Friday, January 20, 2012

The power of the mind

Yesterday in Houston, a federal grand jury indicted four white men accused of beating an African-American man at a bus stop. The defendants allegedly used racial epithets while beating him.

The four men are charged under the Matthew Shepherd and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act and face up to 10 years in prison for what they said while assaulting someone.

They have already been charged with assault in Harris County and will face up to a year in the county jail if convicted. But apparently that's not enough.

It's not enough that they are facing state prosecution for their acts. Nope. We need to bring the power of los federales down on them. But not for the acts they allegedly committed. They need to be punished because of what they thought while committing their crimes.

And that's the problem. We are all free to think what we wish - at least we're supposed to be. We are all free to hold our own opinions. Some of our thoughts and some of our opinions may be distasteful to others. So what. Our thoughts should never be the basis of a criminal charge.

The only thought that matters is whether you meant to do what you did.

The only crime mentioned in the U.S. Constitution is treason. The states had their own criminal laws. The Supreme Court was to hear cases involving disputes among the states or between individuals residing in different states or disputes involving the United States and another country. The Founding Fathers never intended to use the federal courts to resolve local criminal matters.

Hate is an awful emotion. Hate makes people do stupid things. But there is no good reason to make it a crime to hate someone. The four men in Houston allegedly assaulted another man. If proven, that's a crime.

Sure, maybe the alleged victim thinks a year in the county jail isn't enough. Well, it's not up to him. The state legislature (the voice of the people, or so the textbooks say) has decided that one year in the county jail is sufficient punishment for beating someone up.

A prosecutor friend of mine told a jury during the punishment phase of a trial that punishment has three purposes. The first is to punish the offender. The second is to rehabilitate the offender. The third is to act as a deterrent to others. Nowhere in there does it say that that the purpose of punishment is to avenge the victim.

It's wrong that these men are now facing up to 10 years in prison because of the words they allegedly uttered. Do the math - that's one year for an assault and nine years for what they said and thought.

If you can make it a crime to hate someone, how much further down the road do you need to go to make it a crime to have other thoughts that someone deems unworthy?

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