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Every Little Helps

Sunday, March 21, 2004

Pursuit of Justice


A Nebraska man running from the police ran over and killed three motorcyclists during the chase. The man was about to be questioned about accusations of sexual abuse of a child when he stole a car and drove off, police in hot pursuit. Not charged with anything, a relatively light sentence (relative to, say, execution) if charged, tried, and found guilty, no realistic chance of escape, and this man in desperation and panic finds it a good idea to steal a car and drive it so recklessly that he kills three people. (The killing was almost certainly not his intent, but the reckless driving was consciously undertaken; the law handles that, I believe.) All because of panic at the thought of being caught.

This is one of many cases where the question of police chases is raised. Often it is the person being chased who ends up hitting other people, but police are also known to have killed themselves and others in accidents during chases. (Ambulances are also fairly frequently in accidents as well; while this is especially traumatic for the passengers, few people argue that ambulances should take their time in getting to hospitals and not demand right-of-way). The question is: high speed chases obviously increase the chance of traffic accidents. Is it worth it? If you're chasing someone, as in this instance, who hasn't even been charged with anything but is simply running away, does his capture hold greater weight than the immediate safety of the public? Can it be argued that his capture, by any means, is good for the ultimate safety of the public (assuming, of course, that he is indeed guilty as alleged), and therefore worth while?

(On a similar topic, "Saving Private Ryan." How many soldiers die to get one fellow home to his mother? It is obvious that they would not have died getting Ryan out, had they never gone in after him, but it is impossible to say whether or not they would have died just as quickly doing something else -- or whether or not Ryan would have come out just fine without their help. Are their deaths worth it?)

Dorothy Sayers thought of this question often and had a few characters in her mystery novels discuss it, most notably in Gaudy Night. There, the question was framed somewhat differently, but along the same lines: if someone has committed a crime that merits the ultimate legal sentence (be it the death penalty, life imprisonment, or a six dollar fine in some bizarre country that can't imagine or conscience a harsher punishment than that -- all that really matters is that it is the highest possible penalty and no further crimes can increase it), and so has nothing more to lose, should that person still be found and made to fulfill the sentence -- even if, in an attempt to hide from justice, that person keeps on killing anyone who might have incriminating evidence? Those additional people would not have died if the chase were never made. Is there still an obligation on the part of the law to find and capture that person, regardless of the measures that person would take to evade capture?

Sayers comes weakly down on a resigned yes, deciding that there is no way to know that, having found it so easy to get away with it the first time, the person may not do the same thing over again. It's not a very reasonable conclusion to draw, to hope that a criminal, if not punished, will suddenly reform.

In a book she left uncompleted, later finished by the author of a children's book on the plague (of all things), Sayers seems to lean slightly in the other direction (spoiler ahead; texan roommates currently reading Thrones, Dominations should stop reading this post!). A man has killed a woman but does not realize that the circumstances are such that he would get a fairly light sentence. Fearing the worst, he goes on to kill a connected character to cover his tracks (and thereby securing the heaviest sentence for himself). Had he known his fears were overblown, he would not have killed the second person. The chase caused the second murder; the book as it stands gives no hint (other than a fiery temper) that the man would be likely to live anything other than a wholly respectable life, had he gone free. Sayers may have intended to discuss that question further, but this is all we have.

Whether it be a chase involving wheels or guns or one involving lawyers and detectives, a chase can drive the person being chased to horrible acts, things that might not have been done otherwise. Is that a good enough argument for abandoning chases entirely? In my rareified-atmosphere little black-and-white world, I say no; I say that justice must be done. I would have a hard time explaining that to the families of those killed in desperation as somewhat of side effects, though.

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