The Matthew 18 process
February 22, 2015
For First Mennonite Church of Denver
Vernon K. Rempel, 2015
Narrative Lectionary Bible Reading
Matthew 18:15-20 and 21-35
Binding and loosing
‘If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax-collector. Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.’
Then Peter came and said to him, ‘Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?’ Jesus said to him, ‘Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.
The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant
‘For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.” And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow-slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, “Pay what you owe.” Then his fellow-slave fell down and pleaded with him, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you.” But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he should pay the debt. When his fellow-slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. Then his lord summoned him and said to him, “You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow-slave, as I had mercy on you?” And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he should pay his entire debt. So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.’
On this snowy morning,
we are invited by our narrative lectionary
to consider how we can not be frozen
in our relationships with each other,
and in all the world.
The popular movie Frozen
invites us to “let it go”
and that’s a rough and ready
notion of what Jesus may have in mind.
But it is a deep, layered, complicated
thing to forgive,
and it is simple and very difficult.
It is so paradoxical.
Our overall theme for Lent is “behaving”
We just completed our Epiphany time
speaking of “belonging”
Next, after Easter, we will move on
But for now “behaving”
And it’s not about behaving
meaning “Oh behave”
like “Oh, be good.”
It’s behaving as in doing good practices,
finding ways to work
at living better in the way
that we want to live.
So “behaving” as “practices”
of faith and life.
And our practices from our Bible
passage for today have to do
with conversation and forgiveness.
Death penalty panel
A few weeks ago,
Marilyn and I attended a panel
at Iliff school of theology
on the death penalty.
The key to the panel,
as articulated by organizer
Dr. Edward Antonio
(Diversities chair for Iliff)
is that, apart from the important
moral debates about the death penalty
there is a question of the cost
to the close participants
and to all of society.
There was a wonderfully articulate
defense attorney, a judge
who underwent a heart conversion
and Robert Autobee,
who’s prison-guard son Eric
was beaten to death
in the prison kitchen
by inmate Edward Mountour
Autobee shared the story
that he has shared in countless places
How he went through the years-long
prosecution process against Montour,
finally sickened of it,
declaring he wanted no more part of it.
How he protested the ongoing trial
even picketing a line of prospective jurors,
saying that he did not support
the state’s work on the death penalty.
How he came to forgive Edward Montour,
met with him in person,
along with Robert’s younger son.
His said his wife also forgave,
although she could not bring
herself to be in the same room
How he forgave because he realized
the prosecution and the prospect
of execution was not something
that honored his son’s life
but instead came to feel like a desecration
and a dishonoring.
Here’s what Robert Autobee said
in an interview with Amy Goodman
(see article in end notes)
BOB AUTOBEE: … [in answer to a heartfelt apology from Montour’] I wasn’t always a good man. You know, this isn’t just about me and you, because Eric’s right here. My son’s over there [his younger son]. My wife is at home. She said she couldn’t—she couldn’t be in the same room with you. But she forgives you. My son has forgiven you. I have forgiven you. And so—and I’m sure Eric has forgiven you. I see an opportunity here, an opportunity to make something positive out of my son’s death. And you’re a part of it. We’re all a part of that. When your trial starts in January, I told him, “I’ll be at the courthouse, but I’ll be outside picketing, because I don’t believe it’s justice.” The death penalty would not bring me any satisfaction.
On the afternoon of the panel
Autobee came across as joyful,
unfiltered, authentic, passionate.
My deep impression was that he
was able to find this life-expression
because of exactly what he did
with Edward Montour in that room.
which is more than we’re
always going to get from people
from whom we experienced hurt,
but most of all, Autobee forgave.
He forgave in order to honor his son,
as he said in his panel presentation.
He forgave out of a deep feeling of
dissatisfaction with the process
of the death penalty prosecution.
He forgave because, as he notes
in the Goodman interview,
“we’re all part of an opportunity here”
all, including society, including himself,
including the killer Montour.
This is such a profound insight,
coming from someone so deeply
injured, that it sends
existential shivers down the spine.
We’re all in this together,
even when the great slicing knife
of something as awful as murder
has come to separate us.
Even in the greatest of trauma,
and when the must awful of distorted,
and hateful and diabolical
events have happened
the best thing we can say
(and the most recovery we can achieve
to move on and do what we want
with our lives)
is to say that there is an opportunity here
and we’re all in this together.
Such a statement is a ringing rejection
of dichotomy, of keeping the world
divided up and at battle.
