial and thought-provoking look at what's wrong with crime and punishment in America today and what happens when victims don't just get mad — they get even.
We all like superheroes. Vigilantes are commonplace, at least in our imaginations. The reality is very different, and I have included this book to illustrate the two sides of taking the law into your own hands. It's not always as cut-and-dried as in the comics. – David Niall Wilson
A few years ago in Bristol, Connecticut, two friends and I created the greatest plan in history for the correction of all social problems. And we weren't even drinking. It was called "The Bristol Plan," and it covered pretty much everything: the environment, elections, taxes, you name it. But perhaps the most provocative part of the plan was its criminal justice system.
Under The Bristol Plan there would be only two possible sentences for felonies:
Two years in prison.
Death by hanging.
The two-year sentence would be served by most offenders on their first conviction. Car thieves, shoplifters, unarmed burglars, extortionists, embezzlers, check forgers, drunk drivers, and corrupt politicians would be sent away for twenty-four months to reconsider the choices they had been making.
This prison would be unlike the prisons we know today. It would be a clean and well-lighted place, geared entirely toward rehabilitation. The two-year prisoner would wear street clothes, eat nutritious meals, learn new skills, get counseling, enjoy conjugal visits, and be supplied with Tony Robbins tapes. In other words, the prisoner would have every opportunity to reform. The cost of this two-year prison would be small, when measured against the billions we would save by no longer operating huge maximum-security fortresses. This two-year prison would probably be relatively easy to escape from, but we reckoned that escapes would be rare, inasmuch as the punishment for attempted escape would be death by hanging.
When the prisoner was released from a two-year prison he would be supported until he got a job, and we would help in that effort. If he didn't help himself, then, of course, we would hang him. In fact, we would do everything possible to get this person up and running again, a productive member of society. Once the prisoner had gone through a two-year sentence, there would be no conceivable excuse for his committing another crime.
The only other possible sentence for a felony under The Bristol Plan would be death by hanging. This sentence would be given on the first conviction to murderers, rapists, kidnappers, and anybody who carried a deadly weapon in the commission of a crime.
It seemed to us that giving these people five- and ten-year sentences was like burying atomic waste for five years and then dropping it into the nearest reservoir. Under this system we would use a lot of rope, but the recidivism rate would drop sharply.
The death sentence, by the way, would also go to attempted murderers. We didn't understand why attempted murder is treated as a lesser crime than murder. Clearly, the criminal who tries to kill is equally as dangerous to society as the one who does kill, though perhaps not as good a shot, so why should we reward incompetence with a lesser sentence?
The crimes punishable by two-year sentences would be divided into categories, depending on their severity. A person might commit a minor crime three times, and serve three two-year sentences, and be hanged for the fourth offense. Someone who committed a more severe crime might get a second two-year sentence, and hang for the third offense.
But sooner or later any series of felonies, no matter what the crime, would lead to the gallows. There would be no such thing as a fifth offense, and no such thing as a "known career criminal." As we saw it, by the time a felon went through the two-year sentence a time or two, he would be so certain of the consequences of future crimes that committing another crime would be the equivalent of saying, "Please hang me."
To commit a hanging crime would, in effect, be to commit suicide. It would be a death wish, and we would grant that wish within seventy-two hours of conviction. There would be no appeals process. It seemed silly to us to set up a justice system and then put in an appeals process which basically says the system can't be trusted to work properly.
There was a lot more to The Bristol Plan. We were going to hang the presidents of corporations that knowingly poisoned the drinking water, or knowingly sold defective parts to the military. We thought we might establish a hanging channel on cable TV, so people could see their tax dollars at work. We might have gone too far at times. I, for example, wanted to hang any organist who played one of those moronic cavalry charges during an NBA basketball game. But I was voted down.
However, it did seem that as long as we limited the discussion to serious felonies, we had come up with a system of justice that everybody could live with. The right-wingers would go for all the hangings, and the liberals would be delighted about the two years of rehab.
During the last three years I have described this plan to hundreds of people. And in all that time I don't think I have met one person who wouldn't vote for it. Conservatives, liberals, Democrats, Republicans, and Libertarians all agree that what we're doing now isn't working. When they hear The Bristol Plan their eyes light up; they get excited. "Yes, yes," they say, "and the child molesters and the people who sell crack in the schoolyards, and the men who beat their wives, let's hang them all."
Clearly, The Bristol Plan had struck a nerve.
