Friday, December 14, 2007

Joe Horn and Bernard Goetz: America's Vigilante Heros (?)

  • Twice in the past quarter century America has discovered vigilante heroes in violent shootings of criminals. The November 14 saga of Joe Horn in Pasadena, Texas is becoming well known.

    Joe, 61, was upstairs in his home at 2:00pm when he heard glass breaking in his neighbor’s house. He saw Diego Ortiz, 30, and Hernando Riascos Torres, 48, with a crowbar climbing into the neighbor’s house. The residents were away for a few days.

    An increasingly agitated Joe called 911 and talked to a dispatcher, who cautioned Joe not to do anything, pointing out that if Joe went outside he could put his life at risk, and that there “ain’t no property worth shooting someone over.” Heedless to the dispatcher’s admonitions, Joe went outside to retrieve his shotgun from his pickup truck.

    Joe saw the two culprits leaving the house with a bag of loot ($2,000 in cash – which raises other interesting questions). He asked the dispatcher if he should go out to stop them. The dispatcher cautioned him: You’re going get yourself shot if you go outside that house with a gun.” Horn’s response was “You wanna make a bet?” At another point he clearly said “I’m gonna kill ‘em.” He went out, clicking his shotgun, and said to them : “Move; you’re dead,” quickly followed by two shotgun blast killing the two. Joe said to the dispatcher: “I had no choice; they came at me, man. I had no choice.”

    We start with a basic premise in our society: the sanctity of human life. Life is valued higher than property. The general rule is that while you can engage in self-defense, even to the extent of using deadly force if necessary to protect yourself, that privilege does not extent to protecting a neighbor’s house.

    Texas law is more liberal than the common law in allowing the use of deadly force to protect person and property. Texas is also very permissive on the possession and carrying of weapons. It is possible therefore that Horn’s acts may not trigger liability in Texas.

    The deceased burglars were illegal immigrants with criminal records. One had spent six years in prison for cocaine possession and then was deported. Both had several phony ID’s.

    The outpouring of support for Joe Horn has touched a nerve with the American public, or at least a large number of bloggers. A march through the neighborhood by dozens of protestors was led by an African-American leader. It met with hundreds of supporters for Joe Horn. Motorcyclists revved their engines and drowned out the protestors when they tried to talk. A web site has been established for donations to Joe Horn’s legal defense fund. Joe Horn T-shirts are for sale.

    The odds are that even if a grand jury indicts Horn, a jury in the community will probably acquit him.

  • Bernard Goetz was riding the New York City Subway on December 22, 2004 when four African-American youths with criminal records (the four had 18 outstanding bench warrants between them) rose to isolate him from the other passengers on the car. One asked Goetz for $5. Goetz had been mugged twice before and viewed their acts as threatening. (One of the four subsequently stated that they in fact intended to steal from Goetz). Goetz responded by pulling out a .38 revolver and fired five shots, hitting all four, paralyzing one for life with partial brain damage from a bullet shattering his spine. Goetz was promptly labeled “The Subway Vigilante.” His current business is “Vigilante Electronics.”

    New York was experiencing a major crime wave with riding the subway especially problematic. Rudolph Guilani had not yet been elected Mayor of New York City.

    Blogs and talk radio did not exist a quarter century ago, but strong public support existed for Goetz. The first grand jury refused to indict him. He was acquittal by a New York City jury on all charges except for a misdemeanor unlawful gun possession count. Two of the attackers/victims were subsequently arrested for rape and robbery.

    Once a community perceives that the police will be unable to protect their lives, families, and property, once the people believe that the fabric of an ordered society is breaking down, then they will tolerate self-help, unilateral action, extra-judicial means against criminals and criminal activity - in short vigilante justice. We also call it jury nullification.

    Other examples over the past decades illustrate this phenomenon. A 1982 jury in New Haven acquitted a 72 year old woman in shooting to death one youngster and wounding another. Neighborhood youth had been taunting her for years. The shootings were preceded by two days of rock throwing at her house.

    A Bronx jury in July 1991 acquitted a man of attempted murder for shooting his son’s killer in the back on the steps of the Bronx County Courthouse.

    A 1988 Detroit jury acquitted 2 men of arson insetting fire to a neighborhood house used by drug dealers. Similarly, a 1996 jury absolved a man for torching a crack house in West Palm Beach.

    Ironically, crime has been dropping in America in recent years, but people still feel threatened in their homes and on the streets. The “Going Postal” syndrome with random acts of mass violence is occurring everyway in society, including schools and churches. Goetz and Horn will not be the last vigilantes.

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