It is a way of answering division
a way of making peace with peace
rather than seeking peace
through seeking more death,
more revenge and retribution.
See the Atlantic article about Robert Autobee:
Jill Leovi, crime reporter for
the LA Times, has written a new book:
Ghettoside: A True Story Of Murder In America
See NPR notes:
She talks about gang life in LA,
what a vortex it is,
how it pulls people,
especially young black men
And how this creates a matrix
making neighborhoods into a “war-zone”:
In the “big years” in LA, in the early ’90s
the death rate of young black men in their 20s
was higher than that of
soldiers in Iraq in 2005.
It was gang life. But it’s not easy
to stay out or get out.
“It’s very, very hard to pull yourself out. I had – when I did the homicide report, which is the blog I did of homicides, I had at least three young men that year who were killed for refusing to join their local gang. They took a moral stand, and they said, I won’t join. I don’t want to be a criminal. And they got killed for it
“I did a count in 2008 of 300-some LA homicides of the gang-related homicides, and I think something like 40 percent of the victims were this sort of victim – noncombatant, not directly party to the quarrel that instigated the homicide, but ended up dead nonetheless.
She notes that this creates
an enormous fund of grief
of unrequited, deeply felt loss,
In a recent Fresh Air interview
she notes that the grief from homicide
was a particular kind of grief.
She said that she talked with some
relatives, especially mothers,
of the murdered,
and asked how they were doing.
Some said that at 30 years,
they were coming into the worst time
in terms of their grief.
It was a sense of having something taken
from you, and taken so malevolently,
taken with ill will,
and so hard to find anything to do
to re-weave the cut strands
of a life.
This shows the powerful need for
the work of forgiveness
and finding ways for us to
all be in this together.
So long as people remain alone
and unaddressed and feeling
unsupported in their loss and grief,
the grief does not dull over the years
but rather may grow and grow
as a debilitating
emotional, existential cancer.
Leovi notes, in the context of
Ferguson and other killings of
unarmed black men
that the need for better policing is acute.
But it is not only too much policing.
In the neighborhoods,
people would be glad for more policing
to catch killers.
They said to Leovi that the police
stop me for what’s in my pocket,
and killer’s go free.
So it’s not less policing
but better, smarter, more comprehensive
policing that’s wanted.
And I would add, what’s wanted
is, with policing, but also with friendship,
schools, neighborhood associations,
and class divisions,
what’s wanted is a renewed
and effective sense that
“we’re all in this together.”
We’re all in this together.
It’s the place where Autobee
says the opportunity lies.
I think he is exactly right.
In our Bible reading, there are
essentially two recommendations
First, have honest conversations.
This is often called the “binding and loosing”
work of the church
or “the Matthew 18 process”.
Too often, this has meant annoying
“accountability” talk by people
who think they know
what’s right for other people.
But it doesn’t have to be that.
It can rather be
a version of what Brené Brown calls
“an honest, raw bid for connection.”
Rather than coming to each other
in righteous invulnerability,
we approach each other
in all vulnerability
just seeking honesty, connection,
truth, above all seeking
And this leads to the second
main point of our passage
from the words of Jesus:
Forgive a lot,
early and often
(like the joke about the Chicago voting practice)
Forgive because we need
to somehow find our way back
out of all hurt and violation
and travesty and tragedy
back into the place where we’re
all in this together.
To get to the place that
Robert Autobee found.
To find a pathway out of the
extraordinary and awful hurt
of homicide, and war,
and all the unimaginable
things that people have
done to people.
We simply can’t go on like this.
If we do, we won’t be able
to go on, because
there will be no more going on.
We have to find our pathways
out of the cycles and locked-in
places of our hearts and minds.
That is what Jesus is talking about,
I think. It is ultimately why
he died in the way that he did.
He died struggling to refuse to
remain locked in to the
small and large harms of his day,
whether from religion, friends,
or the Roman empire.
He would seek freedom in love
in all these places.
My prayer is that we might also find
for all people
for all of us because
we’re all in this together.
The Moral Imagination by John Paul Lederach
(art and imagination for moving out
of our locked-in places)
Exclusion and Embrace by Miroslav Volf
(brilliant chapter on forgiveness)
Agreeing and Disagreeing in Love
(the current MCUSA document that offers
a more sophisticated rending of the old
“binding and loosing” language)
Capital Punishment: A Conversation
Description: Join the Iliff community for a courageous conversation about Capital Punishment. The panel discussion on the moral implications of capital punishment will include civic and interfaith leaders on the topic. Iliff is hosting this conversation to rethink the arguments for and against capital punishment. The event comes at the issue rather differently by reframing it in terms of its larger impact on society in order to broaden the conversation by raising other important questions about capital punishment which the traditional approach for and against generally ignore.