The people I talk to are wringing their hands and shaking their heads. They cannot believe how incredibly cumbersome, slow, and ineffective the criminal justice system is. They believe that when a crime is committed, justice comes slowly or not at all. They believe that most criminals go unpunished and that the ones who are punished are not punished severely enough. And the people who believe these things are absolutely right. The system is a disaster. Most murders are never solved. Most indicted criminals plea bargain their way into laughable sentences. Most sentences are never served. Most devices for capital punishment are gathering dust, and when they are used, the taxpayers' bill runs between one million and three million dollars. By 1990, it seemed to me that there were no more liberals on crime.
What I was hearing in people's response to The Bristol Plan was rage. You couldn't enjoy an evening walk in the city, because you might get mugged. You worried about buying that sports car you've always wanted because there was an excellent chance that it would be stolen. Your kid couldn't play basketball in the gym after school anymore because there had been a knifing incident there. Your hairdresser had bruises on her face because her husband was beating her and the cops wouldn't arrest him. Your taxes went up to pay for more cops, more prisons, more prosecutors, more judges—and all this more didn't seem to make the slightest bit of difference. Cars were being hijacked, little old couples were being clubbed to death in their candy stores, women were being raped in broad daylight, and the National Rifle Association was saying, in effect, that if some homicidal psycho really needed a gun right now, real bad, he shouldn't have to wait four days for it.
So there was a lot of rage going on and I was fascinated by it in others, and in myself. Here I was, a lifelong liberal, getting ready to hang half the criminals in the kingdom. I knew there were others like me, lots of them.
And there were many people who had done far more than just sitting in a Connecticut living room concocting a plan. There were people who had taken the law into their own hands. When the law had been unavailable, or worked too slowly, or punished too lightly, they had gotten revenge. Some had simply grabbed muggers or videotaped dope dealers breaking the law, or threatened to kill the drug customers. Others had shot burglars to death, chased down rapists and murdered them, shoved knives into the backs of abusive husbands, burned crack houses, and beaten purse snatchers. And I wondered, were these unusual people? Or were they just me next year, or the year after?
Like most people in the audience, I had cheered when Charles Bronson casually blew away street criminals in Death Wish. And years later I took vicarious pleasure in the actions of Bernhard Goetz. I knew his rage; I understood his reaction. And I bet you did, too. Intellectually, we all know that the orderly thing to do is to let the law take its course, but emotionally we all have a bit of Charles Bronson in us. These days when a victim, or a friend or relative of the victim, gets swift justice by plugging a couple of bullets into the criminal who violated him, we might talk about the rule of law, and editorialize about the threat of democracy when citizens take the law into their own hands, but secretly we cheer.
This book is about Americans who did just that in recent years. It is about the kind of revenge that occurs when law can't solve the problem, or when someone believes that to be true. All of these people acted out of rage and a belief that there was no system out there to get them the pound of flesh they believed they were entitled to.
But there is a very dark side to all of this. Americans don't cheer for everyone who takes revenge. Certainly we do not cheer for Ralph Orin Davis who walked into a city council meeting in Mount Pleasant, Iowa, and shot the mayor to death and wounded two councilmen because of a dispute over a sewerage bill. Or the Florida man who shot his stockbroker for allegedly mismanaging funds. Or the Rhode Island man who murdered a man's entire family because of alleged financial mismanagement. But these people were enraged, too, and no doubt they felt every bit as justified in their actions as the abused wife who shoots her husband after he has beaten her and humiliated her for twenty years.
Though most people have probably heard about one instance of revenge that secretly pleased them, there is nothing like total agreement on whose revenge is satisfying to the enraged spirit and whose is not. There are those unsettling cases of revenge which please some people and outrage others. Take, for example, San Diego's Elizabeth Broderick, whose story filled the West Coast newspapers for a couple of years, showed up on 20/20, and eventually was made into not one, but two television movies. Broderick said she shot to death her ex-husband, who was a prominent lawyer, and his new wife, because she had been emotionally abused by him for years and he had used the legal system to destroy her. Her story was so convincing that much of the public and part of her jury sided with her. She was eventually convicted of second-degree murder. Women all over America turned this person into some kind of heroine. And yet, when I saw her on television, not even knowing who she was, I said to myself, boy, that is one sick lady. To me she would not have been less sympathetic if she was murdering school kids and burying them in the back yard.
So to each story of revenge, to each instance of someone taking the law into his or her own hands, we bring our own history, just as Bernhard Goetz brought a history of being mugged onto a subway train one fateful day. We see the event through the filter of our own prejudices, our own beliefs. Many of the people in this book are innocent victims who were brought to the point of rage. They are people we can root for against people we despise. But others are malcontents, sociopaths, bad apples, people who took the law into their own hands when the law should have taken them into its hands.
You'll have to decide which is which.