There is a tremor in the voice, a tone, that strikes an internal chord telling you that something is very wrong. Physically the hands tremble and the body tenses as if it is about to be struck. Blood flow quickens and like a palpable fog, the fear emanates out from the source, invading everyone nearby.
Tuesday afternoon I experienced fear coming from the legal secretary in my office. She has daughters that attend Clearfield High and North Davis Junior High. For a tense hour, the ominous sounds of the police scanners filled our office, straining to hear out of the static chatter any news that would ease the fear. The 10-4s gradually affirmed no danger and the fear subsided.
This is the second time this year that the children of our office have been threatened. Earlier the fear coursed through my wife and me as I rushed to the pickup point for the students at Shadow Valley Elementary to retrieve our son after he had been evacuated because of a bomb threat. The fear only becomes truly real when one of your own is threatened.
Both instances proved to be the result of a juvenile's judgment unguided by wisdom or thought. The young men responsible may never know exactly the damage and horror they inflicted until a child of their own is threatened in the far, distant future.
A residual of fear is that as it recedes, anger and retribution jump in to fill the immense emotional space being vacated. This emotional response is hardwired into the human DNA. Our evolution has not come in our emotional responses, but in our societal evolution to deal with the highly emotional through a legal system that serves the purpose of both dampening fear and allocating a sense of justice for the community.
One aspect of this system is treating individuals, such as juveniles, who have less moral and cognitive ability differently from adults. The lines drawn by the system have been an arbitrary 18 years, but human discretion from judges has been used to eliminate inconsistencies.
The irony is that the very legal system used to eliminate fear and promote safety in society also, with frightening regularity, instills fear into a significant portion of the population. Once when my oldest daughter was in high school, I prepared a fake lawsuit from the Ben Lomond PTA against the student body officer she wanted to ask to the dance. I fake sued him for defamation for the inflammatory things he had said about Ben Lomond at the annual Iron Horse game. When I served him the Complaint, his response was to bolt into the SBO's room and lock the door. The only thing that made it funny was that the lawsuit was fake.
The law can take away your money and your freedom and suddenly having the guns of the State pointed against you is as frightening as a bomb threat. Experience in the legal system teaches that all of the law to some degree or other involves the imposition of pain.
I have been reminded of that fear as I've looked at all of the dialogue in the newspaper about the Matthew Stewart case. Tragedy abounds and two families have lost loved ones. Certainly as a society we should be arguing and discussing how to avoid such tragedies. Laws can be modified (and have) to improve our societal safety and remove fear.
Is the system flawed? Of course. It moves slowly and is unduly influenced by politics and money. Judges err. Citizens rebel. The wheels of justice grind slowly and fine. Yet, the problem is not in our legal system, but that we live in a world of pain and death, where fear roams.
The precarious balance between protection and freedom may seem to be perched on the fulcrum of fear, but stability comes when the legal system relies on a solid foundation of centuries of dispassionate experience. The fear is the problem, not a legal system that strives toward liberty and justice for both the victim and the accused.
E. Kent Winward is an Ogden attorney. He can be reached at 801-392-8200 or email@example.com.