Our distinguished panel includes:
Retired Judge Leland Anderson
Attorney David Lane, Killmer, Lane & Newman LLP, civil rights and criminal defense attorney
Robert Autobee, whose son, a prison guard, was killed by a prison inmate
Jennifer Kraska, Colorado Catholic Conference
Rabbi Steven Foster, retired, Temple Emanuel
More confirmations pending
Discussion will be moderated by Professor Edward Antonio, director of Justice & Peace Programs and associate dean of Diversities, Iliff.
Date: Monday, January 26, 2014, Noon-3 p.m.
Capital Punishment: Reframing the Question
Conversations about capital punishment tend to be framed in terms of arguments for and against the death penalty. On one side are those who see capital punishment as a deterrent against egregious crimes such as murder or as a form of justice to redress the wrong perpetrated in such crimes. On the other side stand those who argue that the death penalty is cruel, inhuman, and violates the sacredness of life. On this view, no one, not even the state, has the right to take the life of another human being. These arguments have become so highly politicized, ideologically entrenched, and culturally divisive.
The Iliff School of Theology is hosting an event to rethink this approach. The event comes at the issue of capital punishment rather differently by reframing it in terms of its larger impact on society in order to broaden the conversation by raising other important questions about capital punishment which the traditional approach for and against generally ignore. The event will address questions such as: what are the social, legal, economic, cultural, religious, moral, political, personal, and psychological costs of the death penalty on all of us, including on those who stand on the sidelines of this issue? How does capital punishment affect our personal and collective sense of our shared humanity as a society? What are we doing to other members of society when we ask them to carry out the death penalty on our behalf? How does the death penalty affect those society asks to use or to administer its requirements and processes. Specifically, how does it affect judges, lawyers, jurors, chaplains, taxpayers, prison guards, and the pharmaceutical industry? How does it affect the humanity of the convicted and condemned; and how does it affect the humanity of survivors and families of murder victims, as well as families of the condemned?
These are some of the guiding questions that will inform our conversation on the death penalty. Effective arguments for the repeal of the death penalty must include sustained consideration of its moral implications and its costs on all of us because we are all implicated in the existence and work of the death penalty in our society.
Location: Iliff School of Theology, Shattuck Hall, 2323 East Iliff Avenue, Denver, CO 80210
We are joined by Bob Autobee, a Colorado resident who is opposing the death penalty for the prisoner who killed his son Eric, a prison guard, in 2002. During the original trial, Autobee supported a death sentence for Edward Montour. But the Colorado Supreme Court threw out Montour’s sentence in 2007 because it was imposed by a judge, not a jury as is required. A decade later, Autobee has now changed his mind. In the new murder trial that begins today, he wants to make a victim’s statement to the jury asking them not to impose the death penalty — but the judge in the case has barred him from doing so. Autobee describes why he opposes the death penalty in this case, and why he wants to see it abolished overall. “You’ve got to be willing to heal, and you’ve got to let the hate go,” Autobee says. “To me the death penalty is a hate crime, a crime against humanity.” We are also joined by Democracy Now! producer and criminal justice correspondent Renée Feltz, who notes that 80 percent of Colorado voters actually passed a constitutional amendment in 1992 that enshrines the rights of victims to make a statement in cases like Autobee’s.
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: We turn now to Colorado, where a trial set to begin today has drawn attention to the state’s ongoing debate about its use of the death penalty. The case involves a prison inmate named Edward Montour, who is accused of beating a prison guard named Eric Autobee to death in 2002. Montour pled guilty to the murder and was convicted. But the state’s Supreme Court threw out his death sentence in 2007 because it was imposed by a judge, and not a jury, as is required. Now the case is back in court. This time the killer is pleading not guilty by reason of insanity, and the victim’s father, who wanted to seek the “ultimate punishment” in the original trial, has had a change of heart.
AMY GOODMAN: During a meeting with prosecutors, Bob Autobee asked them to spare the life of his son’s killer, but to no avail. In a surprising move, they have not only decided to pursue another death sentence, they’ve also succeeded in blocking Autobee from making a victim’s statement to the jury that expresses his request for a life sentence. Last week, the judge in the case ruled, quote, “The Autobees may testify about the emotional impact of a death sentence or a life sentence … However, the Autobees will not be allowed to testify about what sentence the jury should impose.”
