Does Deciding Right and Wrong Under Our Laws Depend on Whom We Elect?
Maybe our split screen is reflecting the culture wars at work, once again over when perceived self-defense runs into an insistence on humane treatment even in the face of provocation.
In New York, there’s a current case of communal outrage over an incident on the subway in which a homeless man died after a man described as a 24-year-old Marine veteran and fellow riders sought to restrain a perceived threat by putting him in a stranglehold.
The medical examiner says the death of the homeless man, Jordan Neely, was a homicide because of choking, and officials are considering whether all of this constitutes a criminal charge, never mind whether any jury would convict.
In Texas, Gov. Greg Abbott is “working as swiftly as Texas law allows” to pardon an active-duty Army sergeant from Fort Hood who was convicted of shooting a protester who had approached the car he was driving into the Austin crowd of Black Lives Matter protesters.
Abbott says Daniel Perry was wrongly convicted of murder because his action was justified by the state’s “stand your ground” law.
There is more to say about the circumstances and possible legal twists of each case, but one conclusion is that it should make us uncomfortable to understand that justice considerations for similar cases should point to such different interpretations of our societal values.
Does deciding right and wrong under our laws depend on whom we elect? Should it depend on the state where we live? Are we maintaining values about self-defense, even when it runs into the civil right of a crazy person to continue living?
The New York Case
It took a day in New York for this subway incident to blossom as pushback to officials considering criminal charges. What we have is a cauldron of values stew.
What we know is that Neely had been acting erratically while on the F train in the Soho area of Manhattan. His speech was aggressive, and his language was fierce. Video from a freelancer recorded that an unidentified rider placed Neely in a chokehold for several minutes, supported by other riders in restraining Neely.
Neely died later in a nearby hospital – apparently because of the choking and whatever underlying medical conditions held.
Police questioned the man who choked Neely and released him, but now officials are rethinking the case considering the medical examiner’s finding. Neely, who apparently does a Michael Jackson takeoff to make money, has been arrested more than 40 times and had an active warrant on an assault charge.
No one questions the presence of unhinged, mentally ill, homeless people in closed subway cars – along with performers, freelance preachers and beggars – but mostly it is recognized as a passing note of reality, not as a specific threat.
That’s why community groups were so quick to protest an overreaction by what they see as a subway vigilante. The incident simultaneously has touched several community sensitivity buttons about the need for homelessness solutions, as well as over the specific use of chokeholds (now banned for police), to perceived inhuman attitudes to the rights of personal security on the subway system that has witnessed rising crime and homelessness complaints.
New York has no “stand your ground” law, but it does recognize self-defense as an acceptable explanation for behavior. The questions here revolve around whether there was any discernible threat on the one hand and the use of a chokehold on the other. Charges could include manslaughter.
The Texas Case
The governor’s involvement to seek overturning a jury verdict raises a variety of legal concerns, of course, but at base is this moral belief that self-defense and “stand your ground” extends to aggressive moves to step out of one’s car some 70 miles from home and fatally shooting a perceived attacker.
A jury last month found that Perry, who was driving an Uber on his own time, had driven in 2020 into a street crowded with Black Lives Matter protesters. Garrett Foster, 28, was pushing his fiancée in a wheelchair during the protest when police said Perry’s car was surrounded by protesters. Foster, who was carrying an AK 47-style rifle, approached Perry’s car when Perry got out of the car and shot Foster several times.
Open carry of guns is legal in Texas, and prosecutors argued that Perry could have driven away before firing. Both men were white.
Abbott’s take: “Texas has one of the strongest ‘Stand Your Ground’ laws of self-defense that cannot be nullified by a jury or a progressive District Attorney,” Abbott has requested that the state Board of Pardons and Paroles take up the case and recommend a pardon, which he promised to sign.
Seen together with the New York case, we have a troubling dichotomy about what exactly constitutes self-defense these days. We’ve seen actions in other cities and states that allow or disallow the display or use of guns or weapons for a decreasing scale of threat – including the passage of protesters en route to a meeting point.
Maybe it is a sign that the law these days is simply what a local prosecutor decides. That hardly describes a nation of laws rather than politicians.
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