COMMENTARY: Parents, Juries and Societies Must Balance Compassion and Justice

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c. 2005 Religion News Service

(UNDATED) If you are a parent, have you ever felt torn apart by knowing you must discipline and perhaps punish your child while simultaneously wanting just to melt into those large, innocent-looking eyes gazing up at you so lovingly? That excruciating tension between head and heart is as much a part of being a human being as is breathing.

We feel the same tension between head and heart when we struggle over whether to invest an unexpected windfall or spend it on a longed-for luxury. Anyone who has resisted the heady rapture of an affair because it would jeopardize his or her marriage has grappled with this same human struggle between intellect and emotion.

When citizens on a jury wrestle with the fate of an accused murderer, as they have in several recent high-profile cases, they are meant to be carefully evaluating evidence. In reality, as human beings with beating hearts, they often find themselves tugged between compassion and justice.

Successful societies, if they are to endure, need to retain a balance. But two recent murder trials in California highlight the difficulty. The cases were remarkably similar but had dramatically different outcomes.

Just a day after actor Robert Blake was found not guilty of murder in the 2001 shooting death of his wife, Bonny Lee Bakley, Scott Peterson was sentenced to die by lethal injection for the 2002 murder of his wife, Laci. In both cases the evidence was largely circumstantial, resting in large part on both men having evident desire to be free of their marriages. If the evidence was so similar, why did the juries reach such different verdicts?

The most obvious distinction between the two cases was the emotional appeal of the victims. Laci Peterson was a beautiful, young, expectant mother whereas Bakley, with nine marriages behind her, was depicted as a ruthless con artist who used sex scams to bilk men of money.

It seems likely that the Blake jury felt little emotional sympathy for the victim and therefore found the prosecution’s case to be lacking. The Peterson jury, often in tears throughout the trial, clearly felt enormous emotional sympathy for Laci and her unborn son. Astonishingly, one of the pieces of evidence that the jury requested to see again was that now-famous photograph of a happy, smiling Laci Peterson. Now what on Earth would that picture have to do with their job of analyzing the evidence against the accused? The answer is nothing. Their request revealed their feelings toward the victim and their willingness to overlook the flaws in the prosecution’s case.

I will admit it. I too felt more emotion at the murder of Laci Peterson than I felt at that of Bonny Lee Bakley. Had Scott Peterson been acquitted I would surely have felt intense indignation whereas I felt indifference about Blake’s acquittal. Though not a lawyer, I did take a careful look at the evidence in both cases. To me it seems that legally speaking, if one was acquitted, they both ought to have been acquitted. If one was found guilty, the other should have been found so too. My heart, however, was not bothered by the discrepancy, only my head.

In my head, I worry about a criminal justice system that is impacted more by compassion than by justice. Parents who used only compassion and no discipline in raising their children are often found to have reared little monsters. Misplaced compassion can bring about tyranny.


Ancient Jewish wisdom warns that if you apply compassion when you should be applying justice, one day you will apply justice when you should be applying compassion, which is one definition of tyranny. Judaism cherishes the account of the prophet Samuel instructing King Saul to wipe out all the Amalekites (Samuel 1:15). Mistakenly applying compassion during battle, Saul allows Agag, the Amalekite king to survive. Jewish tradition relates how before Samuel could execute him the next morning, an imprisoned Agag raped and impregnated the girl who brought him his meal. The later outcome of that night was the genocidal villain Haman, identified as a descendant of Agag in the Book of Esther. Tyranny eventually came about as a result of misplaced compassion.

Civilization’s survival ultimately depends on balancing the competing demands of thought and feeling. Religious faith alone offers a blueprint to balancing intellect and emotion. Biblical culture provides balance between head and heart. This is the secret of our past and the hope of our future as individuals, as parents, and as citizens.

(Rabbi Daniel Lapin, author of “Thou Shall Prosper,” is president of Toward Tradition, a coalition of Jews and Christians advocating faith-based principles)


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