In My Opinion…

May 4, 2007

Eye of the Beholder

Filed under: Commentary — Thomas Hagen @ 11:16 pm

In what is generally considered a civilized world, justice is often fair, humane, credible, and issued by those given the authority to administer it. But not everyone lives in that world. In the savage world behind bars, justice is often swift, ugly, violent, and issued by those who seize the authority to carry it out. These very different worlds frequently collide, causing the perception of justice and injustice to become blurred. When legal justice meets prison justice, justice is in the eye of the beholder.

Katie Collman was a ten-year-old distant cousin of Jared Harris. He had never known her. In 2005, little Katie was found dead in a stream—her lifeless hands handcuffed behind her back. She had been kidnapped, brutally raped, and left to drown in a cold Indiana creek. Biological evidence taken from Katie’s body pointed to a man named Anthony Stockelman, who had recently submitted a DNA sample to authorities. Weaseling his way out of a certain death penalty, Stockelman pleaded guilty to the vicious crime in order to receive the sentence of life in prison. He has since recanted his confession, citing he had taken antidepressant drugs, alcohol, and marijuana the day of the murder, causing him to lose all memory of the event.

During October of 2006, inmate Jared Harris is alleged to have snuck into the cell housing Anthony Stockelman, and threatened him with physical violence if Stockelman did not permit Harris to give him a tattoo. With a strong arm wrapped tightly around his neck, Stockelman complied with the unusual “request,” allowing the soft, white flesh on his forehead to be deeply imbedded with dark, black ink. When the brutal attack was over, the forehead of Anthony Stockelman read like a scarlet letter for all to see—“KATIE’S REVENGE.”

Prisoner violence against fellow inmates is extremely common, and none are targeted more than the sick, sadistic sex offender. When a newly convicted criminal is put behind bars, his fellow inmates who want to know what his offense is quickly interrogate him. Those who have committed atrocious crimes against women or children generally try to avoid eating their just desserts by not answering questions, or giving false information. However, once the convict’s revolting crimes are discovered, he is a marked man with few options other than requesting the shelter of protective custody. Those who don’t manage to make it to safety are often beaten, sometimes resulting in death. Prison guards have been known to facilitate these attacks on more than one occasion.

Should convicted sex offenders and child murderers like Anthony Stockelman be awarded the luxury of safety in prison after they have stripped that same comfort from innocent people in society? Ironically, society often answers “yes” to that question, and elects to protect the very people who commit crimes against it. The Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution prohibits the cruel and unusual punishment of prisoners. Yet, an important facet of this sacred law goes largely overlooked by the general population of America. According to the United States Supreme Court, punishment must be both cruel and unusual in order to be deemed unconstitutional. While allowing prisoners to be abused by other inmates may indeed be cruel, it is not at all unusual. In fact, the organization known as Human Rights Watch estimates that as many as 70% of all prisoners are assaulted by fellow inmates each year, and that prison officials are largely unsympathetic to the abuse.

Constitutional law does not often lend itself to conflicts that occur between prisoners. On the other hand, one of civilization’s oldest recorded laws does—the lex talionis, or the law of retribution. The lex talionis was the basis for all criminal law in the Code of Hammurabi; a series of laws set forth by King Hammurabi to govern the citizens of Babylon in 1760 BCE. The law of retribution is also common in the Old Testament of the Bible; mentioned in Exodus 21:23-21:25, Leviticus 24:18-24:20, and Deuteronomy 19:21-19:21 under the well-known ideal of “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.”

Unfortunately, Anthony Stockelman will not receive the official penalty of an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth for his horrific crimes against young Katie Collman. He was given an opportunity that he denied poor Katie—a chance to bargain for his life. While that life may have been spared in a civilized court of law, he is now branded as a baby killer in the brutal world behind bars. Time will tell what final sentence he receives from a jury of his new peers.

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