Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Fyodor Dostoyevsky and a Utah Murder

How should society handle a situation where someone's life is completely ruined through being not only falsely accused of murder, but also tried and hung by the public beforehand, and then turned back into society with not much more than an "Oops! We're sorry!"?  Russian author Fyodor Dostoyevsky has the answer. It requires much more than apparently Utah law will allow.
Roger and Pamela Mortenson are now free.  They are no longer accused of having killed Roger's father, Kay, last summer.  But I'll admit it. I had them both convicted and executed.  Did you have similar thoughts? Although they were released, it appears that they have no recourse for the four months they lost while in prison, nor do they have any easy way to get their reputations back.

I'm sure Roger and Pamela, during their undeserved stints in prison, told more than one person that "We didn't do it. We shouldn't be here."  And I'm sure that most people that they told that to laughed under their breath with something like "Yeahhh, riiigghhtt!  We didn't do it either!"

But in this rare case, they really didn't do it.  Nonetheless, their lives are ruined. How do we fix that?

In his masterpiece, Crime and Punishment, Fyodor Dostoyevsky tells us how.  Dostoyevsky tells the story of Dounia, a beautiful young lady who goes to work as a maid at a large manor. The head of the household initially seems to ignore her, but gradually it becomes obvious to her that he actually finds her very attractive. As the man's overtures to Dounia become more well known, his wife discovers the indiscretions. She immediately brands Dounia, who has secretly rebuffed every single of the man's advances, as the culprit.  She broadcasts far and wide her vile hatred for the allegedly wicked Dounia.

Gradually, however, piecing together the true story through the help of other servants, the woman of the house discovers that Dounia is completely innocent, and that, rather, her husband is fully to blame. Dostoyevsky writes
The very next day...she went straight to the Cathedral, knelt down and prayed with tears to Our Lady to give her strength to...do her duty. Then she came straight from the Cathedral to us, told us the whole story, wept bitterly and, fully penitent, she embraced Dounia and besought her to forgive her. The same morning without any delay, she went round to all the houses in the town and everywhere, shedding tears, she asserted in the most flattering terms Dounia's innocence and the nobility of her feelings and her behavior. ... In this way she was busy for several days in driving about the whole town...so that in every house she was expected before she arrived, and everyone knew that on such and such a day Marfa Petrovna would be reading the letter in such and such a place and people assembled for every reading of it, even many who had heard it several times already both in their own houses and in other people's.
[In this way] she succeeded in completely re-establishing Dounia's reputation...
It seems, in the case of Roger and Pamela Mortenson that we have collectively said nothing more than "Oops! Our bad!" and turned them back into society with their damaged reputations in tow.
Now that authorities have dropped murder charges against Roger and Pamela Mortensen, the couple has little legal recourse to get back the more than four months they spent behind bars.


And a local defense attorneys group says the closed-to-the-public method Utah County prosecutors used to charge them has inherent problems due to lack of scrutiny.

That is sad.  How do we "re-establish [their] reputation[s]"? It doesn't sound like we, as a society, even care to.  We at least haven't done a very good job of it so far.

I just wrote my state legislator asking if Utah state law can be improved in this regard.  What other solutions do you suggest for this kind of problem?

1 comment:

  1. It sounds like a good thing, in theory, but it seems like it runs into conflicts when balanced against the needs of society. It's inevitable that with imperfect methods for ascertaining truth we are going to on occasion charge and even convict innocent people. However, if we allow private parties to seek renumeration for being wrongfully charged, when no wrong doing was itself the cause, we place limits, perhaps good perhaps not, on the ability of prosecutors to actually prosecute those that really should be in jail. It's a difficult balancing act, and one that is not easily resolved.

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