For more, we turn to Bob Autobee. He’s joining us from Denver, just before he goes to the trial today. We’re also joined by Democracy Now! producer and criminal justice correspondent, Renée Feltz.
Bob Autobee, welcome to Democracy Now! How is it—
BOB AUTOBEE: Thank you. Good morning.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you explain how, in your victim’s statement, you’re not allowed to say what you want to say?
BOB AUTOBEE: Well, there’s been concern from the beginning when I started picketing that I could taint the jury. But this trial has already been tainted numerous times. And I feel I have as much right to speak as the DA or the defense.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, let’s go to part of the video recording from when you met with your son’s killer, Edward Montour, this past December, along with a moderator who’s trained in the method of restorative justice. This clip begins with Edward Montour apologizing to you.
EDWARD MONTOUR: One thing I would like to say, before we go further, is that I am deeply, deeply sorry for the pain I caused you and your family for killing your son. I had no right. I had no right. And I am very humbled by you forgiving me. And I want to thank you for that, because you didn’t have to. And I’m not sure if I would have the courage to do what you’re doing. You’re a good man. And I want to thank you for this opportunity.
BOB AUTOBEE: I appreciate that. I wasn’t always a good man. You know, this isn’t just about me and you, because Eric’s right here. My son’s over there. My wife is at home. She said she couldn’t—she couldn’t be in the same room with you. But she forgives you. My son has forgiven you. I have forgiven you. And so—and I’m sure Eric has forgiven you. I see an opportunity here, an opportunity to make something positive out of my son’s death. And you’re a part of it. We’re all a part of that. When your trial starts in January, I told him, “I’ll be at the courthouse, but I’ll be outside picketing, because I don’t believe it’s justice.” The death penalty would not bring me any satisfaction.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: That was Bob Autobee speaking to his son’s killer, Edward Montour. Bob Autobee, can you talk about your response to this and then also explain what accounted for your change of heart on the question of the death penalty?
BOB AUTOBEE: Well, I’ve thought of nothing more for 11-and-a-half years. And once I came back to my faith and started reading my Bible, I realized that was the best course to take. I’m very happy with that decision, and my life has improved immensely since that meeting.
AMY GOODMAN: What was it like to meet with your son’s killer? Eric, your son, a prison guard. You met with him, as well as your other son, Eric’s brother.
BOB AUTOBEE: Well, my younger son wasn’t going to meet Edward. He didn’t feel he was ready for it. But as the meeting went on, my son stood up. He said, “I feel God’s presence in this room, and I want to be a part of it.” So then he came to the table. And that really made me happy, because the mercy and the love is starting to spread. And if it starts with just one or two, it’ll grow.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: I want to bring Renée Feltz into the conversation, a Democracy Now! producer. Renée Feltz, can you talk about what Bob’s rights are to make a victim’s statement and Colorado’s constitutional amendment for victim rights and how this compares to other states?
RENÉE FELTZ: Well, it’s just incredible if you think about Bob’s situation. Bob has his own lawyer to bring his voice into the courtroom. Usually in cases like this, it’s the prosecution working with the victim’s family who want to seek justice, and they’re on the same page. So this is very unusual. In order to get his voice heard in this trial, he had to hire an outside lawyer.
That lawyer presented an argument to the judge that he should be allowed to say to the jury, “I oppose the death sentence for this man who killed my son.” The judge recently said, “In fact, you cannot do that.” And the judge gave some reasons that relied on another case out of Oklahoma. And what’s really—and I can talk more about that, but what’s really interesting about Colorado’s law is that they, in 1992, voted—80 percent of voters—to amend their constitution to let victims, like Bob, say their piece in court in a victim’s statement. In fact, they define “victims” as “any natural person against whom [any] crime has been perpetrated or attempted,” or, if the person is dead, then their lawful representative, like Bob. And this law says—and I can read from it here—that the victim can “inform the district attorney and the court, in writing, by a victim impact statement, [and] by an oral statement, of the harm that the victim has sustained as a result of the crime, with the determination of whether the victim makes written input or oral input, or both, to be made at the [sole] discretion of the victim.” So, here you have a judge saying, in fact, that he’s not going to be allowed to testify. It’s very unusual.
Just to point out how this compares to some other laws around the country, in New Hampshire, it’s quite interesting. In 2009, they passed a law there called the Crime Victims Equality Act. And that says that even if a crime victim, such as Bob, opposes the death sentence, the prosecutors are not allowed to attempt to ban them from saying their piece to the jury. Part of the reason this is interesting is because a jury is going to make the decision about what the ultimate punishment should be in this case, and they’re not going to be able to hear from Bob directly that he doesn’t want that punishment to be death.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Renée, could you also explain—Edward Montour pled guilty in the original trial. Why was that conviction thrown out?
