Taking emotion out of the courthouse
By A.J. Wagner
It was surprising for me to read an article in The New York Times at the end of last month in which Thane Rosenbaum, a law professor from Fordham University, argued that vengeance is a moral cause. That’s not something usually seen from a law professor because they know judges do their best to take emotion out of court decisions.
A jury is always asked to put aside any bias, prejudice and sympathy when considering a case. Juries are asked to lay aside personal feelings and apply the facts of the case to the law as instructed by the court. There is little room in the court for emotion thus, no room for revenge. Yet, Professor Rosenbaum argues there is a place for vengeance. He said, “Every legal system, however dispassionate and procedural, must still pass the gut test of seeming morally just; and revenge must always be just and proportionate. That is what the biblical phrase “eye for an eye” means. Justice requires that no less than an eye can be taken in retaliation for a lost eye, but no more than an eye either.”
Besides Mahatma Gandhi’s admonition that “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind,” there is a lack of practicality to the suggestion. If an impoverished thief takes $10 and spends it before he’s caught, how do we extract $10? If he breaks an arm, do we break his and call it even? What is the balanced “eye for an eye” when someone threatens to kill another person?
2. Current Ohio Law
This is what an Ohio judge considers when sentencing: 2929.11 Purposes of felony sentencing.
(A) A court that sentences an offender for a felony shall be guided by the overriding purposes of felony sentencing. The overriding purposes of felony sentencing are to protect the public from future crime by the offender and others and to punish the offender. To achieve those purposes, the sentencing court shall consider the need for incapacitating the offender, deterring the offender and others from future crime, rehabilitating the offender, and making restitution to the victim of the offense, the public, or both.
In determining how to protect the public and punish the offender, a judge looks at the seriousness of the offense, the likelihood of recidivism and what others in similar situations have received as a sentence. There are other factors that can be considered like genuine remorse, cost of punishment, availability of a rehabilitation program, previous failure on probation and more. Sentencing factors are considered by a judge much like a jury considers its decision, without bias, prejudice, or sympathy. Revenge is not a consideration.
3. St. Augustine
The Roman Empire had a faith-based initiative. It required local bishops to be judges for the community. Saint Augustine, a prolific fourth and fifth century writer and, some would argue, Christianity’s greatest theologian, was Bishop for the African city of Hippo (present day Annaba, Algeria). Naturally, Augustine gave much thought as to how theology impacted law. He came up with this sentencing philosophy:
We should never undertake the task of chiding another’s sin unless, cross-examining our own conscience, we can assure ourselves, before God, that we are acting from love. If reproaches or threats or injuries, voiced by the one you are calling to account, have wounded your spirit, then, for that person to be healed by you, you must not speak until you are healed yourself, lest you act from worldly motives, to hurt, and make your tongue a sinful weapon against evil, returning wrong for wrong, curse for curse. Whatever you speak out of a wounded spirit is the wrath of an avenger, not the love of an instructor. Act as you desire, so long as you are acting with love. Then there will be no meanness in what may sound mean, while you are acutely aware that you are striving with the sword of God’s word to free another from the grip of sin. And if, as often happens, you begin some course of action from love, and are proceeding with it in love, but a different feeling insinuates itself because you are resisted, deflecting you from reproach of a man’s sin and making you attack the man himself – it were best, while watering the dust with your tears, to remember that we have no right to crow over another’s sin, since we sin in the very reproach of sin if anger at sin is better at making us sinners than mercy is at making us kind.
Take your pick of these three approaches and argue it out at my blog. Go to www.daytoncitypaper.com
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