Squeaky, Michael, Gary and Me
How much of a debt do we owe to those who have paid their debt to society?
In the 1962 classic, Birdman of Alcatraz, Burt Lancaster plays the role of Robert Stroud, a double murderer who learns to care for tender young birds while in the lonely hole of solitary confinement. The killer goes on to become one or our foremost authorities on ornithological matters, winning over our hearts in the process. By the end we are left wondering why Mr. Stroud couldn’t have been set free to spend his declining years contributing productively to society.
Away from the big screen, our attitude towards those “doing the time for doing the crime” is frequently less sympathetic. Forgiveness is highly situational, and the type of crime in question exerts a massive pull on public morality. Some offenders find themselves being tried endlessly in the courts of both law and public opinion.
Just this past week, Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme was released from prison after serving thirty-four years in the big house for pointing a gun at then President Gerald Ford in 1975. As anyone who can still recall the grainy, disturbing footage of Lynette’s interviews will attest, the woman was far more than a few french fries short of a Happy Meal. But because of the high station of her intended victim, debate still rages about whether she should be released at all. Should we monitor her every step? Stage protests outside her apartment? Or should she be left alone to wither away in obscurity?
Had the target of her attention been someone else, how would the drama have played out? Each day in this country a collection of drunken, deluded or lovelorn scofflaws wind up speaking to the proper authorities after waving a weapon about. The majority of these offenders receive a slap on the wrist, probation and possibly some mandatory A.A. meetings.
At the far end of the scale we find the horrid and sordid tale of Gary Fricker, who raped a forty year old mother of two at gunpoint in the back of her van while her children looked on in terror. At the time of this monstrous attack Mr. Fricker was wanted on outstanding arson charges and had previously been arrested twenty times on a variety of counts including prior sexual assaults. How many times can a man like Gary Fricker pay his debt to society before we are allowed to conclude that he’s just going to keep running up his tab?
Somewhere between those extremes we find the case of Michael Vick. Having served a fairly stiff sentence for appalling abuse of animals and seeing his NFL fortune flushed away into a bankruptcy filing, the convicted quarterback was recently signed to a two year, multi-million dollar deal with the Philadelphia Eagles. Enraged animal activists insist that he failed in his duty as a role model for America’s youth. But opponents point out that other footballers return to the field after dealing out far worse damage to the women in their lives. Is Vick’s crime worthy of punishment until he goes to his grave?
Before we conclude that a sinner’s bill is paid in full at the end of their jail term, it is worth noting that we make plenty of exceptions to that rule. The most visible are seen in cases of sex offenders who prey on children. Arguably some of the worst monsters in our society, the violent pedophiles’ debts are far from cleared when they are released from prison. In 22 states, sex offenders are restricted in where they are allowed to live and most of the country requires them to register on public rolls for the rest of their lives. This often leads to their being hunted and hounded out of any community where they attempt to roost.
Civil liberties advocates have argued that such restrictions are unconstitutional, a point upheld by some state courts, and punish the offender beyond the scope our legal system. But I would argue that not all punishment is meted out by judges or juries, and community standards have long played a role in defining what is or is not acceptable behavior.
Whether you consider it to be fair or not, prospective employers are often able to research the criminal record of job applicants and may find that such character defects are suitable grounds to hire somebody else. This does not mean that the offender is being denied any sort of basic right, but that the rest of society has found them wanting in the moral decency department and chooses not to reward them. To take one of the previous examples, there was no legal imperative for the NFL to allow Michael Vick back on the field, but they made a business decision to do so. Had the league refused to allow it, Vick would have had scant grounds to challenge his lack of employment. The fans will be the final referees on that call and will cast their votes with their feet and ticket purchases.
Defenders of the rights of former prisoners have, on occasion, attempted to liken the public outrage against sex offenders in their neighborhood to cross burnings which seek to drive blacks out of predominantly white neighborhoods. This argument has more than a few flaws. Not only do minorities have the law fully on their side in such matters, but they were never asked to make a choice about the color of their skin. Sexual predators made a choice at the time of the commission of their crimes and society surely has the option to hold them accountable for those decisions.
These high profile cases may provide an opportunity for us to dust off and reexamine the “three strikes and you’re out” laws which have come under so much criticism in recent years. There is no question that the misapplication of such legislation has resulted in travesties which tarnish the entire system. When a young person with two prior convictions is found to have two grams of marijuana in their glove compartment and they are packed off to jail for twenty years or more, the judicial machine has clearly run off its tracks. But this shouldn’t be taken as an excuse to throw the baby out with the bath water.
The opportunity for repeated recidivism in the case of some violent crimes clearly runs contrary not only to our body of laws but to the acceptable standards of community conduct and protection. Monsters who repeatedly beat, torture, rape and prey upon the weakest members of society forfeit any claim to a clean slate or a second, third, fifth and tenth chance. Absent the ability to impose capital punishment, throwing away the key should still be a viable and socially acceptable option. And if these inhuman predators must be allowed back on the streets, the community has every right to not only voice their displeasure, but drive them from their midst like the monsters of old. Just be sure to leave the actual pitchforks and torches at home… there’s a camera phone in every pocket these days.