Anyone with even a cursory (Law & Order watching) understanding of the legal system knows it is rarely a true arbiter of right and wrong. There are endless shades of gray and bizarre roadblocks. Most arbitrary of all is that verdicts are often rendered by juries. Juries made up not of young Henry Fondas and Jack Klugmans, but of people who did not get out of serving. Outside of the courtroom, media frenzy and/or public sentiment can’t help but find its way into the mix. In the end, everyone involved in meting out justice is merely human.
None of this however prevents me from shaking my head in bewilderment with the news that the three ivy league college students who poisoned a 19 year old during a fraternity ritual were acquitted. Even more disturbing is that they were charge with hazing, not with murder. They filled a teenager with four times the legal limit of alcohol and left him to die. Granted they are no longer attending the university and the fraternity in question was forced to close its chapter, but these young men are free. They walk away from what they did without any tangible repercussions save their conscience. The more you know about this case the more dark assumptions you can make about the wheels of justice. But even a cursory glance strikes one as odd.
The news is made all the more jarring with the announcement that Peter Madoff is headed to jail. Yes, it has taken three years, and no he hasn’t actually admitted to anything (but innocent people don’t usually agree to ten years time and $143 billion restitution.) These cases have absolutely nothing in common except for a shared sense of entitlement. They should not be compared at all. That salient fact does not seem to be sinking in for me though.
Many many people’s financial security has been shattered by the Madoffs. No one would dispute that. For some people it was their retirement accounts that vanished, for others it was college funds. There were not-for-profit organizations whose losses left them wondering if they would survive at all. No doubt there were also people who suspected that investing in something pitched as private and exclusive and guaranteeing a high rate of return, sounded too good to be true, and only lost what they could afford. But to my knowledge, no one involved in the bilking of billions actually killed anyone.
My rational, “da-dum” “no, you’re out of order” brain knows that there are no physics involved in the law. There is no relation between what happens in one case and what happens in another (unless we’re actually talking about precedent.) While our entire popular culture and consumer economy is based on trends, not everything else is. Looking for patterns in justice is futile and disheartening. However, humans are wired to understand the world through interpreting the behavior of others. When we can’t do this, either organically (i.e., autism, brain injury) or because events are indisputably random and haphazard, we feel unease. There is nothing to gain from looking for a universal logic or explanation for the disparity between two completely unrelated events. However, I’m certain my brain will hurt for most of the day.
It would be easy to explain away the (perceived) disparity by claiming that money will always trump all else. It might not even sound entirely heartless to suggest that the Madoff wrongdoings affected far more people than those of the fraternity brothers. It would be accurate to point out that the country is captivated by the Madoffs (either in a schadenfreude way or in a celebrity way.) It’s safe to assume that there are very well connected people who want to see the family pay for what they’ve done. They want to see justice, and they have the power to see that is happens.
One could choose to see it that way I suppose.