A Tale of Two Killings

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Let’s consider
two cases. In the first case, a driver with an elevated blood-alcohol
level accidentally strikes and kills a pedestrian who was jaywalking.
The driver enters a guilty plea for manslaughter and receives a
sentence of 30 days in jail, two years house arrest, 1,000 hours
of community service, eight years probation, and permanent revocation
of his driver’s license. The driver also reaches a financial settlement
with the victim’s family.

In the second
case, a driver is intentionally speeding well beyond the posted
limit when he strikes another vehicle, killing two sisters inside
of it. The driver here is acquitted of vehicular homicide and is
only fined a few hundred dollars for minor traffic violations. Since
the driver was using his employer’s vehicle, the employer reaches
a financial settlement with the victims’ family.

Both cases
receive media coverage. In the second case, coverage is muted and
the press is generally sympathetic to the driver. In the first case,
coverage is disproportionately higher and uniformly negative towards
the driver. The coverage is so extensive that the first driver’s
employer suspends him without pay for an indefinite period — even
though, unlike the second driver, the accident had no relation to
the first driver’s employment.

What explains
this? The first driver was a professional football player, Donté
Stallworth. The second driver is a New Jersey police officer, Robert
Higbee. Even though Higbee’s crime was far greater — and he received
no substantial criminal or professional punishment — the establishment
media is constrained by its pro-police, anti-athlete bias. Hence,
Stallworth "got away with" killing one person, while Higbee
is the tragic victim of circumstances despite killing two
people.

Neither Stallworth
nor Higbee intended to kill their victims. But while Stallworth
simply made an error in judgment, Higbee acted with reckless disregard
for human life. Higbee was speeding, hypocritically, to catch another
driver that Higbee wanted to ticket for speeding. Higbee decided
the lives of other drivers on the road were less important than
his ability to catch and ticket a driver. But again, Higbee’s intentional
actions were excused by the courts and the press as "following
police procedure," while Stallworth — a man who took full responsibility
for his actions and had no prior criminal record — has been labelled
a killer who wasn’t punished enough by the courts.

National Football
League CEO Roger Goodell suspended Stallworth indefinitely following
his criminal plea. In a statement released to the public, Goodell
said

“The conduct
reflected in your guilty plea resulted in the tragic loss of life
and was inexcusable. While the criminal justice system has determined
the legal consequences of this incident, it is my responsibility
as NFL Commissioner to determine appropriate league discipline
for your actions, which have caused irreparable harm to the victim
and his family, your club, your fellow players and the NFL.”

[ . . . ]

“There is
no reasonable dispute that your continued eligibility for participation
at this time would undermine the integrity of and public confidence
in our league. Accordingly, I have decided to suspend you indefinitely,
effective immediately. In due course, we will contact your representatives
to schedule a meeting with you, after which I will make a final
determination on discipline. Pending my final determination, you
will not be permitted to visit the club’s facility or participate
in any team activities.”

Goodell
is certainly entitled to discipline Stallworth under the various
contractual arrangements that govern the NFL, but it’s curious that
he would resort to this level of grandstanding rhetoric. It’s unlikely
that the act of one player — out of more than 1,700 — would "undermine
the integrity of and public confidence in" the NFL, especially
when Stallworth’s actions did not occur in the course of his employment.

Now in the
case of Higbee, one could certainly say that his actions undermined
"the integrity of and public confidence in" the police.
He killed two people and suffered no consequences whatsoever. Yet,
again, the courts and the press tend to avoid making such judgments
about police. Football players are much easier targets, and the
public tolerates a certain level of bigotry against them.

In one sense,
Goodell’s actions reflect the natural differences between private
and public organizations. Goodell is understandably concerned about
the public perception of his league and its employees. While it’s
laughable to suggest Stallworth threatened the league’s "integrity,"
most businesses would not risk a public backlash by turning a blind
eye to employee misconduct. In contrast, the state is primarily
concerned with preserving and expanding its monopoly on aggression.
The state will not punish one of its own agents when doing so risks
exposing the institution to further scrutiny.

Of course,
it’s comical to expect the state’s courts to treat a state agent
more harshly — or even just as harshly — than a regular person.
Stallworth may have fared better then some because he had the financial
means to defend himself, but he faced a far more hostile media than
Higbee ever did. The press and the state are one, and even well-known
professional athletes can’t overcome that combination.

Two innocent
women are dead and their acknowledged killer faces no criminal or
personal consequences. This is not justice by any standard.
The state and its press lapdogs have protected the killer without
shame or reservation, and in doing so devalued the innocent lives
lost. Yet somehow this same state-press alliance expects the public
to be more outraged because a man who made a terrible mistake
and tried to make amends isn’t being subject to enough public scorn.
One hopes the public can see through such nonsense and realize that
the police are a far greater threat to their life and liberty then
any professional football player. But these cases don’t inspire
much confidence.

June
20, 2009

S.M.
Oliva [send him mail] is
a writer in Charlottesville, Virginia.

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