Vigilante Justice Is Rare (9/29/97) 
Four years ago, California resident Ellie Nessler, shot and killed the man who was alleged to have molested her son. In a scene reminisent of A Time To Kill, Nessler pumped five bullets into the defendant's head and neck as he sat in a courtroom for a pretrial hearing.

As would be expected, she had her fans and her distracters. Not many fans were on her jury, however, as she was sentenced to 10 years in prison after being convicted of manslaughter. After serving four years of that sentence, she was released from prison this week when a plea bargain was reached between prosecutors and her attorneys. (The California Supreme Court had ordered a retrial of the case, and the agreement was reached to avoid that procedure).
Family Reunion
As newsworthy as the event was, it occurred to me that these incidences of vigilante justice are really quite rare. That fact, oddly enough, supports the proposition that most people believe the criminal justice system is not in such a bad shape after all. At least, it is good enough to serve as a deterrent to acts such as Nessler's.

Stay with me a moment.

Individuals like Nessler, as few as their numbers are,  take justice into there own hands because they believe the "system" will let them down - that the defendant will not be subjected to the appropriate punishment. Those individuals must also believe that the same system is not capable of prosecuting them if they were to commit a vigilante act. "Since nothing will happen to the defendant," they must think, "nothing will likewise happen to me."

Anyone who is a victim of a heinous crime will experience feelings of rage and a desire to retaliate. Almost all of them do not act out on there desires. Why not? Why don't they act like Hessler? The only legitimate answer is that most folks have the appropriate respect for our system of criminal justice.

Let's face it. If a victim did not have faith in the system,  the streets would be a war zone of crime victims seeking revenge. But it is the criminal justice system that prevents that from happening. Crime victims, simply put, fear the system that they must rely upon to prosecute their victimizer.

Nessler apologized for the shooting upon her release. News reports indicate that the apology "was a condition of the [plea] agreement".  She may or may not respect the system now, but she did lose four years of her life because of her actions.

I feel for Ellie Nessle. What she had to experience was every parent's nightmare. But acts like hers simply cannot be allowed to occur, and gunfire in a courtroom cannot be condoned by anyone regardless of who it is directed towards.

In closing, let's bring the topic closer to home. Very close.

One of the family members of a victim of Ricky Lee Green, Wise County's most notorious killer, said that he "thought quite a bit about killing him . . . in the courtroom" and that he did not believe "there's a jury in the world that would have convicted me." But in the end, he had faith in the system. On the eve of Green's execution by the Stateof Texas, he was more reflective. "[M]y wife said let's just let the courts and the state take care of it. Now, it looks like they will."

Someone once said that the American criminal justice system is the worst in the world except for that of every other country. It may let us down on occasion, but, as a whole, it serves its purpose of administering the appropriate blend of punishment and deterrence.

Barry Green is the District Attorney for the 271st Judicial District.

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