Vigilante Justice

By Matt Simonsen*

In a 2012 case, a grand jury no billed a Texan who was accused of beating his daughter’s alleged rapist to death. After walking in on the ranch hand who was allegedly raping his daughter, the father pulled the man away from his daughter and beat him. He called for an ambulance, but they were unable to save the alleged attacker. The father received support and praise for his actions, drawing focus away from the fact that he killed a man with his bare hands. The sheriff’s department refused to arrest him on the basis that he was simply protecting his daughter and the Lavaca County district attorney, Heather McMinn, later found his actions to be justified by law (video; see also Tex. Penal Code Ann. § 9.32(2)(b) (West 2013)).

Despite the grand jury’s no bill, some still question the Texan’s decision to “summarily execute” the alleged abuser, claiming his actions may be vigilante justice. According to a Fox News video, the fact that the Texan attacked after separating the alleged abuser and his daughter provides reason to question his actions. “Ironically, if the father had gone with a gun and shot him while he was raping his five-year-old child, he wouldn’t have any homicide charges… It’s really ironic—it’s all about stopping the sexual assault. When he pulled that man off his child and then started beating him, that’s where the lines are blurred,” said Mercedes Colwin, a Fox News legal analyst and managing partner of Gordon and Rees.

Others seem less concerned with this distinction and more concerned with the daughter’s rape. Diane Fanning writes in a Forbes article that if she witnessed a man raping her daughter, she would “jump on his back and try to rip his eyes right out of his head.” In addition to Fanning, several of the locals stood behind the Texan’s actions. “‘I think it was a good decision,’ Lamont Matthews [said]. ‘I would have done the same thing’” (Yahoo News). A Time magazine reader even claimed the Texan deserved “lifetime free passes to Disneyland” for his actions: “Touch a kid. Die. Done.” These sentiments seem less focused on stopping a sexual assault and more focused on bringing “justice” to the offender. These types of attitudes could be viewed by some as endorsement of vigilante justice.

A longitudinal study, published in 2012, reported that the majority of the subjects support vigilantism, particularly against sexual offenders. The study’s authors reported that they did not find a correlation between a lack of faith in the effectiveness of the legal system and support for vigilantism. Rather, they found that emotion was directly linked to support for vigilantism. In cases that were more emotional, support for vigilantism increased. Even though the alleged abuser was killed after the sexual assault had been stopped, the district attorney cited the statue that allows deadly force to stop a sexual assault as the grand jury’s reason for a no bill (video). Given the emotional nature of the Texas case, is it possible that the grand jury overlooked the chronology to maintain the legal justification, and no billed because they supported vigilante justice? Since grand jury proceedings are kept secret and the Texan’s true motives are unknown, the world will never know—one can only speculate.

Now suppose the facts were different, and the father was not acting in defense of a third person—would his actions be protected by the statute? What if the father was punishing the ranch hand for the crime? Would the law support his actions? For one, should the law allow an emotionally involved party, such as the father, to “mete justice?”

Vigilante justice only considers one side of the coin. Vigilantes focus on the victim—getting justice for the harm inflicted by the offender. The state, however, is supposed to consider all of the people in the same regard, maintaining that the alleged offender has rights as well. The offender is entitled to the due process of law, or a fair legal procedure, before being deprived of life, liberty, or property, to prevent arbitrary or unreasonable decisions. The right to due process is defined by the Fifth and Fourteenth Ammendments of the Constitution and is affected by several other ammendments. If a vigilante were to execute an alleged offender, it could be argued that he’s denied the alleged offender the right to due process which would be received in court.

Texas has implemented a variety of statutes that may deter sexual offenders from future, more severe offenses. For example, it is a felony offense for anyone 17 or older to arrange to meet or communicate in a sexully explicit manner with a minor online (Tex. Penal Code Ann. § 33.021(3)(b) (West 2013)). Additonally, an obscenity charge skyrockets from a Class A misdemeanor to a second degree felony if the obscene material depicts a child (Tex. Penal Code Ann. § 43.23(h) (West 2013)). The possession of child pornography is a felony charge as well (Tex. Penal Code Ann. § 43.26(d) (West 2013)).

For more cases of vigilante justice, click here.

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