You may recall that I’m not a proponent of “stand your ground” laws because they tend to encourage “vigilante justice”. That is, it becomes too easy for someone to use those laws as cover for becoming sole judge, jury, and executioner in retaliation for slights, real or imagined.
It is my opposition to vigilante justice that led me to be particularly concerned about a verdict rendered last Thursday in San Jose, California.
On May 10, 2010, 44-year-old William Lynch drove roughly 50 miles from his home in San Francisco to the Los Gatos retirement home of 67-year-old Reverend Jerold Lindner, a former Jesuit priest. According to a Santa Clara County Sheriff spokesperson, Lynch confronted Lindner regarding alleged sexual abuse when Lynch was seven years old. When Lindner claimed not to recognize Lynch, the younger man began beating the retired priest.
According to Lynch, when he was seven, he and his then five-year-old brother were raped by Lindner and forced to orally copulate each other. When he became an adult, Lynch attempted to press charges against Lindner, but was unable to do so, due to an expired statute of limitations. In later years, Lynch became an alcoholic, suffered from severe chronic depression, and attempted suicide on two occasions. He successfully sued the Jesuits of the California Province in 1998, and reached a $625,000 settlement.
Lindner has consistently denied having molested the Lynches, but he has been accused of sexually abusing several others, including his sister and nephews. He was removed from his post in 2001 and placed in the retirement home, where he has lived since.
Lynch pleaded not guilty in December, explicitly with the goals of exposing Lindner as a child molester and calling attention to the prevalence of clergy abuse. During the trial, he admitted to having deliberately driven to Los Gatos with the intent of confronting Lindner. He said that he brought a confession for Lindner to sign, and that Lindner refused to sign, and leered at Lynch in the same way he remembered from his youth. It was at that point that Lynch proceeded to pummel the priest.
Lindner initially testified that he did not abuse Lynch, but later invoked his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. The judge ordered his testimony striken from the record.
Last Thursday, the jury in Lynch’s trial rendered a verdict of Not Guilty on two counts of felony assault and elder abuse. The jury deadlocked on a third charge of misdemeanor assault; it seems unlikely at this point that Santa Clara County will attempt to retry him.
So what we have here is a man who admitted to committing vigilante justice, and got away with it. In Lynch’s defense, he admits he fully expected to be convicted, and was willing to serve his sentence in exchange for the opportunity to expose Lindner. My issue is less with Lynch than with the bigger picture surrounding the story.
And I certainly don’t mean to minimize what Lynch allegedly went through. Nobody should ever have to deal with that sort of behavior, particularly from someone with that much power over them. I do, however, strenuously object to any encouragement of vigilante justice.
The problem with vigilante justice is highlighted in the way that our judicial system is structured, enshrined in the United States Constitution. The Sixth Amendment states:
In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defence.
Those rendering justice are, by design, dispassionate observers. This design ensures that the aggrieved’s passions don’t interfere with finding the truth. That is, just because someone feels that they were wronged doesn’t mean that they were, or, if they were, that they were wronged by the accused party. The accused is permitted to claim innocence and confront witnesses, in no small part to address cases of mistaken identity. Vigilante justice eliminates this protection, increasing the likelihood that the wrong person is on the receiving end of “justice”.
Furthermore, our system is designed to fit the punishment to the crime. The Eighth Amendment states:
Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.
Absent dispassionate observers, it is particularly common for the punishment to exceed the crime. For example, someone cuts someone else off on the road, so the aggrieved party shoots and kills the offender. It’s an extreme example, but one that has occurred on more than one occasion. Instead, we have opted for the more enlightened model of having a judge and/or jury render the punishment, so that they are capable of weighing not only the damage inflicted upon the aggrieved party, but also mitigating circumstances of which one dispensing vigilante justice would be unaware, but which are nonetheless relevant.
Vigilante justice is a form of anarchy, and unsuited for our ostensibly civilized society. So why is it that so many people celebrated Lynch’s acquittal? Is this really the sort of nation that we want to be, where a wronged party can harbor fantasies of revenge for decades, then get away with exacting that revenge?
Am I the only one who is troubled by this?
- San Jose Man Acquitted Of Beating Priest Who Allegedly Molested Him (sanfrancisco.cbslocal.com)
- California man found not guilty of beating priest decades after alleged sexual assault — @mercurynews (mercurynews.com)
- Man acquitted beating of priest he said sexually abused him (news.yahoo.com)
- Man acquitted of assaulting retired priest in CA (cnsnews.com)
- Man cleared of punching former priest (cnn.com)
- Will Lynch found not guilty of beating priest (mercurynews.com)
- Will Lynch found not guilty of beating priest in Los Gatos (photos.mercurynews.com)
- Alleged Victim of Clergy Abuse Acquitted of Attacking Retired Priest (fox8.com)
- Man acquitted in assault on priest (cbsnews.com)
- Man Who Punched Priest Accused of Molesting Him Acquitted of Felony Assault [Vigilante] (gawker.com)
- California man is found not guilty in beating of priest (sacbee.com)
- Will Lynch supporters call on DA to prosecute priest for perjury (mercurynews.com)