There’s a fascinating story unfolding in New Hampshire right now.
In 1991, a very troubled teenager named Shane Pitts was saying goodbye to his very troubled teenage girlfriend. Melody Derosia-Waters was pregnant and using drugs, and was preparing to leave the state for both rehab and to have their baby someplace safer for her.
Instead, Pitts killed her.
Three months later, he was arrested. And nine months after that, he was convicted of murder and sentenced to 40 years to life.
Fast-forward to today. Pitts is now 35, and seeking parole. He says he has nothing but regrets for his actions. And among those championing his release is a woman named Lylah Rose Goldwater, who has spent a great deal of time with him in the last few years. They have exchanged letters, phone calls, and met several times. They are even collaborating on a book about the case.
Goldwater has been intimately involved in Pitts’ case literally from before the outset. She attended every day of his trial. Indeed, one day at the trial she sat in her car with a loaded gun and planned on shooting Pitts himself for what he did.
That’s right. The biggest backer of Pitts’ release is the mother of his victim, who freely admits that she was within seconds of trying to kill him just like he killed her little girl.
It brings up a fascinating philosophical argument. Just how much weight should our justice system give the victim — or, as in this case, the victim’s next of kin — over the punishment of criminals?
I think our system has it just about right.
When Shane Pitts was convicted, the case was not “the estate of Melody Derosia-Waters vs. Shane Pitt.” It was “The State Of New Hampshire vs. Shane Pitt.” The idea is that certain crimes are committed against the state, and it is the state’s duty to carry out justice. And it is the state, not the victim, that has say in how these crimes are prosecuted.
I agree with this for many reasons.
First, it takes a tremendous burden off the victim. In other countries (Saudi Arabia comes to mind), it’s commonplace to “buy” your way out of trouble. In certain circumstances, if you kill someone, you can get the charges dropped with the consent of the victim’s family. (This is usually achieved with infusions of large amounts of cash.) Further, sometimes money is unnecessary, and is replaced with threats of retaliation. In either case, justice takes a back seat to the self-interest of the victim and their family — and killers learn that they can literally get away with murder if they simply have the resources to make it go away.
Second, even if the victims are not subjected to bribes or threats, they still can be prey to undue influence. Outside parties can press them, making moral arguments for revenge or mercy.
It’s simply not their place to make this decision. They have enough to deal with; we, as a society, should take this out of their hands and let them put their attention into recovering from the injury they have sustained.
No, we need a (theoretically) impartial, professional judicial system to make these judgments. We, as a society, should resolve these violations of our rules.
I first realized this fundamental precept in — of all places — a 1988 presidential debate. Michael Dukakis was asked if his opposition to the death penalty would be affected if his wife was raped and murdered. Dukakis shrugged off the emotionally-charged question and repeated, in his passionless drone, that no, it wouldn’t.
The instant the question was uttered, I had my own answer ready.
“You’re damned right it would. I would want the scum put do death, in the slowest and most painful manner possible. And I’d want to do it myself, so I caould see him suffering like he made my wife suffer.
“And that is precisely why we don’t do it that way in this country.
“We have a system of justice, not revenge. We have decided that, as a society, we will collectively redress crimes and decide how people should be punished. The affect on the victims certainly plays a role, and well it should, but it is never up to the victims to set the punishment. That would run the risk of turning justice into vengeance, and that is far, far too high a price to inflict on people who are already suffering. And I believe, with every fiber of my being, that that is the right way to do things.
“So yes, in the depths of my grief and in the passion of the moment, I would most likely cast aside my fundamental opposition to the death penalty and demand that my wife’s killer be executed. But I also believe that later, as reason returned, I would regret that and return to my previous beliefs.
“And if I had to know that, during that brief time, I had been responsible for the death of another human being — even one who had done such a heinous thing — I would have to live with that burden for the rest of my life. I would have to live with the knowledge that not only had that man raped and murdered my wife, but he had also manipulated me into violating one of my own most sacred moral tenets. And I don’t know if I could live with that. And that is why I am so absolutely grateful that our system of justice doesn’t work that way.”
If Dukakis had managed to say something like that, he very well might have won more than ten states. (Personally, I’m incredibly relieved he didn’t, and so should everyone else be.)
As much as I feel for Ms. Goldwater, I can’t say I want her wishes to be the determining factor in whether or not Mr. Pitts gets released. Her words should certainly be taken into account by the parole board, but far more weight should be given to Mr. Pitts’ own actions in the past several years. Contrition like he claims to feel can be faked (and often is), but it’s a hard thing to sustain for years on end. If there is, indeed, compelling evidence that he has changed and deeply regrets his actions (and not merely that he was caught) and wishes to atone for his horrific crime, then perhaps he should be released. The original judge certainly thought that was a possibility — that’s why he was not sentenced to life without the possibility of parole.
But he should not be released simply on the say-so of his victim’s mother. While I am glad for her that she has found peace with her daughter’s murder — and, oddly enough, her murderer — it simply is not her place to grant him absolution.
And it should not be.