Friday, January 2, 2009

Justice or Mercy

by Kelly Siegler

"There's an old, old saying that goes people cry and cry for justice until they get it . . . and then they beg for mercy."

As a prosecutor, I have used that line to begin more punishment final arguments than I can count. The first time I heard the phrase, it struck me in so many ways. The most obvious meaning was what compelled my using the line in confronting what was all too often an attempt by a skilled defense attorney to argue to a jury that they should deliver "justice" to his client.

You have heard it all yourself. Pleading along the lines of "You have in your hands the ability, the opportunity, to right a wrong. A wrong that has been done to everyone here today. You have already righted one wrong by finding my client guilty, now you can right the wrong that has been done to this defendant. For all of the abuse this defendant has suffered in his own life that led to the events of that tragic night where a life was lost (or injured or abused)."

A skilled defense lawyer would continue . . . "Today you are like God, with the ability and the power to be kind and forgiving and just . . . to render justice today in this courtroom."

Justice. Really?

Real justice?

We could talk for days and I've made that argument many times to jurors that true justice does not exist. Just ask the parents of a dead child whether even a life sentence without parole or a death penalty seems like justice to them.

Justice is defined as "deserved; merited; reward or penalty as deserved." Getting exactly what is coming to you.

Mercy, on the other hand, is defined as "refraining from harming or punishing offenders; kindness in excess of what may be expected; the power to forgive or be kind; a fortunate thing; a blessing."

What do you think a good criminal defense attorney is truly asking and imploring a jury to do?

Could there be a more perfect phrase?

I'm not sure who coined the phrase. If you know, please pass it on. I do know that the Bible makes reference to the difference between mercy and justice in the Book of Ezra in the Old Testament. Chapter 9, verse 15 says, "O Lord, God of Israel, you are righteous! We are left this day as a remnant. Here we are before you in our guilt, though because of it not one of us can stand in your presence."

The NIV version footnotes go on to explain: "Ezra recognized that if God gave the people the justice they deserved, they would not be able to stand before him. Often we cry out for justice when we feel abused and unfairly treated. In those moments, we forget the reality of our own sin and the righteous judgment we deserve. How fortunate we are that God gives us mercy and grace rather than only justice."

What if we applied that same phrase to how we live our own lives?

In all of those quiet moments in our own lives when we talk to God. In our times of prayer, alone or with a group of people. When we have those talks with our children about how they should behave and when we attempt to do our best to mold their little minds. When we don't understand the ups and downs of our own lives and turn to God for answers. . . .

What if God truly gave each and every one of us exactly what we deserved or merited or had coming to us based on how we lived our lives and treated other people every single day?

That thought is a little scary, isn't it?

Aren't we blessed that God is in the mercy-granting business.


Anonymous said...

The Houston Police Department is also supposed to be in the mercy granting biz. There motto is "Order through Law, Justice with Mercy". So its not just defense lawyers that underhandedly ask for mercy.........the police in Houston at least supposedly offer it up front, right there with justice. Good blog. Made me think about the meanings of the words and what mercy is all about.

Anonymous said...

No one can discuss mercy without the following:

This beautiful piece on mercy is from William Shakespeare's 1600 play, The Merchant of Venice, when Portia speaks to Shylock in Act IV, Scene I.

"The Quality of Mercy"

The quality of mercy is not strained.
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath.
It is twice blest:
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.
Tis mightiest in the mightiest;
it becomes the throned monarch better than his crown.
His scepter shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty,
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings.
But mercy is above this sceptered sway;
It is enthroned in the hearts of kings;
It is an attribute of God himself;
And earthly power doth then show like God's
When mercy seasons justice.

William Shakespeare

Jan said...

When does one temper justice with mercy?

How can we be merciful to criminals who continue to rape, torture and kill our most defenseless members of society? The habitual criminal who operates without remorse is not deserving of mercy. But how do we know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, which person would benefit from our mercy and live a reformed life?

Only God, in his infinite wisdom, is fully capable of determining who is deserving of mercy.

cricket said...

Society's job is ensuring justice...God determines mercy. Great post.

Anonymous said...

OUCH, Kelly!! Very good points to ponder. ~KarenO (BTR)

Anonymous said...

Very good!