M.W. Guzy: Redemptive justice
11:00 pm
Thu April 17, 2008

M.W. Guzy: Redemptive justice

It should be understood from the outset that the hanging of Jake Spoon
was a task undertaken with a general lack of enthusiasm by all
involved.

Spoon was a former Texas Ranger who had fallen in with a band of
murderous horse thieves on the American frontier. Unbeknownst to him, a
posse led by his old friends, Captains Augustus McCrae and Woodrow
Call, was hot on the trail of the desperados.

When the Rangers chased their prey to ground, they were dismayed to
find their former colleague among the captives. The killers’ fate was
never in doubt, but Spoon’s case was difficult because the Rangers felt
real affection for him. They knew, as McCrae put it, that he was “kind
of a leaky vessel” who acquiesced to gang’s will due to expediency of
the moment rather than genuinely malicious intent. Call, however,
delineated terms that were hard but fair: “You ride with an outlaw, you
hang with him.” And hang he did, though even the stoic Call winced and
looked away at the moment of truth. Reluctant justice from those
duty-bound.

Of course, none of the foregoing events ever really happened. They took
place in the TV mini-series, “Lonesome Dove,” based on the Larry
McMurtry novel of the same name. Yet, as Stephen King observed,
“fiction tells us the truth about ourselves by telling us lies about
people who never existed.”

Two truths seem evident here. The first is that these men knew that the
only justice they could hope for was that which they were willing to
forge themselves. There was no 911 to call, no authorities to defer to,
just the Rangers and the rope. The second is that justice, however
necessary, can be painful for both its recipients and those who
administer it.

All this came to mind when I read Bill McClellaní' April 13 column
in the Post-Dispatch. In it, he discusses the efforts of attorney
Gerald Ortbals to win executive clemency for a convicted murderer, Jack
Rapheld. Ortbals is a friend of mine and a truly decent human being.
McClellan describes him as “a lawyer and a devout Christian who likes
to incorporate his faith into his work.” This is tough to do because
when wrongs occur, Christians forgive and lawyers sue. But that is the
least paradoxical aspect of this troubling case.

By all accounts, Rapheld has undergone a Christian conversion during
his 30-year stay at the Hotel Heartbreak. He has become a licensed
surgical technologist and a substance abuse counselor. According to
Ortbals, he once saved a guard’s life after the guard had been stabbed
by a prisoner, though I suspect a little polemical hyperbole in that
claim. He may have come to the wounded man’s assistance, but saved his
life? How many prisons rely on inmates to provide medical care for
guards?

At any rate, he married seven years ago, has relatives on the
outside and has been offered a job working with ex-cons should he be
released. He also has an impressive entourage of politically connected
supporters.

With a wife, family, a job and a circle of influential friends
awaiting him, he’s just a governor’s grant of clemency and a white
picket fence away from resuming civilian life as a latter-day Ward
Cleaver. His could be the feel-good story of ’08. Conservatives could
take heart in his religious conversion while liberals could celebrate
the notion that the Department of Corrections actually rehabilitated
somebody.

Unfortunately, to have a homicide, you need a victim. The victim
here is 19-year-old Judith Atchison, a convenience store clerk. Rapheld
was convicted of stabbing her more than 30 times, then slitting her
throat for good measure.

Who speaks for her? What might she have become over the years had
Rapheld allowed her to live? We’ll never know because she remains
forever a butchered shop-girl, cut down in the flower of her youth.

Of course, keeping Rapheld in the slam wonít bring Judith back. Then
again, neither will letting him out. The administration of justice is
not about resurrecting the dead.

After reading McClellan’s balanced account of this case, my initial
reaction was that the victim’s family ought to determine Rapheld’s
fate, reasoning that only blood kin could forgive such an outrage. Upon
further review, I reject that option.

Haven’t these people suffered enough? Do they really need to sit
through a tutorial about what a great guy their loved one’s killer
turned out to be?

More than 30 years ago, jurors were summoned to play the role of
McMurtry’s fictional Rangers. After due deliberation, they found
Rapheld guilty as charged and he received the maximum sentence then
allowable by law: life in prison with a minimum of 50 years served
before parole.

Had McCrae and Call captured Rapheld, the present argument would be
moot. But their day has passed and it falls to us to see that justice
is--quite literally--served.

If Rapheld's religious conversion is sincere, he’s no doubt heard of
the ancient Christian tradition of doing penance for one’s sins. The
penitentiary is a good place for that ...

 

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