by Donna Pendergast
The concept of justice is sprinkled throughout the scriptures and is an ideal that is sought in many arenas of daily life. People seek justice to create a proper ordering of random things and persons within a society, in the enforcement of laws, to solve disagreements between persons and in response to criminal behavior.
But what is true justice in the case of an almost unimaginable act of criminal depravity? What is justice for a purposeful act of harm and violence where one persons gratification comes from stealing the life of another human being? In the case of a purposeful serial murderer like Coral Watts, who may have murdered as many as a hundred beautiful and talented women, can there ever really be justice for the family and friends who were the peripheral victims of such a diabolical and depraved predator?
I struggle with these concepts on a daily basis while prosecuting homicide cases and when dealing with the survivors, the family and the friends of a person whose life was callously snuffed out by by an act of senseless violence. In the depths of pain and misery survivors look to the prosecutor to guide them through the nuances of an unfamiliar criminal justice system and to obtain justice for them for an incomprehensible loss. Often the families look to the prosecutor as a sort of lifeboat who will save them from disaster and fix the circumstances that put them in touch with the justice system. Unfortunately, as prosecutors we can't fix anything we can only try to do justice, whatever that is, by seeking a conviction.
In seeking justice for the survivors, there are things that you learn, some of them the hard way. After having prosecuting over 100 murder trials I have learned NOT to say "I understand how you feel." As one survivor pointed out very early on, I don't understand how they feel and never could. Instead I've learned to say "I understand that I can't understand what you are going through but I have dealt with other families in this situation many times before and here is the benefit of my experience.
I have also learned to expect what often happens after a verdict even if it's a favorable verdict. Many survivors describe a hollow feeling after a jury verdict in a homicide trial because even a guilty verdict will never bring back a loved one. Accordingly, I've learned to caution families that there will likely be a letdown after the verdict as they adjust to the new reality that the fight is over but the pain goes on. The mother of a man beat to death by a pack of savage brothers and their friends several levels below "Deliverance" grade caliber once said to me after the verdict "I thought I would feel better but I don't," not a surprisingly revelation considering the testimony that she had to sit through including the fact that her son and his friend had been chopped up and fed to pigs. It was closure after eighteen long years of wondering what had happened to her son who had disappeared while on a hunting trip up north, but closure at a terrible cost.
But the question remains "Is a jury verdict that one is guilty of homicide and subsequent resultant incarceration in prison true justice?" The dictionary defines justice in a number of ways. One definition defines justice as the ideal morally correct state of things and persons. Another entry defines justice a what is fair.
The question remains whether or not anything can be morally correct or fair when dealing with the senseless obliteration of a human life. Without delving into the complex and gut wrenching arena and dodging the land mines associated with the debate over the death penalty (maybe a subject for another day) I've come to the conclusion that there is no true justice for survivors rather justice as we can best do it under a horrendous set of circumstances and with an imperfect system.
Unfortunately true justice and true closure for the survivors remains an impossible dream.
Statements made in this post are my own and are not intended to reflect the views, opinion or position of the Michigan Attorney General or the Michigan Department of Attorney General.