RENÉE FELTZ: You know, part of the reason this case has been hard to cover for reporters is because it’s complicated. But in the original trial, Bob threw out his court-appointed attorney, said, “I want to represent myself”—not Bob, actually; I should say Edward Montour, the killer. And he decided that he would represent himself, even though he was off his medication for being bipolar and having psychosis symptoms. Ultimately, he also said, “I just want the judge to make a decision.” Well, it turns out that that’s constitutionally invalid. A judge cannot issue a death penalty; it has to be a jury. So that was thrown out, and that’s how we got back to square one.
Very quickly, I would just note that it’s interesting we noted in the introduction that he was already in prison when he killed Bob’s son. Why was he there? It’s because he was accused of killing his own daughter when she was just months old. And so, he was sent, back in the ’90s, to prison for this conviction as a so-called baby killer. That’s a hard label to wear in prison. And it turns out that now Edward Montour’s current lawyers say that, in fact, that death may have actually been an accident. And it’s incredible, but the coroner’s office has actually changed the cause of death in that death to undetermined, instead of a homicide. So the very crime that landed Edward Montour in prison may have in fact not have been a crime at all.
AMY GOODMAN: Bob Autobee, do you plan to sit in on this trial?
BOB AUTOBEE: Bits and pieces, not the whole trial. I tried that once, and it just drove me to depression and anxiety. And at that time, I didn’t see justice being served. So, if things turn around now, then I may make an appearance.
AMY GOODMAN: You were a corrections officer yourself, and your son, of course, Eric, was a prison guard. That’s where Edward Montour killed him.
BOB AUTOBEE: That’s correct.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: And you said this experience has made you very critical of the prison system and the penal system, in general. Could you talk about what specific changes you’ve been advocating in the Colorado prison system?
BOB AUTOBEE: Well, we’ve asked—we suggested focus groups from the staff, because the management has refused to listen to the people that are in the trenches, and so a lot of things get by that management doesn’t know anything about. We’d also—we suggested different colored jumpsuits for the inmates, so violent offenders could be recognized immediately, because right now in Colorado we have violent and maximum-security inmates in medium-security facilities where they have no business. And unless you’ve read every jacket of every inmate, you don’t know what they’re in there for. So, I think the different colored uniforms would help. We’ve even suggested dogs to go on patrol with the officers, rather than leaving them by themselves. There’s a lot of things that could be done, but the administration refuses to listen.
AMY GOODMAN: Renée?
RENÉE FELTZ: I wanted to suggest that Bob describe what he did in January, which was very interesting. He went to protest against the death penalty in this case outside of the courtroom, when he wasn’t quite sure if he would be allowed to make a statement inside. And, Bob, could you talk about what—who joined you? There were other victims of murder, families, that were with you for that protest, is that right? Can you talk about what you did and who joined you?
BOB AUTOBEE: That’s correct. When I met with Brauchler at my home, I told him that if he pursued the death penalty, that I would fight it, and I would picket—
RENÉE FELTZ: And that’s the prosecutor in the case.
BOB AUTOBEE: Yes. And I’ve been picketing. And then Tim Ricard, the husband of Mary Ricard, the second officer that was killed in Colorado recently, he’s also anti-death penalty, and we’ve been working together. We had a survivor from one of the victims of Nathan Dunlap, was also involved. And I met with the mother of that young lady, and we had a wonderful talk, and hope I was able to help her understand, you know, you’ve got to be willing to heal, and you’ve got to let the hate go. I mean, to me, the death penalty is a hate crime, and it’s a crime against humanity. And once you come to this side and see it for what it really is, then you’ll know you’re doing the right thing.
AMY GOODMAN: Bob Autobee, we want to thank you for being with us. Bob Autobee is speaking out against the death penalty for the prisoner who killed his son Eric, a prison guard. And, Renée Feltz, thanks so much for joining us.
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
In the State of the Union address this week, President Obama noted that crime in America is down.
(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Surely we can agree that it’s a good thing that for the first time in 40 years, the crime rate and the incarceration rate have come down together.
