Commentary: Redemptive justice | St. Louis Public Radio

Commentary: Redemptive justice

Apr 18, 2008

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: 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 won't 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 ...