A Tale of Two Criminals

It was the best of crimes; it was the worst of crimes. The week after a man was shot by air marshals in Miami, my husband served on a jury. I could go on and on about the inconveniences of his jury duty to me and to our children, but frankly, he and my friends have heard enough about those from me. "Don't do this again!" I told him, only half-jokingly. This past weekend, after it was all over and the jury found the defendant guilty of two counts of assault with a deadly weapon and not guilty of two counts of attempted murder, I heard the details of the trial from my husband.

The defendant was a grandmother, a 53-year-old woman who'd had some neighbor troubles, not an unusual thing in Los Angeles, where houses are much less than a stone's throw from each other. There was some fighting between one of her grandchildren that she was raising and one of the neighborhood children, no doubt one of those lovely results of our being forced to put up with each other in the confinement of government schools. Grandma had warned her unwelcome neighbors not to come around again, or that she would "cut them." And they did come around and she did live up to her promise, telling the paramedics that she called after she stabbed two neighbors, "They're gonna need some paramedics, u2018cause I was chopping, honey."

Not once did Grandma show remorse, according to my husband; she had a subtle sort of pride about what she'd done. She was defending herself and her grandchildren, in her eyes. Her neighbors were intruding. She had seen one of her neighbors holding a knife, or so she said on the witness stand, although she'd not told the police this information initially. No one else had seen a knife, however, and so the assault charges held. No one, without a reasonable doubt, could prove that she had actually meant to kill her neighbors. But the jury also could not find her innocent, believing that she did not completely act in self-defense.

After my husband told me this story, I must say that the calls to last-minute babysitters so that I could go to a work meeting, the difficulties in reaching my husband via telephone this past week, and my fears of how long the trial would last, went out the proverbial window. I was proud of him and proud of the process.

Despite Grandma's guilt, however, I couldn't help but think about Grandma in contrast to my husband. He slept with his wife and children in our cozy bedroom last night; Grandma slept in a jail cell. Grandma will not be spending Christmas with those grandchildren that she, in her mind, was trying to do right by. My husband will be spending Christmas with the children he helped to create, and with their mom.

Despite the sadness of Grandma's situation, the system had worked. Grandma had been tried by a jury of her peers and found not guilty on a couple of counts and guilty of two others. Hearing the story from my husband, I grew to respect this system and be thankful for it, a last vestige of our fading Constitutional rights.

I couldn't help but contrast Grandma's inability to be home this Christmas with the air marshal's ability to do what he wants for the holidays, the air marshal who put a bullet through a man who had not been given a jury trial, a man who was killed before being found guilty. I haven't seen much in the media about this air marshal, but my guess is that he'll be spending Christmas at home, or maybe at work, keeping our skies safe from suspicious folks, from anyone who doesn't quite fit with Leviathan's idea of normal.

As with Grandma, however, this officer had a unique perspective of the situation. Every initial report that I read of this situation has said that the officer shot the man because he said he had a bomb. John and JoEllen American, who have been conditioned since 9/11 to cheer any Leviathan plan that claims to fight terrorism, automatically say, "Oh, well, good for the air marshal!" In a similar way, if Grandma's story had been backed up by the neighbors, we'd be saying, "Good for Grandma!" But it wasn't. No one else reported seeing the neighbors with a knife shortly before Grandma did her cutting. Oddly enough, no one else heard Mr. Alpizar, a missionary, say that he had a bomb. Hmmm.

Mr. Alpizar's neighbors all had good things to say about him. Despite being diagnosed as having a mental illness, our missionary man had yet to cut anyone with a knife in his neighborhood. And he had not, to anyone's knowledge, ever shot anyone dead. In fact, according to the witnesses, Alpizar said nothing about a bomb as he ran up the aisle; some say he said nothing at all.

For sure this situation makes for an interesting jury trial. Or rather, it would have. Trouble is, Mr. Alpizar, unlike Grandma, won't be spending the night in jail. He won't be facing twelve of his peers, with their judging his every word and action, or lack thereof, to figure out his guilt or innocence. No, that would be a bit too complex, wouldn't it, to have allowed this missionary to have his Constitutional rights.

Better, it did seem, to just shoot him.

And to kill him. One of my kind readers told me that air marshals are trained sharpshooters. It looks as though, perhaps, someone trained as a sharpshooter might have just thought, maybe, to shoot a suspect in the foot, or even in the hand. That way, and I'm no gun expert here, but it seems to me, as I wallow in gun ignorance, that if Alpizar had a bomb, then shooting him in an extremity might, just maybe, have given him the benefit of the doubt. Shooting him in both hands would have made it hard for him to detonate a bomb; but, he would, at least, have had those wounded hands to touch his wife.

Mr. Alpizar was almost a decade younger than Grandma and yet, he is dead. He won't be in a jail cell this Christmas because he isn't alive. He leaves a grieving widow and many puzzled neighbors. And an air marshal who probably got a promotion and a raise. If the air marshal has shown signs of remorse, I've yet to read about it.

I don't know if Mr. Alpizar was guilty or innocent. I only know what the witnesses said about him. But I don't think that he's any less deserving of his right to a jury trial than Grandma. In early 2000, when I was newly pregnant with my firstborn son, I boarded a plane without bringing any food on board. Pregnancy and hunger, I soon learned, don't mix well. I was so hungry that I yelled at my husband. It's not my proudest moment, and eventually I calmed down when the pretzels came around, but then again, what would have happened if I had tried to get off the plane, asking to go back and buy some food. What if I'd been hungry and pregnant after the so-called Patriot Act passed? Would I and my yet-to-be-born child have been shot and killed?

Mr. Alpizar certainly didn't have the excuse of pregnancy for his behavior, whatever his behavior actually was, but he deserves to give his side of the story. Or rather, he deserved to. While Grandma's husband may look forward to a quick phone call or visit this Christmas, Mr. Alpizar's wife cannot. He is dead. There is no trial, no jury.

    photo by John Thomas    

Yes, Grandma was convicted of committing a crime and yes, she'll have her punishment meted out. But tell me, please, what crime Mr. Alpizar was proven to commit. As with Alpizar, the air marshal will probably never face a jury. Unlike Alpizar, the air marshal is alive and well and thriving. So besides Grandma, tell me who the other criminal in this story is. No one's been convicted, of course, but my money's on the one whose salary we pay with our taxes.

December 23, 2005