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Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Interesting Thought: When is Justice Done?

Published on: 09/22/05

The Atlanta Journal Constitution

A man rapes and robs a woman one week, hides out for several days and then carjacks and kills another randomly chosen victim the following week. Is justice served when he is gunned down in the street by an eyewitness to the last crime?
The eyewitness is being hailed as a hero for bringing an end to Brian O'Neil Clark's violent crimes in north Cobb County on Sept. 12. The shooter, Shawn T. Roberts, said that Clark pointed a gun at him as Clark was running from the scene of a crash that took the life of 30-year-old Kimberly Boyd, the woman he had abducted and shot just a few moments earlier.
Clark is also thought to have raped and robbed an Acworth woman Sept. 6. The gun he used on Boyd, and that he pointed at Roberts after he wrecked Boyd's car, was taken from the home of his earlier victim, police said. They believe a DNA sample will conclusively link Clark to both crimes.
Police have not charged Roberts with a crime, but the shooting will likely be reviewed by the county district attorney and possibly a grand jury to determine whether he acted within the law.
It doesn't take a polling expert to predict how most people view Roberts' actions. Many would argue, convincingly, that he did the criminal justice system a favor. Clark, given his previous actions, may have tried to steal a car and abduct another victim. We'll never know.
What we do know is that there will be no appeal for justice in Clark's case now. It may be over, but does closure pass for justice?
Compare Roberts' actions to those of Ashley Smith last March. Accused killer Brian Nichols confronted her outside her Gwinnett County apartment in the middle of the night after she returned from buying cigarettes.
Armed only with her wits and her faith, she persuaded a killer to turn himself in and stand trial — though she knew from TV reports that he may have killed a Fulton County judge, a court reporter, a deputy sheriff and a federal law enforcement official only a few hours earlier.
Smith believed she could stop Nichols from hurting anyone else. Through simple acts of kindness — making him pancakes, encouraging him to take a shower, rest and talk — she diffused his anger and wore him down.
Even if a jury finds Nichols guilty and sentences him to death, it could be years before there is "closure" in his case.
Still, the higher voices in us would like to think this is the outcome that produces the best justice; that if we were so confronted, we too would try to persuade a murderer to turn himself in and let the criminal justice system — with all its flaws — prevail.
But there is a third option — one I suspect most of us wish for whenever those being sought for such heinous crimes are on the loose.
Over three days in July 1999, Mark O. Barton, a disgruntled day trader, killed 12 people. He bludgeoned his wife to death and hid her body in the closet, then came home the next day to kill his two children while they slept. On the final day he sprayed bullets around crowded Buckhead office buildings, killing nine more people and seriously injuring 13 others.
Were we wrong, in the silence of our pained hearts to be satisfied, even relieved, that Barton put a gun to his head and pulled the trigger?
No trial was necessary in his case, either. No unpredictable juries. No verdicts to appeal. No waiting on death row. In our quiet moments, we easily justify such an outcome as justice.
Even Nichols' mother — no doubt suffering from the emotional strain of a parent whose child had done the unthinkable — confided in a friend shortly after his arrest that she wished her son had turned a gun on himself.
But he didn't. He encountered Ashley Smith.
So justice for Nichols and his victims still must be served. Not the kind served up by a bystander with a gun or by the final violent act of a poisoned mind, but the much more difficult kind we must trust to a judge and a jury of citizens. They are responsible for carrying out justice on our behalf.
— Mike King is an editorial board member. His column runs Thursdays.