Do justice. You know what I mean?

The Old Courthouse in downtown Dayton. The Old Courthouse in downtown Dayton.

The elusive meaning of justice

By A.J. Wagner

The Old Courthouse in downtown Dayton.

The Old Courthouse in downtown Dayton.

The jury was in its fourth day of deliberation. That pesky notion of “reasonable doubt” was keeping a handful of the 12 from saying “guilty” although the others were firmly convinced the young defendant had committed the assault.

Juror number nine, a truck driver and itinerant preacher, had listened most of the four days without contributing much to the dialogue when he decided he had just one thing to say.

“Well,” he intervened, “As I see it, justice belongs to God. Men only have the law. Justice is perfect. Men can only be careful.”

Then, as if they wished to unburden themselves and place the whole matter into God’s realm, the majority ceded enough of their certainty to declare the defendant “not guilty.”

Justice is a loaded word. It can mean many things to many people. In the context of the court, it is best defined by the statue of Lady Justice who is blindfolded to represent neutrality, has scales to represent balance or fairness and holds a sword to indicate the power of enforcement. Try as they might, the courts cannot always live up to this ideal.

Judges are sworn to uphold the law. This means that judges will impose a minimum sentence required by the legislature even when they believe that sentence to be unfair under the circumstances. Judges will turn a drunk, who while walking home at 2 a.m. ducks into an alley to relieve himself, into a sex offender because the law requires it. Then, judges will enforce the law that prevents that same “sex offender” from living within a 1,000 yards of a school or daycare center leaving him homeless because it is near impossible to find an affordable place that fits into that criterion.

I once conducted a trial in which a young woman was charged with burglary for entering the house of her ex-beau and going down to the basement where he was shooting pool with his new girlfriend. The defendant punched the girlfriend and left. Burglary is defined as entering a residence with the purpose to commit a crime therein. I would have found her guilty of burglary and she would have faced as much as five years in prison. Thank goodness a jury saved me from my duty. The jury found her not guilty of the burglary and guilty of an assault. They ignored the definition (against my instructions) and told the lawyers after the verdict, “That was no burglary!” The jury provided justice where I, following my sworn duty, could not.

Justice is elusive. The winning party often feels they received justice while the losing party seldom does. Our culture, faith, upbringing, circumstance and generational influence all impact what we believe justice is or is not. These multiple variables, which are not all inclusive, make it next to impossible to define the term justice so that everyone can agree on the definition. Yet, I have a definition that I would like you to consider.

This is not my definition. It is the definition given by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in an address to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference on August 16, 1967.

“Now we got to get this thing right. What is needed is a realization that power without love is reckless and abusive, and that love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best, power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is love correcting everything that stands against love. And this is what we must see as we move on.”

So, justice is a loving force that makes way for us to have the freedom to love one another. I like it. No, I love it!

Two suggestions:

1.  Join me on my blog at to add your loving force to the conversation.

2.  Try your own hand at this justice thing. Learn what justice was like in the Gem City at the turn of the 20th century and give it a 21st century twist with your insights and wisdom. Dayton History will retry the sensational 1896 Bessie Little murder case with the verdict decided by the audience.   After listening to evidence from both the prosecution and defense, spectators will determine whether Bessie Little met death as a result of suicide – or murder.

The trial will take place in Dayton’s Old Courthouse at Third and Main Street on the following dates:

Friday July 22, 7:30 p.m.
Saturday July 23, 7:30 p.m.
Sunday July 24, 3 p.m.
Friday July 29, 7:30 p.m.
Saturday July 30, 7:30 p.m.
Sunday July 31, 3 p.m.
Friday August 5, 7:30 p.m.
Saturday August 6, 7:30 p.m.
Sunday August 7, 3 p.m.
For more information call (937) 293-2841 or visit

Disclaimer: The content herein is for entertainment and information only. Do not use this as a legal consultation. Every situation has different nuances that can affect the outcome and laws change without notice. If you’re in a situation that calls for legal advice, get a lawyer. You represent yourself at your own risk. The author, the Dayton City Paper and its affiliates shall have no liability stemming from your use of the information contained herein.

A.J. Wagner is an attorney with the law firm of Flanagan, Lieberman, Hoffman and Swaim at 15 W. Fourth Street in Dayton. A.J. and his firm would be glad to help you with all of your legal needs. You can reach A.J. at (937) 223-5200 or at

A.J. Wagner is an attorney with the law firm of Flanagan, Lieberman, Hoffman and Swaim at 15 W. Fourth Street in Dayton. A.J. and his firm would be glad to help you with all of your legal needs. You can reach A.J. at (937) 223-5200 or at

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