Another Version of ‘Blame the Victim’

The local daily’s weak condemnation of vigilante justice

A May 25 Omaha World-Herald editorial takes an uneasy stance against vigilante justice in the alleged killing of Mattieo Condoluci. James Fairbanks is facing first-degree murder charges in connection with Condoluci’s death. The editorial headline is bold indeed:

Vigilante justice is wrong; Omaha sex predator’s killer is no hero.

While it is good to see the World-Herald engaging this issue, the editorial needed to unequivocally condemn the killing and urge that anyone charged with a crime, including Fairbanks, is entitled to due process of law, and is innocent until proven guilty in a court of law. With press reports indicating the registry played a role in the alleged killing, the World-Herald could have suggested a simple way to reclaim public safety: take the Nebraska registry website offline and deter vigilantes who want to harm registrants.

Even when the editorial makes a good point: 

“So the killing of twice-convicted sex offender Mattieo Condoluci this month in Omaha was wrong … “

… it immediately slides in a reminder that it is understandable that someone would want to kill Condoluci.

… notwithstanding that his own daughter says children are safer as a result and that she supports probation for the killer. By many accounts, Condoluci was a bad guy. We’re not standing up for him; we’re standing up for the law and for civil order.

By other accounts, he became a better man after his second conviction. He ran a street ministry, he gave haircuts to the homeless, he was leading a law-abiding life. 

People are not divided into two easy categories of good and bad. Good people do bad things and bad people do good things. People who do bad things can turn their lives around. Isn’t that what we want from them? Isn’t that what Condoluci did?

Why is the World-Herald trying to put Mattieo Condoluci’s character on trial?

In an email sent to news outlets and linked in press reports to Fairbanks, the anonymous writer claims to have been triggered to kill by seeing playground equipment … why does the World-Herald encourage readers to interpret innocuous surroundings as sinister?

While it is for sure creepy that play equipment was in his yard, including a slide and dilapidated playhouse, Douglas County records show that Condoluci didn’t own the home.

Creepy? Is it really creepy to have playground equipment in the backyard of a rented home? What is definitely creepy is that the World-Herald acknowledges that the home was rented and that renters often don’t control what is in the backyard and yet the photos of the playground equipment still accompany several of the articles about Condoluci available online.

In its weak attempt to condemn vigilante justice, the editorial says, 

“Vengeance and the idea of applying instant justice are seductive, but can so easily go wrong.”

When a clear condemnation is critical, “can so easily go wrong” sounds a bit like a hedge that vigilantes can sometimes be right. 

Vigilante justice is always wrong, whether the person killed is revered or reviled and called dehumanizing names: a sex predator, a demonstrably reprehensible human being, twice-convicted sex offender, a bad guy, someone who leers at children, creepy—all words and phrases the editorial writer, presumably a careful writer, used. Using those words can result in making sure readers don’t support justice when someone we don’t like is harmed. Was that the intent?

Vigilante justice is wrong. Murder is wrong.

And while the World-Herald tries to sing a song about the “basic tenets of civilized society,” it ignores the bedrock of criminal justice: the presumption of innocence. James Fairbanks deserves that presumption, as does anyone else facing charges. He does not deserve editorials that encourage readers to assume he is guilty.

The editorial refers to other instances of vigilantes killing people on the registry but fails to make the common-sense suggestion to take the Nebraska registry website offline until passions have subsided. Those who are on the registry and their family members are at risk until editorial writers, elected officials, faith leaders and others who believe in justice are willing to stand up for them. They are at risk until those same voices condemn the Nebraska state government scheme, the registry, that enables harassment of and discrimination against nearly 6,000 people in our communities.

The evidence is clear:  The registry does not improve public safety or reduce re-offense. Even with a registry that promises to improve public safety, Nebraska still sees plenty of new arrests for sex crimes. Most sex crimes are committed by someone not on the registry, as the World-Herald could easily confirm by going through its own articles about sex offenses. Instead of pointing out the rare cases where someone on the registry commits a new sex offense, ask why the registry did not prevent that new crime?

The facts in this case are not established yet but it is better to err on the side of caution and take the registry website offline. When a registrant was killed in Maine in 2006, the registry was taken down as a preventive measure against copycat killings. Nebraska officials should be just as concerned about that possibility here.

The Nebraska sex offense registry is long overdue for a close look. Does it protect anyone or does it enable harm? 

It’s time for legislative and community leaders to rethink the registry.

Published by nufearless

Nebraskans Unafraid is committed to making our communities safer by ensuring that lawmakers and policymakers do not support laws that cause homelessness, joblessness and damage to families.

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