Vigilante Justice: A Proper Response to Government Failure

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On
a hot summer day in 1980, someone, perhaps more than one person,
shot and killed Ken Rex McElroy while he sat unarmed in his truck
in Skidmore, Missouri. Authorities arrested no one, and nobody admitted
to the killing. The "prime suspects" told investigators
they were "hiding under the pool table" in a nearby bar.

Angered
by the lack of speed with which local authorities were investigating
the killing, the FBI muscled into the fray. Local residents were
interviewed, threatened, and interviewed some more. Investigators
searched in vain for the murder weapon. In the end, the shooting
became an official "unsolved crime," and 20 years later
the perpetrators still have not been brought to justice.

Of
course, Skidmore is not a community where people just shoot each
other. To the contrary, it is quite law abiding, but the people
there continue to refuse to talk about the killing of Ken Rex McElroy,
and for good reason. McElroy had terrorized Skidmore and the surrounding
area for more than a decade and his death made life better for the
majority of people living there. Holding to the silence surrounding
Ken Rex's death is worth keeping of the peace, local residents believe.

The
killing of McElroy, however, must be seen in a larger context of
the present monopoly that the state has upon law enforcement and
the administration of justice. Before tackling that larger issue,
however, we need to know the story of this man and his death.

By
all accounts, McElroy was mean and intimidating and he feared no
one. For example, a local police officer that stopped him for a
traffic violation found himself looking at the barrel of a loaded
shotgun. Thoroughly intimidated, the officer walked away and didn't
have Ken Rex arrested. Others living around Skidmore had similar
experiences. Those who tried to press charges against this bully
soon had visits from him and were persuaded to change their minds.
No witnesses, no crime.

McElroy
intimidated his neighbors for more than a decade, buttressed both
by his own ferocity and a clever attorney who knew every delaying
tactic in the law books. His client told him he would "never
spend a day in jail," and he was able to do just that. However,
one day Ken Rex stepped over the line, and it would ultimately lead
to his death.

A
local grocery store owner who had caught one of McElroy's children
stealing candy from his store found his family being terrorized
almost daily by McElroy. Things disappeared from the family's yard,
mailboxes were smashed, and McElroy's pickup truck parked nearby
(with Ken Rex at the wheel) became a daily occurrence.

As
the situation became heated, McElroy snapped one day and shot the
grocer in the neck with a shotgun while he was standing behind the
counter. There were no other witnesses, but the man barely survived
and filed charges against his assailant. A year of intimidation,
ranging from threatening telephone calls to property damage passed
before a jury convicted McElroy.

However,
because Missouri law permits a convicted felon to remain free on
bond pending appeal, the grocer and his family daily had to face
an enraged McElroy, who made open threats against his accuser. McElroy's
attorney was able to arrange for several delays of the appeals hearing,
but after yet another delay, things came to a head.

As
McElroy sat drinking in a bar, once again uttering threats against
the grocer, a group of armed men from the town entered the establishment.
No one spoke, and as McElroy walked out the door, the men followed
him. Soon afterward, McElroy was shot to death. The unsuccessful
federal investigation against this "unwarranted vigilantism"
soon followed.

A
television network a few years later broadcast a made for TV movie
about the event. However, in this story, the vigilantes, after murdering
the bully, turn against decent townspeople and are ultimately found
out. After all, as the good police officer tells the perpetrators,
one "cannot take the law into their own hands" and become
vigilantes.

One
of the most pejorative terms one can use in reference to law and
self-defense is "vigilante." Indeed, if one is called
a vigilante, it is tantamount to being declared a criminal. Public
officials, newscasters, and those in law enforcement solemnly tell
us "there is no room in this country for vigilante justice."
Instead, we must wait for the "justice system" to work,
and if it doesn't, well, that is simply a price we pay for having
a free society.

Like
nearly everything else the political classes tell us, the so-called
threat from vigilante justice is like the threat we face from private
companies delivering the mail or from home schooling: it undermines
an established government monopoly. If we permit people to "take
the law into their own hands," we will have innocent people
hurt or killed, and the proper wheels of justice will not be permitted
to turn.

Before
debunking those reasons, we need first to recall the origins of
vigilante justice. The term "vigilante" comes from the
"Committees of Vigilance" which dotted the western United
States in the days following the California Gold Rush. Fortune seekers,
some of whom looked to transfer it from others through robbery and
murder, overran communities such as San Francisco.

Because
there were few law enforcement officials in California, local citizens
banded together to fight crime. By all accounts, their actions worked
and the crime rate in places like San Francisco was far lower than
it is today. As one might also expect, some people abused their
powers and government authorities later disbanded the committees.

At
this point, most people are ready to say that the prospect of private
law enforcement is a guarantee that people will abuse their powers,
thus making government-run police a necessity. This argument assumes,
of course, that government law enforcement officers do not abuse
their powers.

The
fact that hundreds of prisoners are released each year because of
wrongful convictions puts the lie to that argument. This past year,
the State of Illinois released 13 prisoners from death row after
DNA testing confirmed their innocence. In other words, the State
of Illinois was prepared to kill 13 innocent men and would have
done so had not modern science and private attorneys intervened.

During
the 1980s and much of the 1990s, power-grabbing district attorneys
railroaded dozens of innocent people into prison on what turned
out to be ludicrous charges of child molestation. From Manhattan
Beach, California, to Edenton, North Carolina, to Boston, Massachusetts,
states attorneys have falsely accused day care workers of the most
horrendous crimes and manipulated juries into sentencing innocent
people to life terms in prison. Only later were a few courageous
attorneys and newspaper reporters able to expose the tactics of
the state and secure the release of many of those victims. (Some
people are still jailed even though most experts agree they are
innocent. States attorneys, not surprisingly, are fighting to keep
them incarcerated in order to save their own reputations.)

The
state monopoly on justice, as one can see, offers no protection
against false accusation and imprisonment. At the same time, the
state will often go to ridiculous lengths not to punish lawbreakers
or to allow them to terrorize a community, as was the case with
Ken Rex McElroy.

In
fact, one can argue that the State of Missouri, by keeping McElroy
on the streets of Skidmore, contributed mightily to his death. Whoever
shot the man did not do so out of meanness or a desire to commit
murder, but rather out of sheer terror. State officials, by electing
not to protect its citizens, made them vulnerable to a marauding
madman. By all accounts, McElroy was not treated unjustly. Had a
committee of armed citizens been permitted to visit him earlier,
perhaps he might even have been persuaded of the error of his ways.
Instead, the residents of Skidmore, by obeying the law for more
than 10 years, received neither justice nor protection from the
State of Missouri. In the end, a rough justice was served, but it
proved to be better than what the government had offered.

April
4, 2000

William L. Anderson, Ph.D., is assistant professor of economics
at North Greenville College in Tigerville, South Carolina. He is
an adjunct scholar of the Ludwig
von Mises Institute
.

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