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We need the law

Nov 25, 2012 - By Steven R. Peck

A recent, prominent case and trial in Fremont County shows exactly why

During the recent trial of the Lander man charged with homicide after the truck he was driving struck and killed an 11-year-old girl, the remarks of readers following the story often had a common thread.

"I'm glad I'm not on that jury," someone would say. "I would hate to have to rule on this case," another would add.

"How could anyone say he is guilty or not guilty?" someone else would ask. "How could you decide?"

There is a quick answer to that question. It isn't necessarily a simple answer, but it is a quick one.

We use the law.

That's why it exists. Not for the open-and shut case. Not for the speeding ticket or the shoplifting offense. The law applies to such circumstances, of course, but its real use is for cases that aren't obvious, aren't black and white, aren't in dispute.

In the case of the child's death, everyone agreed how terrible it was. No one argued that point. There was no need to. But that wasn't what the case was about. It was about whether the driver of the truck was guilty of a crime akin to murder, or simply one of negligence.

How could he not be guilty, asked some. Look at the facts: high speed in foggy conditions, flashing school bus lights, no skid marks.

How could he be guilty, countered others? Look at the facts: Speed below the highway limit, foggy conditions, the lights not obviously a school bus. She came out of nowhere.

Two sides of an argument, both based on the same set of facts, both argued with skill, both asserted with deep emotion, both clung to with a feeling of absolute certainty by smart people.

That's when we need the law. That's why we have it. Facts can be used at cross purposes. We've all done it when we argue with our spouses, our bosses, our kids, our political foes. Our beliefs become not just points of discussion but articles of faith. We don't just feel. We believe. And our emotions usually are our most-powerful feelings, capable of overwhelming our knowledge, our reason and our common sense.

The people who write laws and understand their value usually realize all these things. The differences in emotion, sensibility, experience and upbringing among the citizens of our huge nation require a universally accepted standard for resolving disagreements. One person might prefer a long prison sentence for the guy who dented her car. The storekeeper might wish that 20 lashes be administered to the kid who lifted those headphones from the audio counter.

Good thing we have the law. It is not intended to exact revenge for the satisfaction of a crime victim or the victim's family. That might be one of the effects of a well-written and well-administered law, but that cannot be a law's objective.

Instead, the law exists to guide behavior, to deter crime, to maintain law and order, to punish criminals and/or to isolate them for the protection of law-abiding society --and, importantly, to guide a judge and jury when a case's resolution is not apparent.

Thankfully for everyone in this country, we don't have to rely simply on our own smarts to reach a verdict. We have the law to guide us. The law relies on the "if/then" principle. Under the law, if one thing is found to be true, then it points toward certain verdict as the required response.

Remember the O.J. Simpson case, when attorney Johnny Cochrane brandished an infamous glove that apparently was too small for Simpson? "If it does not fit, you must acquit," preached the flamboyant lawyer. It was great courtroom theater, but he also was asking the jury to invoke the law, employing the if/then principle.

The driver of the truck that killed the child was fond to be guilty of something, but not the maximum charge he faced. The evidence and testimony, the impressions formed by the jurors, and the instructions given by the judge all were filtered through the law, and a verdict was reached. Not every individual will be satisfied with it, but it is an outcome in which our society can, and must, find satisfaction.

We aren't perfect, and neither is the law. But it gets use closer, and it sure beats the alternative.

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