Put the focus on the criminal justice system

On Feb. 15, 1989, I was compelled to identify my brother’s body. He had died from what doctors refer to as a “flail chest injury.”

He had been murdered by a robber who intentionally ran him down in a Dodge van to avoid being arrested. The injuries were so horrific that paramedics testified they could actually watch his heart as it stopped beating.

It would have been insane for me to blame my brother’s murder on automobiles, automobile manufacturers or the American Automobile Association. It would have been crazy for me to launch a crusade against America’s car culture, on the grounds that it encourages potentially aggressive young men to drive around in two tons of potentially lethal metal.

It would have been unreasonable for me to demand a ban on heavy “assault vans” with high-capacity fuel tanks. It would have been ludicrous for me to advocate a law requiring car owners to safely store their vehicles unfueled in a locked garage.

Barely two days after my brother’s murder, a discouraged detective confided that unless you are murdered by someone you know, it is extremely unlikely your murderer will ever be identified and arrested. So if I blame anything, it’s a society whose criminal justice system has abdicated its responsibilities to crime victims.

FBI data on crime clearance and arrest rates show the United States has become unique.

Police in other “civilized” parts of the world, including Japan and Europe, solve nearly all homicides. But many American police agencies seem to be content with allowing more than a third of murders to go unsolved and half of all murderers going unarrested.

Only in Africa and Latin America are police more likely to allow murderers to avoid detection.

In spite of their draconian gun control laws and paucity of firearms, countries in these parts of the world suffer from corrupt and incompetent police. As a result, their homicide clearance rates are so horrific the United States seems crime-free by comparison.

A precipitous decline in arrest rates, dating back to the 1960s, has resulted in the United States becoming the only country in the industrialized world where a criminal is likely to literally get away with murder. This historic decline in arrest rates resulted in a double of murder rates, to a level reminiscent of the Prohibition era.

Comparisons between jurisdictions reveal that the American cities with the lowest arrest rates for murder, such as Baltimore or Chicago (where murderers now have a 90% chance of going unarrested), have by far the highest homicide rates. In contrast, smaller, more rural communities like those in Yamhill County are blessed with law enforcement officers whose unrelenting determination results in nearly all murderers being arrested.

My brother’s murderer was eventually arrested, but only because The Oregonian published a photograph of my brother with his toddler son sitting on his shoulder, and it inspired a person the killer had sought refuge from to turn him in.

The detective who had warned me my brother’s murder would likely never be solved shared the perpetrator’s arrest record with me. It ran a dozen pages of closely spaced computer printout, featuring numerous arrests for theft and drug offenses, along with arrests for robbery and a serious assault.

The most egregious was his arrest for abducting his pregnant girlfriend at gunpoint and attempting to induce an abortion by repeatedly kicking her in the abdomen with steel-toed boots. He evaded being held accountable for that act of depravity simply by failing to appear for trial.

Besides the perpetrator, the one person I blamed was the judge, who had recently released him on his own recognizance to await trial for yet another crime. My anger was so great that for decades, I avoided confirming my suspicion that it was the same judge who presided over the murder trial, where justice finally was done. Had I done so earlier, I might have honored the late Judge Charles Sams at his funeral.

In addition to being a former Air Force fighter pilot and commercial airline pilot, Sams flew F-15 fighters for the Oregon Air National Guard. It is possible he was one of the pilots patrolling the skies to defend America after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Perhaps it was the experience of being responsible for the safety of aircraft and passengers that enabled Judge Sams to truly understand personal responsibility. In any case, he certainly redeemed himself.

At sentencing, Sams rejected the excuse offered by the defense attorney — that my brother’s murderer deserved leniency because he was addicted to marijuana and was under the influence at the time. He went on to take judicial note of the fact the perpetrator had a pregnant and underage live-in girlfriend — prima facie evidence of rape — and used that to justify a sentence of 25 to life rather than the 13 years recommended by the prosecutor.

Unfortunately, it appears judges who truly understand their responsibilities are becoming an endangered species. Too many judges seem perfectly willing to enable crime by refusing to hold criminals accountable.

One never reads about judges who are so remorseful when they allow a criminal to walk free and he goes on to kill, that they choose to resign. Most judges won’t even apologize to the families of the victims for such errors in judgment.

Worse, editors and publishers of local newspapers refuse to inform the voters by identifying these judges when they come up for re-election.

James Crawford is a retired real estate developer and farmer making his home in Yamhill County.


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