Yes, it’s uncomfortably dour to go from one surreal, tragic murder (Steve McNair) to another, slightly older surreal, tragic murder (Ed Thomas). But here it is and here we are.
News from the Butler County Courthouse in Allison, Iowa, is even more uncomfortable, as the story that we kind of wished was wrapping itself up neatly will, instead, drag itself through the headlines a few more times. Mark Becker, the man accused of shooting Thomas to death in his high school’s makeshift weight room, has plead not guilty to first-degree murder, according to the WATERLOO-CEDAR FALLS COURIER.
Ironically, the most objectionable aspect of the plea isn’t the prospect of injustice, but the exact opposite.
Here’s what we mean: the palatable ending to this story is that Becker, who pretty obviously sought Thomas’ whereabouts, then shot him in cold blood before fleeing to his parents’ house, pleads guilty to the 1st degree murder and he fries for the heinous killing and we never have to hear about any of that again.
After all, the two characters here are 1) a devoted family man, prolific coach, and all-around upstanding member of the Parkersburg community, and 2) an underaccomplished local 24-year-old with a history of criminal behavior who was only free on the streets due to an apparent gross clerical error by the hospital. That #2 killed #1 is only surprising inasmuch as murders are exceedingly rare in small towns.
But just suppose for one second that it was switched around and Thomas had killed Becker under the same circumstances. Would we be so quick to want blood (or judgment of any sort) if the victim were so unsympathetic and the alleged killer so revered? That’s not really fair, is it?
Now, yes. That’s, of course, not the way it happened at all. It’s not what would have, could have, or should have happened. Not only didn’t Thomas commit murder, but he also wouldn’t, as evidenced by, y’know, the totality of his life on earth.
But justice, it being the cruelly thorough process fairness requires, has its demands and allowances. For one, even with the dozens of potential witnesses and ample evidence that would necessarily come from multiple gunshots at close range (gunpowder residue, blood, ballistic testing, etc.), Becker is entitled to challenge the state’s case against him.
Further, though few if any people actually think Becker was innocent or did not otherwise pull the trigger, there’s a whole lot that needs to be proven by the state beyond a reasonable doubt to warrant a guilty verdict for first degree murder. Mainly, there’s the issue of premeditation, which might be hard to prove; given that in the weekend incident that should have landed Becker in jail with an astronomical bail, he was more concerned with vandalizing an unrelated person’s house, the state might have to provide some concrete evidence that Becker had done more to plan the killing than merely ask a common acquaintance that morning, right?
And let’s say the state finds no evidence to support that claim. Well… that’s a real problem, isn’t it? And if the evidence dictates a second-degree murder charge (and, ahem, its consequently smaller prison sentence), then that’s real justice, even if it’s not the apparently moral end result.
After all, the aspect of each man’s life accomplishments to that point are more prejudicial than probative; that is to say, they add less to the actual facts of the case than they do to a jury’s opinion of Becker or Thomas as a person. Not that it’d be any easier to find 12 people in the county who don’t already want to throw Becker into a pit of mammoth-sized, fire-breathing scorpions to begin with.
Back to the main point, though: Becker’s awaiting trial on the merits of his alleged acts (which finally include a felony eluding charge for the high speed chase that preceded the killiing), not on the merits of his life. That’s for God to sort out, and last we checked, He doesn’t really appreciate us trying to do His work for Him.