SIMON: But Jill Leovy, an award-winning reporter for the Los Angeles Times, cites another statistic in a new book – about 40 percent of those Americans who are murdered each year are African-American males. And in the city of Los Angeles, where she covers crime, police have arrested a suspect in those killings less than 40 percent of the time over the last 30 years, mounting to what she calls impunity for the murder of black men. And her new book, “Ghettoside: A True Story Of Murder In America,” uses the story of a single murder to trace the loss of life, the blight of lives and the failures of police and courts. Jill Leovy joins us from NPR West in Culver City, California. Thanks so much for being with us.
JILL LEOVY: Thank you.
SIMON: I want to begin by asking you about this young man, Bryant Tennelle, one night, 2007. He’s 18, carrying a root beer, pushing his bicycle. What happened?
LEOVY: A car pulls up around the corner. A young black man jumps out of the car, raises his gun and shoots. Bryant is struck in the head and falls on the lawn.
SIMON: And his father is an LA police detective.
LEOVY: His father is a homicide detective in RHD, which is the elite homicide unit in the LAPD.
SIMON: Did this ultimately change the investigation or in fact did it become a bigger investigation because of this?
LEOVY: You know, the LAPD I think sensibly treated this case as any case, but there were some twists and turns when it went unsolved for a couple months. Frustrations mounted in the department. It was an extremely emotional case, as you might imagine, for all of Tennelle’s colleagues. Eventually, the case is transferred from one detective to another. The lieutenant in charge asks around and says, who really do we have? Who really knows the street? Who really solves cases? And they come up with the name of John Skaggs, who had been quietly toiling in backwater in the Watts station house solving these kinds of crimes. He has expended great effort doing thankless work on cases that no one in the city noticed at all.
SIMON: What are some of the problems police have in getting witnesses to talk?
LEOVY: Well, everybody’s terrified. I’ve had people clutch my clothes and beg me to not even write that there was anybody at the scene. I’m not even describing them. They just don’t want anyone to know that there was somebody at the scene.
SIMON: I mean, let’s be blunt about this. These are – you’re talking about Americans who are as reluctant to talk about a crime that occurred in front of them as – an uneasy analogy here – somebody in Syria might be reluctant to talk about what Bashar al-Assad did because they’re afraid they’ll get harmed. But in this case, it’s by a gang.
LEOVY: Well, listen. In the big years in LA, in the early ’90s, young black men in their early 20s – who, by the way, are a disproportionate group among homicide witnesses because this is the milieu they’re in – had a rate of death from homicide that was higher than those of American troops in Iraq in about 2005. So people talk about a war zone. It was higher than a combat death rate. They are terrified. They have concrete reason to be terrified. And then the justice system comes along and asks them to put themselves in possibly even more danger. What would you do?
SIMON: I was moved – and I don’t know if that’s a funny word or might be exactly the word I mean – to read about older gang members who say, I want to get out of this. This is no way to live.
LEOVY: It’s very, very hard to pull yourself out. I had – when I did the homicide report, which is the blog I did of homicides, I had at least three young men that year who were killed for refusing to join their local gang. They took a moral stand, and they said, I won’t join. I don’t want to be a criminal. And they got killed for it.
SIMON: So are police departments short of resources to put into trying to solve these crimes or do they choose not to invest a lot of resources?
LEOVY: You know, I see the problem as lying outside police departments far more than inside police departments. It’s easy to blame the police, but we have the police we deserve. We have the police we’ve asked to have. There is tremendous emphasis on prevention: We want to know about crime before it’s going to happen; we want to target it and saturate areas with police officers. All this kind of fuzzy thinking that, on the street, doesn’t feel like justice to the people who live in these neighborhoods. It translates to a system that falls short on catching killers, prosecuting them for the most serious crimes.
SIMON: I want to bring this back to Bryant Tennelle, and I also don’t want to give away the end of the book. But Bryant Tennelle was gunned down by people who, as it turned out, weren’t looking for him at all.
LEOVY: You know, the sheriff’s homicide detectives – actually I have a term for this; it’s so common – they call it profiling murder. And so what’s happening is gang members will get in a car. They will go to the rival neighborhood to send a message, and they will just look for the easiest, most likely victim they can find – and probably going to be a young black man. And if he fits the part, that’s good enough – and an astonishing number of victims. I did a count in 2008 of 300-some LA homicides of the gang-related homicides, and I think something like 40 percent of the victims were this sort of victim – noncombatant, not directly party to the quarrel that instigated the homicide, but ended up dead nonetheless.
SIMON: Jill Leovy of the Los Angeles Times. Her new book is “Ghettoside: A True Story Of Murder In America.” Thanks so much for being with us.
LEOVY: Thank you.
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