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OpEd: Is vigilante justice better than no justice at all?

The group Anonymous is demanding action from police after charges of rape were dropped against a 17-year-old male in Missouri.
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Nevil Hunt, October 16, 2013 9:38:22 AM

The case of a 14-year-old girl who says she was sexually assaulted has drawn the attention of Anonymous after her alleged attacker was let off without any charges.

The vigilante justice Anonymous threatens to dish out can’t make a bad situation any better, but in this Maryville, Missouri case it appears abysmal justice may be the only kind anyone receives.

The story patched together by the Kansas City Star is sickening. Daisy Coleman, 14, was allegedly assaulted by a 17-year-old and left on a freezing lawn for hours before her mother found her in the morning. Since then it’s Daisy – not the popular male student – who’s faced threats, taunts and seen her house burned down.

Criminal acts deserve serious sentences and if the boy in the story did assault Daisy when she was incoherently drunk, he should face charges. The 17-year-old has since seen all charges dropped and there are questions about whether or not his politician father got him off the hook.

Anonymous became involved in the rape case in Steubenville, Ohio, in 2012, which was eerily similar to Daisy’s, with underage girls, alcohol and sex in the mix.

We’re all prone to thinking we could decide the right sentence for a given crime but we don’t have all the information, only the dribs and drabs from the media. If a vigilante group’s conclusions mesh with ours, it’s easy to think instant justice is deserved.

The civilized part of our brain says we should let the justice system deal with it. But in the Missouri case the system won’t unearth the truth because the charges have been dropped.

Anonymous can deliver social punishment but they can also get things wrong or seem to encourage individuals to go too far. It’s far too easy for the self-righteous to feel good about their decisions, but when someone acts as both judge and jury things can go horribly wrong. One day Anonymous may run into something that looks cut and dried and they will get it wrong and make things much worse, tarring the wrong people or ending up with blood on their hands.

In a perfect world, the justice system would always do the right thing. The guilty would be charged, the trial would be fair and the verdict fitting.

But that’s how it works most of the time, not every time. See O.J. or George Zimmerman walk away free men. See others locked up for decades in error.

In the case of Daisy Coleman, Missouri’s governor or the federal government should see to it that charges are reinstated if the evidence to convict exists. If the system does a reasonable job, then we won’t need Anonymous or anyone else to bring their amateur form of justice to Maryville.

Image credit: Lorraine Murphy/Flickr.com

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