Nearly everyone with blood in their veins and American ties must have felt it in the last month—the lust for vengeance against those who spurred the deadly assault of September 11.
It's a human thing, an emotional response that is hardly shameful, but still, acting upon that urge is ill-advised. Ordinarily, we can hope to secure justice. Vengeance is just as likely to lie beyond our reach. Attempts at it nearly always prompt an in-kind reaction. Witness the impossible interchange between Israelis and Palestinians, a seemingly unending dance of death over the rights of each to a homeland, the same homeland.
Justice, however, is a concept that can be put to practice with a chance of acceptance. It can be seen by friend and foe as a restoration of civility. It might even be worked out at some point in Jerusalem, but that's another matter.
The idea of justice is where our Western system of criminal law is founded. It's what the public seeks in court in criminal cases. Unlike revenge, it's theoretically possible.
At home here in Knoxville and Knox County, justice is no more or less elusive than anywhere else in this country. But the people we've elected to produce that justice are striving to make it a real, appreciable commodity.
So it was startling to be confronted last week by the photograph, dominating the front page of the daily paper, of an anguished grandmother, whose 20-year-old grandson was murdered by other young people intent on robbing him who shot him dead for $1 and a watch. She told the court that she felt that the plea-bargained sentence of 40 years, handed to the last of four defendants in the criminal prosecution, was a "slap in the face of all citizens."
Most anyone could understand those feelings. It may well have felt like a slap to her, the grandmother who would never again see her slain grandson.
But it also felt as if a full measure of justice was served to the public. One other defendant had gone to trial and been given a sentence of death. Another is serving a sentence of life without possibility of parole. A third was sentenced to 40 years on his guilty plea. Last week's sentence of 40 years, given to a defendant who was 14 years old at the time of the crime, ended the prosecution, pending appeals.
A death sentence, a life sentence and two 40 year sentences is punishment enough, surely, to be described as justice. Cumulatively, it certainly meets and probably exceeds the punitive procedures available in any other country that ascribes to Western standards.
Randy Nichols, the Knox County attorney general who presides over the office that tried—or obtained pleas in—each of the cases, is satisfied that there is justice, under law, in the outcome, based on the severity of the crime and the evidence that was at hand and the proof that he saw possible.
Nichols, a former criminal court judge in his 10th year in the prosecutor's office, has sometimes been accused of going too easy on criminals in plea agreements. His record points otherwise.
Take the murder cases prosecuted locally in the past couple of years. According to Nichols' office, from four jury trials there have been one death penalty and three life sentences. There have been four guilty pleas to first degree murder, each resulting in a life sentence, and four pleas to second-degree murder, with sentences averaging 25 years.
State Department of Correction figures provided by John Gill, the attorney general's special counsel, show that the average sentence for all current penitentiary inmates is eight years. The average for inmates sent from Knox County is 10.3 years. From a comparable jurisdiction, Chattanooga's Hamilton County, the average is 8.9 years.
Nichols says Knoxville Police Chief Phil Keith is telling him that the rate of violent crime in the city is down 49 percent since 1993. Likewise, the pattern of recidivism, or repeat offenders, is going down here.
"I know that we have dealt with every major crime in a very responsible way. We must be doing something right," Nichols says. To which Gill adds, "We don't get credit for the crimes that are not occurring, but those are much more important than even what sentences are meted out [to convicted criminals]."
Sentences are, in general, misunderstood. Until 1982, criminal sentences were determined by juries in felony trials. Judges were given the responsibility at that time, and in 1989, the General Assembly issued a set of sentencing guidelines in the form of a law that further narrows judges' options. Having those potential sentences predetermined encourages plea bargaining on the part of the state, whose prosecutors know exactly what the maximums and minimums are. But the sentences are still stiff, and this country locks up more criminals than any industrialized nation.
We lead the world in incarceration rates, having passed South Africa a few years ago when its rate was lowered dramatically at the end of apartheid.
So if justice is based on convictions and the time of incarceration, or on the availability of the death penalty for certain crimes in especially aggravated circumstances, we are dispensing it...achieving it.
But we hope to do so without invoking, in the public realm, the spirit of revenge. It would be a spectacular success for our American culture and for civilization worldwide if we are able to exact justice for the crimes committed in the September 11 attacks. Vengeance, though, if it is ever gained, is in the realm of a higher power. If you don't believe that, you aren't much of a believer.